Monday, April 17, 2017

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Source of book: Borrowed from the library.

This book probably fits better into the “Books I Should Have Read in College” category, rather than the “Books I Should Have Read in High School” one. And yes, this is the first Marquez I have read, I am pretty sure. I’ll have to read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the future. 

Love in the Time of Cholera was the last of Marquez’s three best known novels, published in 1985, nearly 20 years after One Hundred Years of Solitude. Born in Colombia, Marquez was one of the greatest Latin American authors of the 20th Century. Although Marquez is best known for his use of Magical Realism, this book is just realistic, with no magical elements. Unless you count coincidence, which is the stock in trade of the romantic story from time immemorial.

The story is that of a love triangle which lasts for over 50 years. Florentino Ariza starts off as a young and awkward man who falls in love with the beautiful Fermina Daza, the daughter of a former mule-driver who has become rich - through illicit trade, as it turns out later. She seems to return his love, but her father wants a wealthy man for her. After she is taken away for a while to forget him, she doesn’t. But when they reunite, she realizes that it is just infatuation, not love. Then, she is courted by Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a doctor who will go on to do great things toward the eradication of cholera, and become famous. Even at the outset, he is rich and somewhat famous, and it appears to be the perfect match. They marry and have children, and have what appears to be a happy and solid relationship until his death. Florentino, meanwhile, has never married, and courts her after she is widowed.

This book is both well written and impossibly melodramatic. I mean, I am kinda sorta romantic and all, and I love emotional poetry. I play violin, for heaven’s sake! But this was a bit much at times.

The meaning of the book has been debated. Many see in it a tribute to the endurance of true love. Others seem unhealthy obsession. Perhaps both are true. Florentino is a bit of an icky character who gets worse as the book goes on. Initially, you have to root for him, the underdog, to get the girl. And, in some ways, his single minded focus on getting Fermina someday, inevitably, is admirable. But he isn’t exactly faithful in the way most of us might understand it. He never marries, but he does sleep with too many women to count, and even keeps a little black book like Don Juan. Some of these affairs are actually understandable. He is seduced by a widow, who has no intention of marrying again, so the two have an understanding that they are not committed but just passing time with each other as friends and lovers. Many of his lovers are like that: consensual affairs between unattached adults with no misunderstandings about intentions. Others, though, are more problematic. The married women, for example. Although, in the society the story is set in, the men are pretty much all sleeping around on their wives anyway, and the marriages were arranged, so a wink and a nod about what happened as long as nobody got caught. But, a bit more icky.

The worst, though, came near the end, when the 70ish Florentino seduces a 14 year old girl - his ward. At this point, it is pretty clear just how selfish Florentino is, and how little he really cares for the feelings and needs of others. Even his obsession with Fermina is all about him, not her, and her lack of reciprocal feelings are an obstacle for him to overcome, not an indication that he should give her her space. This whole episode is sordid, and makes you want to take a shower afterward.

Notwithstanding the above, I was struck by just how well Marquez writes about sex. In general, I believe less is more, and that the harder the author tries to be graphic (“realistic”), the less sexy the scene is. If anything, the best use of graphic sex is to write the most unsexy, awkward scenes. But Marquez actually manages to be (sort of) graphic and sexy at the same time. I mean, this isn’t porn, of course, but body parts are named. Marquez knows when to disclose detail, and when to elide, when to turn away and let the imagination take over, and when to give a delicious detail that gives a bit of a thrill.

The best character in the book, in my opinion, is Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He is the foil to Florentino. Where Florentino is all emotion and smoldering fire, Urbino is ice and steel. He is rationality to Florentino’s emotion. While Florentino represents the past - even his work eventually running a riverboat company is anachronistic by the end of the book - Urbino is modernity. Modern medicine. Modern, globalistic, rational, and focused. He lives a regimented life, hewing to routine, and getting things done. The city and the nation rightfully owe him a debt. But as a result, even his wooing of Fermina is mechanical. He is just a tiny bit short of humanity.

