Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of CholeraGabriel García Márquez
For Further Study
Love in the Time of Cholera (El amor en los tiempos del cólera in the original Spanish), published in 1985, was the first novel by Gabriel García Márquez to be published since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982. As abundant publicity surrounding the book's appearance in December 1985 revealed, the author was already working on a sequel to his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold when the Nobel committee's decision was announced. With the award there came numerous public commitments obliging García Márquez to interrupt the progress of his project until January 1984, when he resumed work on the existing material. Love in the Time of Cholera was eventually completed in August 1985 and published three months ahead of schedule.
Initial critical response took the form of summary notices and reviews, the most enthusiastic of which asserted that Love in the Time of Cholera was one of the great living classics of the Spanish language. It has been called a masterpiece of sensuous prose, because of its ability to summon up the textures, sensual pleasures, tastes, and smells associated with living in a particular place at a particular time. Because of this, it has been compared to other contemporary texts such as Toni Morrison's vibrant account of Harlem life Jazz. Overblown yet controlled, García Márquez's story of life, love, and lust in a convention-bound provincial city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia displays great imaginative and narrative freedom. In addition, it has an almost novella-like discipline in its structuring of recurrent ideas.
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, on 6 March 1928 to Gabriel Eligio García and Luisa Santiaga Márquez de Garcia. In 1940 the young García Márquez went on a scholarship to the Liceo Nacional de Zipaquira, a high school near Bogotá. Several years later he enrolled in law school at the Universidad Nacional in the capital. Political unrest closed the university in 1948, and García Márquez transferred to the Universidad de Cartagena but never graduated. Instead he became a writer for the Cartagena newspaper Universal, then later, from 1950 through 1952, for the Heraldo in Barranquilla. By 1955 he was a well-known journalist at the Espectador in Bogotá. From 1956 to 1958 he wrote fiction and was a freelance journalist in Paris, London, and Caracas, Venezuela. He returned to Barranquilla to marry his childhood sweetheart, Mercedes Barcha, in March 1958. They moved to Caracas, where García Márquez worked for the magazine Momento. In May 1959 he was instrumental in launching a branch of Prensa Latina in Bogota, where he and his wife had moved. García Márquez and his family relocated to New York City in 1961. He worked briefly at the Prensa Latina branch there but then resigned to tour the southern United States and look for filmwriting work in Mexico City. He eventually wrote for magazines there and then took an advertising job with J. Walter Thompson's Mexico City branch in 1963.
Meanwhile his fiction-writing career had begun seriously and successfully with El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (1961; translated as No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, 1968). In 1967 he published what is considered his masterpiece, the novel Cien años de soledad, translated as One Hundred Years of Solitude. This work follows the strange and wonderful events surrounding six generations of the Buendía family in the imaginary Colombian town of Macondo. It was part of the "boom" of Spanish-language literature in the 1960s, when Latin American writers became increasingly known around the world. The novel, along with many of García Márquez's other works, is considered an example of "magical realism," a genre of fiction which blends mysterious, supernatural, and even surreal events with the hard political and social realities of life. When García Márquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, the Swedish Academy noted, "Each new work of his is received by critics and readers as an event of world importance, is translated into many languages and published as quickly as possible in large editions." The author has published several novels since winning the Nobel, notably Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985, but most recently, García Márquez has pursued his interest in film. He has made a series of six films for Spanish television that have garnered both critical and popular acclaim.
Love in the Time of Cholera is set between the 1870s and 1930s in an unnamed city along the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It tells the story of a man who waits fifty-one years, nine months, and four days to be with the woman he loves. The novel begins with the suicide of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a sixty-year-old photographer who decided long ago that he would never be old. His friend, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, 81, arrives on the scene and recognizes the lingering scent of bitter almonds left by gold cyanide—a scent that always reminds him of unrequited love. That afternoon, Dr. Urbino wakes from his siesta with the feeling that he, too, is nearing the end of his life. He dies moments later when, attempting to retrieve his parrot from a mango tree, he falls from a ladder and lands in the mud. His wife, Fermina Daza, 72, arrives just in time to hear him speak his final words. Present at both the funeral and the wake is Florentino Ariza who, at 76, is a man convinced that he has loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever has. After the wake, he repeats to Fermina Daza the "vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love" he first made to her over half a century ago. Fermina Daza throws Florentino Ariza out of her house with instructions never to return. She wakes up the following morning and realizes that, while she slept, she had thought more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.
Florentino Ariza first sees Fermina Daza when she is thirteen years old and begins to watch her from a hidden bench in the park she passes through every day. They see each other close up for the first time at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve when, turning to look behind her, Fermina sees the eyes, face and lips of a boy "petrified by the terror of love." Soon afterwards, Florentino gives Fermina a letter in which he promises his perfect fidelity and everlasting love. While waiting for a response, Florentino is stricken with diarrhea and attacks of green vomit, and it is concluded that the symptoms of love are the same as those of cholera. He finally receives her answer and, after two years of continuous letter writing, Florentino makes a formal proposal of marriage. Fermina's father attempts to prevent the union by taking his daughter on an eighteen-month journey that will, he hopes, make her forget. However, Fermina and Florentino continue their correspondence and promise to marry as soon as possible. Upon her return, Fermnina again comes face to face with her beloved but, instead of love, feels only the "abyss of disenchantment" and erases Florentino from her life with a wave of her hand.
Dr. Urbino first meets eighteen-year-old Fermina when it is feared she may have cholera. His physical examination reveals only an intestinal infection, but he returns to the Daza home the following week to see Fermina again. She is initially uninterested in his advances, but finally decides to respond to his letters. The news of Fermina's engagement to Dr. Urbino is crushing to Florentino, and he is quickly sent away on a curative riverjourney by his mother. One night on the boat, Florentino is pulled into a dark cabin and stripped of his virginity by an unidentified woman. The experience leads to a revelation: that his illusory love for Fermina could be replaced by earthly passion. His first bedroom love is Widow Nazaret, but instead of developing into a permanent union, it becomes the first of his six hundred and twenty-two short-term liaisons. After six months with Widow Nazaret, Florentino becomes convinced that he has survived the torment of Fermina Daza—until he sees her one Sunday leaving High Mass. Fermina is now six months pregnant, and Florentino finds her more beautiful than ever, but more lost to him than she had ever been.
