Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…..
A happily married early-thirties couple that I know make a practice of taking pictures of affectionate elderly couples they see on their vacations. Perhaps this activity is nothing different than that of travelers who collect unicorn figures or museum stubs. But it’s also quite possible to think that they, like many of us, are wondering about their ability to sustain a loving relationship into old age.
This question is at the heart of Love in the Time of Cholera, Nobel-Prize Winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1988 novel. During this Valentine’s Day week I returned to this work that I had read shortly after its publication. Although I don’t often re-read works, I do subscribe to the idea that it is a valuable exercise to return to favorite works at different stages of one’s own life. In this case I found myself confronting in a new way central characters whose ages at the end of this ambitious novel are only slightly greater than my own. Thus, the novel had a new poignancy.
While very fluid in its treatment of time, the novel is organized around two courtships, one in the 1870s and the other in the 1920s. The first is the nearly three year-long infatuation of Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza, a fetching beauty four years younger than he. Though social custom in late 19th century South America dictates that their relationship be conducted through a series of letters and carefully hidden notes, the two overcome the barriers to their budding love. The dreamy-eyed and romantic Florentino connects with the vivacious Fermina. But circumstances interfere with their marital plans. Both are social outcasts of sorts. Florentino is the bastard son of a father who disappears and Fermina is the daughter of a mule-trader from a rural province, a con man who is eventually driven out of town. Florentino eventually benefits from the protection of his uncle who owns a river navigation enterprise; when his male cousins die, he moves into a leadership position with the company, but this improvement in his material fortunes doesn’t happen until middle-age.
When Fermina returns from an extended stay with a country cousin, she reappraises her possible life with Florentino and, falls for the appeals of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a son of a prominent physician, one who has defeated the devastating cholera epidemic. The Urbinos are among the most prominent members of this coastal “city of the Viceroys” (most like Cartagena, Columbian) and Juvenal is able to provide his young wife with material comfort, social prominence, and opportunities for adventure. A two year honeymoon in Paris begins a rather complicated marriage that lasts for more than 50 years. Underneath her daily contentment and overall satisfaction with the way her husband provides for her and her two children, Fermina is a restless soul who feels imprisoned in her husband’s social world. Marquez artfully limns the shifting dynamics of this marriage of aristocrat husband and plebian wife over time. It’s a picture of complicated marital love, of dominance and submission on different levels. Marquez wonderfully shows how external forces – like the decaying of their post-colonial city and the arrival of modern inventions like the telephone – have an impact on their marital relationships. The novel offers us a thorough social history of a mythologized South American country on the Caribbean. It shows us how the principal characters are deeply embedded in this social history but also yearn for escape from the claustrophobia.
The second courtship is the one that begins with the death of Juvenal. [I’d offer a spoiler alert, but the death of Juvenal happens very early in the novel.] Thus begins Florentino’s second effort to win the heart of Fermina. For 51 years, nine months, and 4 days he has been almost single-mindedly focused on Fermina, but now that his rival has died, he doesn’t quite know what to do with “the skin of the tiger he has shot.” Across this half-century, our unassuming hero has not been an ascetic. The narrator reveals that by the time he is in his mid-70s, he has had affairs, many of them with physical intimacies, with 622 women. [Is this to be read as a hyperbolic statement of the kind that we find in the Old Testament which records Methuselah living for 969 years?] He has tried to compensate for the aborted relationship with Fermina with his sexual conquests, all of which are kept hidden from the town by the discreet Florentino and his lover-collaborators. He’s a courteous and attentive lover. He’s adaptable to the particular needs, psychic states, and material conditions of his lovers. And he’s catholic in his selections: he’s slept with virgins, married women, and widows. He’s bedded women many years older and many years younger than he. Most all are drawn to him because he’s so vulnerable and love-needy. Some are relationships of a single afternoon; others last for years. The narrative voice condemns none of this, even his relationship at the end of novel with a young girl of 14. In Marquez’s world, Catholic Church prohibitions against sex outside of marriage have been burned off by the heat of the equatorial sun and the sensuality of these transplants from old Spain. A number of these relationships are treated in some detail and, collectively, they provide alternative versions of love relationships. All love relationships are imperfect; they vary in the nature of the imperfections.
The acuity of the psychological insight that Marquez has demonstrated through the first part of the novel is fully on display as he examines this new – and final – phase of this old relationship. The last part of the novel is an affirmation of the persistence of love and the possibilities for bliss in the twilight years when once lusting bodies become decrepid and social appearances no longer matter. As they sit hand in hand on a river cruise up the Magdelena River, Florentino and Fermina would make lovely subjects for the young couple’s photo collection project. It would be wrong to think about this novel as a fictional variation on a saccharine Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. Marquez’s knowledge of human nature and his energetic storytelling foils such conclusions.