But because Marquez is a good writer, even this script is oversimple. Just as Florentino’s affairs have a mechanistic feel to them after time, Urbino has a human side. One of the best scenes in the book is on his and Fermina’s honeymoon, when he half-clinically, half-romantic-in-a-gentle-way introduces Fermina to the male body and sex. It is a delightful bit of work, and Urbino comes off as a rather nice guy, patient and kind, even as he worries that her inhibitions may prove too much to overcome. Urbino also shows his humanity in his discomfort with his mortality. (This is a common theme in the book, actually.) He also ends up having a single affair, and suffers significant embarrassment when he is discovered. To some degree, I identify with Urbino. I have more of a passionate nature, I would say, but I like order, routine, and focus on goals. If I had his wealth and talent, I would tend his direction.

The portrayal of the marriage between Urbino and Fermina is subtle as well. Their marriage has its ups and downs, its good and bad, its moments of love and moments of conflict. While it is hard to say the marriage is truly great - it isn’t really a grand passion - but it isn’t bad either. They both treat each other well most of the time, even if Urbino is as patriarchal and sexist as any man in Columbia in the early 20th Century. (Marquez is well aware of the gender issues - he writes them as they were, even as he notes the unfairness.) It is a thoroughly realistic marriage. And while such a marriage would not be my first choice, it wouldn’t be my last either. It’s a functional, moderately happy marriage, but without much in the way of passion.

The other part of the book that is truly thoughtful and elevates the story above the fluffy romance it could have been is the fact that the main characters (and a few minor ones) are all fully aware of and haunted by their mortality. Florentino believes in his heart that he will outlive Urbino and be able to get Fermina in the end. But he worries he won’t, that he will die first, and his life (from his perspective) will have been wasted. Fermina finds that she is discontent because of what she has failed to attain and believes she never will. She craves passion, but as she ages, she believes it has passed her by. (And her children are all too eager to opine that romance for older people is vulgar and disgusting - something many still believe, sadly.) Urbino is continually haunted by the thought of his death. As a doctor, he knows all too well the signs of aging and decline, and he has already by his accidental death (in an amusing and unlikely fall) seen the early signs of dementia in his own brain. This is just the surface, as there are references throughout to aging and death and the effects these have on the characters.

Just a few lines stood out as worth quoting. About one married woman Florentino sleeps with:

[She] seemed to belong to the wasp family, not only because of her high buttocks and meager bosom, but because of everything about her: her hair like copper wire, her freckles, her round, animated eyes that were farther apart than normal, and her melodious voice that she used only for saying intelligent and amusing things.

It is shocking that, without warning, this woman is brutally murdered by her husband a few pages later.

On the issue of cholera, which is used both as part of the narrative and as a metaphor (cholera is etymologically related to “choler”: red blood and the humor of passion), the author notes that Urbino’s father falls victim to the epidemic while Urbino is in Europe in medical school - and that one quarter of the population of the city dies. We forget just how much we have benefited from modern sanitation sometimes.

After Urbino returns, he not only works to reform the sanitation systems of the city, he is instrumental in establishing a local opera. While the patrons had to bring their own chairs at first, it eventually became an institution. The success led, as the author notes, to a plethora of kids named after famous characters.

But it never reached the extremes Dr. Urbino had hoped for, which was to see Italianizers and Wagnerians confronting each other with sticks and canes during the intermissions.

I just about died laughing at that one.

Finally, there is a line right near the beginning (which starts with the week of Urbino’s death, before going back and telling the story from the beginning) which talks about Dr. Urbino’s tendency to use medications on himself for the symptoms of old age, while lecturing his patients for wanting to do the same.

He arose at the crack of dawn, when he began to take his secret medicines: potassium bromide to raise his spirits, salicylates for the ache in his bones when it rained, ergosterol drops for vertigo, belladonna for sound sleep. He took something every hour, always in secret, because in his long life as a doctor and teacher he had always opposed prescribing palliatives for old age: it was easier for him to bear other people’s pains than his own.

Isn’t that the truth?

The book I read is the classic translation by Edith Grossman. It reads well, and flows, so I have no complaints.

Despite its melodramatic nature, this book is deeper and more intriguing than the plot itself would indicate. The ending is unsatisfying, but for the same reason that life itself is unsatisfying. What might have been is an unanswered question, and the roads we take by definition foreclose others. Nothing will ever be perfect or as we dream it. But what it is, what it becomes, and what we make it, are interesting too, and the inexorable march of time and change overcome us all in the end.


  1. Great review. I've been meaning to read this book, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, for a while. I agree with your statement about writing about sex since a lot of authors do seem to want to describe a little too much. The same is the case with modern cinema.

    1. One Hundred Years of Solitude is also on my list. So many books to read...