On the day he sees Fermina in her sixth month of pregnancy, Florentino decides that, in order to deserve her, he will seek fame and fortune and obtains a position at the River Company of the Caribbean (R.C.C.). One day, Fermina happens to see Florentino on his bench in the park and dares to think that she might have been happier with him. Confronted with such extreme unhappiness, she talks to her husband and together they vow to look for the love they had felt during their honeymoon in Europe. Thirty years pass and, although Fermina would still think of Florentino, it is at the time when Dr. Urbino is stumbling into old age that she and her husband love each other best.
After discovering that Dr. Urbino is having an affair, Fermina leaves her husband with the determination never to return. She spends two years at her cousin's ranch before agreeing to return home. During this time, Florentino had only the rumours of an illness to explain Fermina's absence. He finally meets her and Dr. Urbino one evening at the open-air theatre and, seeing Fermina stumble, realizes that death might win an irreparable victory over love. Florentino eventually takes over complete control of the R.C.C., and, little by little, falls into a routine of visiting the same women with whom he has already established relationships. On the Pentecost Sunday when Dr. Urbino dies, he has only one lover left: fourteen-year-old América Vicuña. It is that evening that he repeats his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love to Fermina. Afterwards, he regrets his hasty and inappropriate act and, just when he begins to lose hope, discovers a letter from Fermina near the entrance to his house.
Fermina's letter inspires Florentino to attempt a new method of seduction. He writes her an extensive meditation on life, love, old age and death and, two weeks after the first anniversary of Dr. Urbino's death, appears unexpectedly at Femilna's home. They continue to see each other every week until finally deciding to go on a pleasure cruise along the river. On the first night of the trip, Florentino notices that Fermina is crying and the two join hands:
He reached out with two icy fingers in the darkness, felt for the other hand in the darkness, and found it waiting for him. Both were lucid enough to realize, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands made of old bones were not the hands they had imagined before touching. In the next moment, however, they were. She began to speak of her dead husband in the present tense, as if he were alive, and Florentino Ariza knew then that for her, too, the time had come to ask herself with dignity, with majesty, with an irrepressible desire to live, what she should do with the love that had been left behind without a master.
On the fourth day of the voyage, the boat runs out of fuel and remains stranded for over a week. The couple spend countless hours together and, after a failed first attempt, they make love. Both are left feeling disappointed. When they reach La Dorada, the last port, Florentino convinces the Captain to hoist the yellow cholera flag in order to prevent the passengers for the return trip from boarding the ship. On the final night of the return journey, Florentino and Fermina have a grand party and make "the tranquil, wholesome love of experienced grandparents." The next day, neither of them could imagine going back home and Florentino proposes that they "keep going, going, going, back to La Dorada." Asked by the Captain how long he thinks they can keep up this coming and going, Florentino's answer is simply, "forever."
Florentino Ariza is the novel's principal romantic who lives out the very unmodern concept of a constant heart. A telegraph operator with a passion for music and books (he is a voracious reader of both classic and popular literature, especially poetry), Florentino falls in love with the teenaged Fermina, who is teaching her aunt to read. And for the next fifty-one years, nine months, and four days— for the rest of his life, in fact—he continues to love her. García Márquez based this couple on his own parents, whose courtship took a similar course. The author's father was a telegraph operator who, like Florentino, sent his sweetheart telegrams while she was on a journey that was supposed to make her forget all about him. But whereas García Márquez's parents married, Florentino is spurned by his beloved, who then marries someone else. On the second of the three boat voyages that shape his life (the first is Fermina's, and the third is the final one they take together), Florentino resolves to love Fermina for the rest of his life. He then loses his virginity to another woman, which begins an erotic career that will include more than 622 liaisons. Florentino's irresistibility to women is clear. Florentino is so ruled by love that he finds himself unable to compose the simple business letters required for his job at the River Company of the Caribbean; he does, however, develop a comfortable sideline writing letters for the lovelorn. Despite his deficiency with business letters, Florentino has a highly successful career with the riverboat company, which he accomplishes in order to make himself worthy of Fernina's love. Florentino waits more than fifty years—until Urbino dies—to win Fermina back. Not deterred by Fermina's vehement rejection, he returns to his old habit of writing her long letters. While his adolescent missives were effusively ardent and handwritten, these are typewritten and reflect the contemplative wisdom of a mature man. These ruminations on life and love prove to be what Fermina needs to hear, and she finally succumbs. When they consummate their affections, Florentino tells Fermina that he has remained a "virgin" for her, and despite his voluminous sexual history he has been faithful. For her part, Fermina recognizes this fidelity even though she knows very well that Florentino is no virgin. Critics praise García Márquez enthusiastically for his compassionate portrayal of love between these two aged protagonists. The persistent Florentino attests to the existence of undying love and that love may be the most intense at the end of life, in defiance of the infirmities and indignities of old age.
The devotion of Tránsito Ariza, Florentino's mother, a pawnbroker who gave birth to him after an illicit affair, seems to veer into eroticism. She advises Florentino not to overwhelm young Fermina with so many ardent letters, and she later helps him recover from the cholera-like symptoms of thwarted love.
When Florentino first sees Fermina Daza, she is the beautiful, haughty young daughter of a wealthy but disreputable horse dealer. Initially dazzled by Florentino, Fermina is sent on a journey by her father in the hope that she will become disenchanted with her suitor, and indeed his behavior begins to strike her as exaggerated. Fermina's reasons for marrying Urbino, whom she does not love, are somewhat ambiguous and impress some critics as selfish or calculating. Her father has informed her that he is financially ruined, so she may be looking out for her own material protection. In addition, she has also told herself that she must be married by the age of twenty-one. In any case, her marriage begins without love but later becomes loving, and critics laud García Máarquez's insightful portrayal of this ordinary yet successful union. Fermina demonstrates pride and stubbornness in the two episodes that bring about separation from her husband. The first involves her refusal to admit that she did not place soap in the bathroom. Urbino finally concedes to her. The second and longer separation occurs when her husband has an affair with another woman, but Fermina seems angriest that he took a black lover. Over the years with Urbino, Fermina admirably fulfills her role as ornament, companion, and mother of his children, even becoming something of the "great lady" her father envisioned. Yet she remains modest in her tastes and resistant to social hypocrisy, exhibiting a trace of populism or even of rebelliousness that may derive from her own unclear origins. After Urbino's death, Fermina admits to herself that her life was borrowed from her husband, that she was essentially a highly paid servant in his house, a commentary on the options available to women of Fermina's time, place, and culture. In contrast, the elderly Fermina undertakes her relationship with Florentino in answer to her own needs and in defiance of social stereotypes.
The townspeople suspect Lorenzo Daza, Fermina' s father, of being some kind of gangster or horse thief, but Daza turns out to be an illegal gun dealer. Lorenzo wants Fermina to become a "great lady" and sends her on a long journey so she will forget about Florentino.
Ofelia Daza, the daughter of Fermina and Urbino, is more snobbish and morally rigid than her mother, and she banishes Fermina from her home over her mother's relationship with Florentino.
Dr. Urbino Daza
Dr. Urbino Daza, the son of Fermina and Urbino, and a physician like his father, is not as intolerant as his sister. Nevertheless, he observes that the elderly should be segregated so that they are shielded from the sadness they must feel when they are around young people.
Hildebranda, Fermina's cousin, accompanies Fermina on a long journey intended to make Fermina forget about Florentino. Together they visit various telegraph offices to retrieve Florentino's messages to his sweetheart.
Leo XII Loayza
Another significant character in Florentino's life is his uncle, Leo XII Loayza, who comes from a family in which all the male children were named after popes. Leo XII owns the riverboat company for which Florentino works. When his nephew claims that he is only interested in love, Leo XII observes that "without river navigation, there is no love."
Jeremiah de Saint-Amour
The story begins with the death of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a photographer and chess enthusiast. The death shocks his good friend, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. After Saint-Amour commits suicide, keeping a promise he made to himself long ago to spare himself the troubles of old age, Urbino discovers that his friend was an escaped convict who once committed a brutal crime and secretly maintained a mulatto mistress in a ghetto hovel. Several critics note that the story of Saint-Amour and his devoted lover rehearses the themes of love, devotion, and aging that are explored in the course of the novel.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino
Soon after Fermina returns from her journey and spurns Florentino, she is courted by the town's most eligible bachelor, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. He is a wealthy, refined physician who spends time overseas and prefers European ways. Well born and dapper, Urbino typifies the typical hero of a nineteenth-century romantic novel, and when Fermina does not respond, Urbino is inflamed. Just as Fermina has reasons other than love for deciding to marry him, Urbino is rational and unromantic in his desire to acquire Fermina as his wife. He knows that this lovely, charming, somewhat haughty young woman will make an appropriate mate for a prominent, upstanding citizen like himself. Although he is undoubtedly conceited, often weak, and chauvinistic in his attitude toward domestic arrangements, Urbino has significant positive qualities. His civic-mindedness and sincere desire for progress lead him to make a heroic, ultimately successful effort to combat cholera in his community. On a personal level, he treats the frightened Fermina with great tenderness during the first days of their marriage, which provides a solid foundation for love to develop. She does come to love Urbino, and on the day of his death—which occurs in a decidedly ridiculous way for such a dignified man— he manages to stay alive long enough to tell her how much he has loved her. Many critics contrast Urbino with Florentino, particularly in regard to reading. While Urbino owns a set of finely bound classics that he reads because he is supposed to read them, Florentino devours a wide variety of books with great gusto, whether they are ancient Greek poetry or the latest pulp novel.
Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of the life-long love of the illegitimate, and once poor, Florentino Ariza for Fermina Daza. Their teenage love had been sustained largely by his letters as she was sent away by her ambitious father. But when they suddenly met after this long separation, her "illusion" of love, as she then saw it, was immediately dispelled. She rejected him to marry, although also after a period of rejection, the socially wellplaced Dr. Juvenal Urbino. Much of the book is taken up with a study of this marriage and of the many affairs by which Florentino tries to fill the space left by Fermina while waiting one day to possess her. Urbino's death in his eighties allows Florentino to resume his courtship of and eventual marriage to Fermina. The novel's major themes are thus concerned with love and passion as well as aging, decay, and death.
From one point of view the marriage of Urbino and Fermina is merely a fifty-year interruption of Florentino's courtship. Yet it also proves to be the route to the final romance, since both characters develop significantly from their experiences during this period. It is the marriage that gives Fermina her realistic appreciation of romance. Marriage is not merely an obstacle. The relationship has been passionate, affectionate, boring, angry, and desperate.
Topics for Further Study
- What is the significance of the title of the novel?
- How does García Márquez debunk stereotypical notions of love in the novel?
- Discuss García Márquez's use of humor in the novel.
- Research the period of transition from colonialism to modernity in Colombian history and discuss its depiction in the novel.
The novel is thus a celebration of the many kinds of love between men and women. In part it is a brilliant account of a long marriage; elsewhere it is a tale of love finding erotic fulfillment in old age. In relating both the story of Fermina Daza's marriage and her later courtship, Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel about commitment and fidelity under circumstances that would seem to render such virtues absurd. It is also about a refusal to grow old gracefully and respectably.
A central idea of the novel is the primacy of passion and feeling over order, honor, duty, and authority. Love and sexual desire control, invigorate, and at times lay havoc upon lives. Sometimes the participants are burnt up as if by cholera, after which they may completely recover, may be extinguished, or, as with Florentino, may linger on in a state of perpetual convalescence. In García Márquez's work, life and love are shown as unpredictable and turbulent, forever surging and overflowing their bounds.
Aging and Decay Death
Aside from love, the process of aging, decay, and death is Love in the Time of Cholera's most important theme, and the two are linked in a defiance of society's prejudice against the sexuality of the elderly. García Márquez keenly observes the process of aging and continually brings up the details of its encroachment. At the same time he proclaims a dignified old age and the right to companionship and pleasure. Fermina Daza's two children are typical of society's cruel and thoughtless attitudes about sexuality and aging. In typical García Márquez fashion, there is a circular pattern to aging as presented in the novel, and the author observes on many occasions the return to characteristics of infancy and the reversal of the roles of parents and children.
Florentino is both intense about love and philosophical about age. Florentino sees death as a bottomless pit where memory trickles away. He is a patient man, and the delicacy with which he seduces Fermina, and the nature of their companionship during the final stage of their long lives defies shallow stereotypes. The novel is a meditation on decay, old age, and the dying process. The main characters' biographies are laid out from childhood to near death. They reveal lives actually lived, and the means by which memory can transfigure, keep alive, and obliterate both the pain and passion of the past.
In Love in the Time of Cholera, although the narrative is in third person—the impersonal "he" or "she" performing the action—García Márquez frequently withholds omniscient insight from his characters. In the novel the author suggests the unknowability of one's true feelings and the corresponding impossibility of summing up a relationship. Its six chapters progress smoothly along a linear path, punctuated by frequent asides and repeated flashbacks. The story is told by a single narrative voice, which recounts certain events in duplicate in order to represent the overlapping experiences of its multiple protagonists.
The letters of Florentino are a central narrative device defining the emotional ambivalence of the romantic experience. They are a way of balancing and connecting the kinds of truth and falsehood in romance. His early letters, along with Fermina's subsequent rejection of him, suggest the dangers of delusion. Yet in the long run the impulse of these letters is vindicated when he finds a newly realistic mode of expression. He has to learn that the bubble of romance bursts when its truth is too crudely counted on, or rendered literal. Fermina is so struck by the wisdom of the later letters that she decides to keep them as a series and to think of them as a book. Thus through the device of correspondence, which becomes García Márquez's book, there is a reminder of the origin of the novel in the epistolary genre—the novel of letters—from the eighteenth century.
In the eighteenth century, this device was usually a way of exploring levels of sincerity in the character's self-portrayal while retaining the illusion of reality. While Marquez does not use the letters as the narrative medium, he does firmly place them within his own third-person narrative frame. Rather than reinforcing the realistic effect of the narrative, the letters provide a brief escape from such an effect.
Using the device of the letters the narrative progresses in a series of flashbacks. From one perspective, the marriage of Urbino and Fermina is merely a fifty-year interruption of Florentino's courtship. And the flashback technique treats it as such. Yet it also proves to be the route to the final romance, since both characters develop significantly during this period. It is the marriage that gives Fermina her realistic approach to romance; thus it is not merely an obstacle. Thus the narrator is at all times humorously aware both of the fundamental struggle between romance and reality and of their inextricable connection. This is apparent in the young Florentino's business letters: "Florentino Ariza would write anything with so much passion that even official documents seemed to be about love."
Various patterns of time and structural symmetries have their indispensable role in shaping Love in the Time of Cholera. The narrative starts out with a death in the "present," in this case approximately 1931; a long flashback of over fifty years takes up chapters 2-4 and most of chapter 5, the concluding pages of which then pick up on the dangling thread from chapter 1; chapter 6 then proceeds with the final courtship and romance.
Many parallel threads are woven into the texture of the novel, but among the most important is the set of deflowerings of Florentino and Fermina, both in chapter 3, on his and her respective boat trips, and in each case with more experienced and aggressive sexual partners. Their own consummation of their love will likewise take place on board ship, three chapters and five decades later. The opening suicide of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, motivated not by love but by dislike of old age, is contrasted with the suicide of rejected lover América Vicuñia toward the end of the novel.
Although set ten to twenty years before the turn of the century, Love in the Time of Cholera shows a decidedly modern sensibility. It focuses on an urban rather than a rural society, and shows it with less mysticism and more social detail than in García Márquez's earlier works. In an unnamed Caribbean city, a "sleepy provincial capital" thought to be a composite of the actual Colombian cities of Cartagena and Baranquilla, there is a fictional leap from the imaginary village of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude that is significant. Macondo, fully created, can stand for much larger universes, but it is mostly, fundamentally, itself. The unnamed coastal Caribbean city of the later novel can never truly remain imaginative. It seems too real. It holds the resonance and reality of many deaths before the story even begins. It is a city with a history of slavery, civil wars, and cholera epidemics for over a half century, a desolate landscape against which the destinies of the major characters are played out; and decay is part of this landscape of putrefying swamps, old slave quarters, and cadavers.
Located in the northwest of South America, Colombia is a Spanish-speaking country that was part of the Spanish conquest of the sixteenth century. The landscape is dominated by the Andes Mountains in the west, the plains of the east, and the lowlands of the Caribbean coast, where most of the action of Love in the Time of Cholera is set. Early Spanish explorers Rodrigo de Bastidas and Francisco Pizarro first mapped the Colombian coastland, and the port city of Cartagena was founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533. Under Spanish rule in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the native populations were forced into slavery or the encomienda, in which the taxes they paid to the Spanish government kept them in a kind of indentured servitude. Intermarriage between Spanish colonists and natives soon led to the destruction of many of the native population's special tribal characteristics, but also led to a growing class of mestizos, or people of mixed-race descent. Today almost 60% of Colombia's population is mestizo.
Spanish domination continued in Colombia as well as much of South America until the early 1800s. Then Colombia, as part of the viceroyalty of New Granada (which also included parts of Venezuela and Ecuador), took advantage of France's invasion of Spain to throw out their local Spanish governmental officials. A Bogotá uprising that occurred on July 20, 1810, is now celebrated as Colombia's Independence Day. Although Spain attempted to reconquer the territory in the mid-1810s, military leader Simón Bolívar led a united force of South Americans to several decisive victories over the Spanish in 1819, 1821, and 1822. The Republic of Colombia was born, and gained its present borders after the secession of Venezuela and Ecuador in 1830 and the secession of Panama in 1903.
Colombia underwent several periods of civil unrest in the 1800s, as Liberal and Conservative parties battled over the composition of the government, the role of the church, and how to share power between the two parties. The country suffered a civil war from 1840 to 1842, and again from 1899 to 1902. During this time, several constitutions were adopted, and internal political struggles often consumed the country's efforts. The most recent constitution was adopted in 1991, which provides for a system like that of the United States, with a popularly elected president, a two-body legislature, and a supreme court. Although Colombia's drug trafficking trade has received much publicity, the country currently has a diversified economy that is the most consistent on the continent, with important industries in oil, textiles, food processing, clothing, chemicals, and beverages (such as coffee).
Colonialism and Postcolonialism
Set in an unnamed town on the coast of Colombia, Love in the Time of Cholera spans the years from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s—the time of transition from the colonial to the modern period. On the edge of town are old slave quarters, where buzzards fight over the slaughterhouse remains. Cadavers are everywhere, some dead of cholera and others in the wars. The novel is not only about the past but also about the anachronistic lifestyle that still survives in the ruins left by nineteenth-century progress. In this respect, the novel shares the fin de siecle, or "end of century," mood of much contemporary Latin American writing.
The social fabric represented in the novel consists of two major groups: the Social Club (upper class) and the Commercial Club (middle class). The three main characters also embody their respective backgrounds—Dr. Urbino, with his two family names, from the old colonial elite; Fermina, the beautiful representative of the new breed of capitalists who seek high standing in the young republic; and Florentino, illegitimate but connected by birth to a more modern and reputable shipping enterprise that nevertheless ravages the forest environment whose populations it largely serves. In order to account for Florentino, Fermina and Juvenal's backgrounds, the novel extends some sixty years back into the past; at the same time it registers the principal social developments shaping the life of the community during the period concerned, and surveys the political history of Colombia since the country obtained independence in 1819. A still more remote perspective encompassing the period of Spanish colonial rule completes the range of temporal references in the book.
Compare & Contrast
Colombia: A country of almost 37 million, Colombia has a life expectancy rate of 72.8 years, an infant mortality rate of 25.8 deaths/1,000 live births, and a literacy rate of 91.3%.
United States: A country of over 266 million, the United States has a life expectancy rate of 75.95 years, an infant mortality rate of 6.7 deaths/1,000 live births, and a literacy rate of 97%.
Colombia: With an economy based on oil and agricultural products, Colombia has a gross domestic product of $5,300 per person, one of the best in South America.
United States: With a diverse economy involving technological, industrial, and agricultural products, the United States has a gross domestic product of $27,500, the highest among major industrial nations.
Colombia: After a history that includes Spanish colonial rule and several civil wars, Colombia's population is 58% mestizo (mixed white-Indian), 20% white, 14% mixed black-white, 4% black, 3% mixed black-Indian, and 1% Indian.
United States: With a history that includes forced importation of African slaves as well as frequent immigration, recent censuses put the U.S. population at 83.4% white, 12.4% black, 3.3% Asian, and 0.8% Native American, although more and more people argue for the inclusion of "mixed-race" as a category for the next census.
The novel thus embraces considerations of history, politics, class, race and culture, in literal as well as symbolic terms. From a detailed historical vantage point, the narrative evokes the era of Spanish colonial rule in the mid-sixteenth century as a time of prosperity for the local merchant class and, on a wider scale, as a period of slavery and abuse by the Inquisition. Hazardous open sewers inherited from the Spanish are a clear reminder of the colonial heritage of a city that "had now existed on the margins of history … for four hundred years." The vision of inertia also holds true for the postcolonial era, as the experience of Juvenal Urbino's family illustrates: "Independence from Spanish rule, followed by the abolition of slavery, precipitated the circumstances of honorable decline in which [Juvenal] was born and grew up." Marquez dramatizes the juncture in the history of families that had been influential in the past and sought refuge in the artificial order of social snobbery, racial prejudice, and political corruption.
When Love in the Time of Cholera first appeared in 1985, it was an immediate success and won wide critical acclaim. Translated into English in 1988, it was a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the United States and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks. García Márquez also received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction in 1988 for Love in the Time of Cholera. Critics noted the many varieties of love depicted in the novel. Jean Franco in The Nation stated that the novel "is not only about the past but also about the anachronistic life forms that still survive in the ruins left by nineteenth-century progress. In this respect, the novel shares in the fin de siecle ['end of century'] mood of much contemporary Latin American writing." In relating both the story of Fermina Daza's marriage and her later courtship, S. M. J. Minta of the Times Literary Supplement stated that it was a "novel about commitment and fidelity under circumstances which seem to render such virtues absurd."
Some observers claimed that García Márquez was unconvincing in his portrayal of romantic love. As Angela Carter remarked in the Washington Post Book World, the novel "seems to deal more with libido and self-deceit than with desire and mortality." Yet critic Michael Wood in the New York Review of Books wrote that "love is a disease in this book, and this is a romantic novel; but the disease is one of the self-deluding, stubborn will, a fruit of mythology and obstinacy rather than any fate beyond ourselves." He goes on to say that the novel, "like García Márquez's other novels, is an exploration of destiny but of this kind of destiny: the kind we invent and displace and fear and desperately live up to or die for."
Countering criticisms that the work was overemotional, S. M. J. Minta claimed that "the triumph of the novel is that it uncovers the massive, submerged strength of the popular, the cliched and the sentimental." Author Thomas Pynchon, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented that "The Garcimarquesian voice we have come to recognize from the other fiction has matured, found and developed new resources." He concluded by saying, "There is nothing I have read quite like [the] astonishing final chapter," and called Love in the Time of Cholera a "shining and heartbreaking novel." Paul Bailey of The Listener said that the novel is García Márquez's most "deeply considered and satisfyingly ambitious novel—the best, in my view, that Marquez has written." According to Mona Simpson in the London Review of Books, the novel "has brought a new depth to the meaning of the word 'magic.'" She continues, "This is not a story of boy meets girl, boy gets her back. García Márquez, as ever, remains stubbornly committed to the voice of the community: individual happiness is not considered an absolute good."
Later critics generally continue to extol the virtues of the work, even while pointing out some of its shortcomings. Gene H. Bell-Villada, in García Márquez: The Man and His Work, states that "it is perhaps no paradox that Love is Garcia Marquez's most joyous book—and also his least disciplined or rigorous. Yet it is a novel that stays in the mind, producing a deep and lasting glow of satisfaction after being read, and the outer chapters are as beautiful and artful as anything ever fashioned by the author." Michael Bell, in Gabriel García Márquez: Solitude and Solitary, comments that the novel is García Márquez's "most striking attempt to square the circle; to write a genuinely popular and accessible romance while maintaining, if only to challenge, the sophistication of a high modernist consciousness."
Jeffrey M. Lilburn
In the following essay, Lilburn, a teaching assistant at the University of Western Ontario, examines how García Márquez uses the conventions of sentimental romance stories to explore deeper themes and even satirize popular conceptions of love.
It is tempting to read Gabriel García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera as a romantic and sentimental story in which love prevails over time and death, and patience and devotion are rewarded with a happy ending. The temptation derives from García Márquez's misleading narrative that invites, or rather deceivingly manipulates readers into believing that Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza's belated union represents a victory over individual and societal adversities, prejudices and conventions. However, disguised beneath the surface of the melodramatic plot lies a critical, sometimes satiric examination of many of the elements that appear to contribute to the novel's charm, but actually undercut much of its romanticism and sentimentality. In addition to the themes of love, aging and disease highlighted in the novel's title, the text also explores issues such as suicide, gerontophobia (the fear of ageing), dishonesty, modernization, and social and environmental responsibility. The novel does celebrate human love and sexuality—at any age—but it does so while revealing many of the repercussions that may result from false or unrealistic notions of what love is.
Critical analyses of García Márquez's novels often include a discussion of magic realism—the interweaving of realism with the fantastic and the surreal. Love in the Time of Cholera does contain certain elements of magic realism, but they are less prominent than in previous works. As a result, it is usually examined without an extensive discussion of magic realism. Instead, most critics tend to agree that the novel blends social realism with elements of sentimental literature. One recent discussion by Claudette Kemper Columbus, for example, has suggested that the novel, which is set in the final decades of the nineteenth century and first decades of the twentieth century, is a satire aimed at supposedly enlightened societies on the verge of entering the twenty-first century. And another critic, Robin Fiddian, has read the novel as a reflection on the moral and ideological shortsightedness that threatens the future of South America.
A need for social change is implied through the novel's opening scene. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour's suicide is motivated by the fear of growing old and alludes to a difficult and, for some, troubling question: can old age be an exciting and productive period of human life? Jeremiah de Saint-Amour obviously did not think so, and planned years ahead to end his life when he turned sixty. It becomes evident throughout the novel that Saint-Amour's fears about old age are shared by many in his society. Fermina Daza's daughter, Ofelia, becomes extremely upset when she learns that her elderly mother has a "strange friendship" with a man: "love is ridiculous at our age," she shouts to her brother and his wife, "but at theirs it is revolting." Dr. Urbino Daza, Fermina's son, initially supports the relationship because of the "good companionship" it gives his mother and begs Florentino to continue seeing her "for the good of them both and the convenience of all." However, he reveals his true feelings about the elderly when he and Florentino get together over lunch; he explains that the world would make more rapid progress without the burden of old people because "humanity, like armies in the field, advances at the speed of the slowest."
What Do I Read Next?
- For an excellent study of old age, with considerable attention given to sexuality, see Simone de Beauvoir's The Coming of Age (1972).
- In One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970), García Márquez's best known and highly acclaimed novel, the author employs the technique of "magical realism," which blends the real with the fantastic in a comic masterpiece that chronicles six generations of a family in the town of Macondo, a microcosm of Colombia.
- The Autumn of the Patriarch is García Márquez's 1975 novel about the evils of despotism as embodied in a solitary dictator.
- One of his collections of short stories, No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories (1968) features García Márquez's short fiction written during the early 1960s. Critics often commend the stories in this volume.
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1982) is García Márquez's fictionalized journalistic investigation of Chile's Pinochet regime. The novella profiles a society trapped in its own myths.
- In The Last Song of Manuel Sendero (1987), Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean novelist and playwright, combines the real and the surreal in this novel about love, tyranny, freedom, and the anguish of exile.
- Violence, Conflict and Politics in Colombia (1980), by Paul H. Oquist offers some insights into the history and politics that shaped the fiction of García Márquez.
The societal attitude towards old age is perhaps best summed up by an "absent-minded voice" which is overheard making a comment about Dr. Urbino's rapidly ripening corpse: "at that age you're half decayed while you're still alive." Florentino and Fermina's union at the novel's end transcends these prejudices and unjust social conventions and suggests that one's later years can be a vital and exciting time in one's life. But transcendence does not induce change, and while Florentino and Fermina do discover that love is "always love, anytime and anyplace," their reluctance to return home at the end of their journey suggests a surrender to societal expectations.
This less than perfect ending puts into question readings of the novel that emphasize the individual happiness of Fermina and Florentino over the state of the world around them. It also forces the reader to reconsider the entire text: what may have initially appeared to be an innocent story about love, may not be. M. Keith Booker has demonstrated that the novel provides warnings against "gullibility in reading," and indeed, there are several incidents early in Love in the Time of Cholera that inform the reader that appearances can be deceiving. For instance, it is only after Saint-Amour's death that Dr. Urbino discovers that his friend was not the man "without a past" he thought him to be, but a fugitive from Cayenne who had eaten human flesh. The lingering aroma of gold cyanide that meets Dr. Urbino when he arrives on the scene of the suicide is also misleading. The scent of bitter almonds always reminds the doctor of unrequited love but, as the reader soon learns, Saint-Amour's suicide is not motivated by love but by submission to an all too common fear—gerontophobia. When discussing the death with his wife, Dr. Urbino reveals that it is not so much what Saint-Amour did that infuriates him, but the deception he practiced on him for so many years. Even Dr. Urbino, a man whose "narrowness of mind was out of tune with his public image," is himself an example of the ease with which appearance may be confused with reality.
Similarly, the spell Florentino Ariza falls under when he meets Fermina Daza is not what it appears to be—it is not an example of romantic love. He does not fall in love with Fermina's true virtues and sentiments, but with an image or illusion he creates by "endowing her with improbable virtues and imaginary sentiments." In other words, he idealizes her. It is this unrealistic conception of Fermina that leads to a half-century of waiting, watching and stalking. Booker has suggested that such unrealistic visions are what doom Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza's riverboat journey at the end of the novel. Florentino Ariza had often received alarming reports about the state of the river but "never took the trouble to think about it." As a result, his plan to sail "forever" under the yellow quarantine flag is an impossibility because uncontrolled deforestation has left no trees to fuel the boat. Florentino's refusal to consider the reality of imminent environmental devastation destroys both the Magdalena River, and his own happy ending.
Critics have interpreted "the time of cholera" in the novel's title in various ways. Many equate the time of cholera with the time of romantic love and suggest that, in this text, love is a disease. The title might also be a metaphor for what Claudette Kemper Columbus describes as a "diseased society and social irresponsibility." And it is true that both Florentino Ariza and Dr. Urbino are guilty of social obliviousness and neglect. Dr. Urbino is a man of refined tastes who is up to date with all the latest European ideas and who is, as suggested by Mabel Morana, associated with modernization. But he is often blind to the realities that surround him because, for him, reality exists someplace else. Upon his return from Europe, for example, he subscribes "to Le Figaro, so he would not lose touch with reality." Florentino's social obliviousness can be explained, in part, by his susceptibility to the influence of sentimental love poetry. His letters to Fermina Daza are "inspired by the books he had learned by heart" and reveal a man who has become buried in the values of the past. But Florentino is guilty of more than simple neglect. His selfishness is often the direct cause of other people's suffering and death.
The narrator only describes a very small fraction of his six hundred and twenty-two long-term affairs, but of the ones he does relate, several offer a picture of a man less than deserving of Fermina's—or any woman's—love. It might be argued that Florentino's numerous affairs provide a positive model for free love, but he does more than fill his time with one-night-stands. One of Florentino's lovers, Olimpia Zuleta, is murdered by her husband when she inadvertently shows him the possessive inscription that Florentino painted on her belly. It is also revealed late in the novel that Florentino is a rapist who, after impregnating a maid behind his house, bribes her to put the blame on her innocent sweetheart. Perhaps most condemning is Florentino's seduction of América Vicuñia, his fourteen-year-old blood relative who is entrusted to him while she attends secondary school. What is most disturbing in his relationship with this girl is the manipulation he uses to create the illusion of acquiescence. When he meets her, she is still a little girl with "the scrapes of elementary school on her knees," but Florentino spends a year cultivating her with ice cream and childish afternoons, until finally winning her confidence and affection. She commits suicide while he is on the riverboat with Fermina Daza—another of the women he manipulates.
From the time he receives Fermina's letter of insults, Florentino begins to devise a new strategy—a "new method of seduction." He plans everything "down to the last detail, as if it were the final battle." He departs from his usual imitative writing style and composes an extensive meditation on life which he disguises in the patriarchal style of an old man's memories. The letters help Fermina find new reasons to go on living, but Florentino's cunning plans complicate what she interprets as heartfelt emotions. He is also dishonest with her in person; when she asks him why he never competed in the Poetic Festivals, he "lies to her" and says that he "wrote only for her." It is true that part of his intention is to give Fermina the courage to "discard the prejudices" of society, and to "think of love as a state of grace," but his contemptible past makes it impossible to differentiate his good motives from his selfish, destructive ones.
Despite Florentino's manipulations, Fermina is the one character who recognizes that something is not quite right in her relationship with Florentino. Although she defies social conventions by entering into a romantic relationship at an age most people consider too old for such things, her repeated thoughts about another elderly couple who are murdered while vacationing on board a boat invite comparisons between the two couples. The murdered couple were clandestine lovers who maintained a relationship for forty years despite the fact that each of them was happily married to someone else. Contrasted with the love between Florentino and Fermina, a love that Fermina recognized was illusory over fifty years ago, the other couple's long-lasting relationship recalls the illicit love described by Saint-Amour's lover: hers was a life shared with a man who was never completely hers but in which she "often knew the sudden explosion of happiness." Moreover, their story shows that Florentino's plan to evade reality by refusing to ever go back home is not a viable solution. The fact that the other elderly couple are murdered on board a boat suggests that an idealistic, neverending river cruise that does nothing to break down the conventions and beliefs of the rest of society will not protect Fermina and Florentino from the prejudices that continue to exist along the shores. Eventually, those prejudices will come to them.
Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997.
In this review, Franco notes that in Love in the Time of Cholera García Márquez sets his love story against a background of decay and mortality, explaining that "the humor and pathos of aging and death are subjects that have obsessed García Márquez from his earliest writings."
In 1948, as a young journalist in Barranquilla, Gabriel García Márquez amused his readers by comparing love to a liver disease that could lead to the fatal complication of suicide. Four decades later, he recognizes that it is love that keeps readers turning the pages. That is why, despite its apocalyptic undertones, Love in the Time of Cholera has already sold over a million copies in Europe and Latin America.
Set in a stagnant tropical port at the turn of the century, Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of Florentino Ariza's prolonged passion for Fermina Daza, a passion that is finally consummated after fifty years, nine months and four days, when they are both over 70 years old. The consummation takes place on a riverboat that flies the cholera flag in order to protect their privacy. When Fermina undresses, Florentino finds her "just as he imagined her. Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog's"—which does not prevent him from exploring "her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armored in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, her thighs with their aging veins." The boat cannot land because of the cholera flag, so the couple, enjoying "the tranquil, wholesome love of experienced grandparents," are destined to live out their lives perpetually journeying up and down the river through a calamitous and ruined landscape, clinging hopefully to the last vestiges of life.
The humor of this autumnal romance cannot, however, dispel the odor of mortality. On the very first page, the reader is greeted "with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide" and the suicide of the Caribbean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The doctor who writes the death certificate is Fermina Daza's 81-year-old husband, Juvenal Urbino, who hours later is killed falling from a ladder as he tries to coax a parrot from a tree. It is at the funeral that Florentino renews a courtship he had begun half a century earlier.
The novel retraces the story of their love and separation: Fermina's adolescence under the jealous guardianship of a father who had made his money in contraband and wanted her to be a great lady; her brief engagement to the illegitimate and lowly Florentino; her marriage to the brilliant European-educated doctor Juvenal Urbino; and her then exemplary life (marred only by a two-year separation caused by her husband's infidelity). Mean while, Florentino has a brilliant career with the riverboat company and becomes an impenitent and bizarre womanizer who, when he is over 60, is capable of assaulting a maid "in less time than a Philippino rooster" and leaving her in the family way. His lovers include a 50-year-old widow who receives him stark naked with an organdy bow in her hair, an escapee from the lunatic asylum and, when he is over 70, a schoolgirl "with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees."
The humor and pathos of aging and death are subjects that have obsessed García Márquez from his earliest writings. His first novel, Leafstorm, was about a funeral. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are dozens of tiny vignettes of death—Amaranta Úrsula preparing her own shroud, José Arcadio Buendía's dying dream of walking through room after room until he meets the man he has killed, and the matriarch, Úrsula, concealing her blindness from her children before lucidly dying. In Love in the Time of Cholera bodies fail long before passions are spent. Florentino goes bald when he is still young. He suffers from blennorrhea, a swollen lymph gland, four warts and six cases of impetigo in the groin. When Dr. Urbino begins to lapse into senility, Fermina "helped him to dress: she sprinkled talcum powder between his legs, she smoothed cocoa butter on his rashes, she helped him put on his undershorts with as much love as if they had been a diaper, and continued dressing him item by item, from his socks to the knot in his tie with the topaz pin." On their riverboat idyll, she helped Florentino "to take his enemas, she got up before he did to brush the false teeth he kept in a glass while he slept and she solved the problem of her misplaced spectacles, for she could use his for reading and mending." Both of them, by this time, have the "sour smell of old age."
Decay is part of the landscape. The colonial Caribbean port where Fermina and Florentino pass most of their lives is familiar García Márquez territory. It was in towns such as this that he wrote his first sketches for a novel in the late 1940s and which he chronicled as a journalist in Barranquilla and Cartagena. It was here that he collected the repertoire of legend, anecdote, small-town boredom and eccentricity that he has drawn on ever since. Not that there is any nostalgia in Love in the Time of Cholera, which moves from the stagnation of colonialism to the devastation of modernity in the time it takes to turn a page. Although the cobbled streets of the city recall "surprise attacks and buccaneer landings," "nothing had happened for four centuries except a slow aging among withered laurels and putrefying swamps." On the edge of the town are the old slave quarters, where buzzards fight over the offal from the slaughterhouse. Cadavers are everywhere, some dead of cholera and others in the wars. Returning from his studies in Paris, Dr. Urbino sails into a bay "through a floating blanket of drowned animals." "The ocean looked like ashes, the old palaces of the marquises were about to succumb to a proliferation of beggars, and it was impossible to discern the ardent scent of jasmine behind the vapors of death from the open sewers." On a trip that Florentino takes upriver in an effort to forget Fermina, he sees "three bloated, green human corpses float past, with buzzards sitting on them"; when Fermina and Juvenal Urbino take a balloon ride to celebrate the year 1900, they look down on banana plantations strewn with the bodies of workers who have been summarily executed.
By the end of the novel and its "happy ending," the mood is paradoxically apocalyptic. Fermina and Florentino's love boat, which once had steamed through an idyllic landscape, now passes "calcinated flatlands stripped of entire forests." The manatees "with their great breasts that had nursed their young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman's voice were an extinct species, annihilated by the armored bullets of hunters for sport." Natural life has almost disappeared, "the parrots, the monkeys, the villages were gone, everything was gone."
For this is the irony of García Márquez's novel—that the genial good humor disguises apocalyptic foreboding. The same civilization that idealizes lovers produces a global wasteland, and the private fantasies of romance are rafts on a sea of public devastation. Fermina and Florentino salvage their own idyll but are themselves part of the destruction, a last nineteenth-century romance that can only find a heart of darkness (not for nothing is Joseph Conrad a character in the novel; he is accused of cheating Fermina Daza's father in a shady arms deal). Fermina and Florentino's love boat, indeed, adds to the devastation, since it has polluted the river waters and consumes the last of the forests on the riverbanks. It is this ambiguous relationship of private felicity and mass destruction that provides the novel with its disturbing undertow.
In his novels, García Márquez constantly returns to one particular historical period—from independence to the first decades of the twentieth century. It is the hundred years of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude and of the dictatorship in The Autumn of the Patriarch. What fascinates him, evidently, is the meeting of fierce Latin idiosyncrasy with rationalism and modernity. Yet Love in the Time of Cholera is not only about the past but also about the anachronistic life forms that still survive in the ruins left by nineteenth-century progress. In this respect, the novel shares the fin de sièle mood of much contemporary Latin American writing.
Source: Jean Franco, "Mementos Mori," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 246, No. 16, April 23, 1988, pp. 573-74.
In the following review, Eder places Love in the Time of Cholera in the tradition of magic realism, explaining that in the static, inert world of García Márquez's novel "the sole principle of order … consists of the extraordinary sweetness he finds in his characters."
The city, ancient, decaying, tropical, lies at the mouth of Colombia's Magdalena River. Weeds grow in the cracks of 17th-Century palaces; the sewers are open, and the corpses of victims of endemic cholera float downstream from the hinterland. It is a city "where flowers rusted and salt corroded."
It is scene of Gabriel García Márquez's magnificent new novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, a book that moves a triple romance, spanning more than a half-century, through a rich, comical and totally still world that could be the dream of a prodigious sleeper lashed to the bed.
García Márquez's universe is organized around a fundamental element: stasis. It replaces oxygen, it produces a brilliant anaerobic life. It has a tacit political connotation. The evolution of liberal, capitalist, consumerist Westernism has submerged the authentic life of the Latin American Third World, while remaining alien to it. Perhaps only a revolution will deliver it. García Márquez, a leftist, doesn't say. Meanwhile, it will remain inert.
Inert in everything except the imagination. Magic realism is what moves when nothing else does. It is what a stage director looks for when he instructs a performer to keep the hands or feet still; to bind them, so that the features or shoulders can make a more expressive performance. García Márquez's art is a mighty transfiguration of these bound movements.
There is no external order. There are no proportions, limits or hierarchies of logic or feeling. Everything is tangled together, and when you finger a thread, you have no idea what it will be attached to. There are no roads in this artist's jungle because there are no destinations. There is profuse life that goes on in spite of the absurd and ramshackle forms assigned to it.
The sole principle of order belongs to García Márquez. It consists of the extraordinary sweetness he finds in his characters; a sweetness that provides energy, and does not cloy, thanks to his feverish spirit of play and his willingness to let his tall tales grow taller.
Love's 50 years center around the turn of the century. The city, loosely modeled on a mix of Cartagena and Barranquilla, is a microcosm of Colombian provincial society with its extremes of extravagantly moneyed families, abject poverty, recurring civil war between liberals and conservatives, a superficial faith in progress, and a monumental inertia.
A Spanish galleon lies, according to legend, at the bottom of the mouth of the Magdalena, with a cargo of gold and jewels valued in the billions. (As in any dream, all figures are vastly inflated; one of the three main characters numbers his love affairs at more than 600.) The image hovers throughout: a fabulous sunken treasure stuck like a plug to bottle up the energies of a people and their river.
The three sides of the love triangle are occupied by three prominent citizens. There is Juvenal Urbino, scion of a mighty family, the town's leading doctor and the herald of all kinds of progressive ideas that he has used to damp down the periodic epidemics of cholera.
Fermina Daza, his wife, is the daughter of an immigrant Spaniard, a nobody who made a fortune in various unsavory ways. Snubbed at first by local society, she has become one of its pillars and the patroness of its artistic life.
Florentino Ariza, a poet and musician by temperament, has worked his way up to wealth and power in the riverboat company founded by his uncle. He has been hopelessly in love with Fermina since they were both teenagers, but since a man needs relief, he has prowled the city for 50 years picking up women.
So much for their public personas. But in García Márquez's country, the externals have no solidity. Juvenal, Fermina and Florentino are fey and unpredictable spirits, haunting rather than inhabiting their positions, their clothes, their habits and even their dispositions. The play of the book is the play of these free spirits in and out of their own constrained lives.
The book starts a year or two before the climax that will end it. Juvenal, in his 80s, falls off a stepladder while trying to catch his pet parrot. He dies with such an expression of terror that plans for a death mask have to be canceled. His terror is not for himself but for the thought that Fernina, after 50 years, will have to manage alone.
After the funeral, Florentino appears with his black suit, stiff collar and a strand of hair brilliantined across his bald pate. He reiterates his lifelong passion to Fermina—they are both in their 70s—and in shock and outrage, she throws him out.
It is an explosive beginning, though here as always, García Márquez laces his detonations with diversions and side-trips. We then go back in time, following the trio from youth to old age. Their stories snake in and out against the tropical background.
Florentino, pale and nervous, gets a shaky start with his uncle. His business letters are poetry; he switches to telegraphy and works his way up. He is splendidly suited to business, in fact, except when it involves writing. It is the author's conceit that the poetic mind is ideal for a businessman's incursions upon reality.
Florentino spots Fermina, closely chaperoned by her aunt. He gets up the courage to write to her. They correspond passionately, even when her father finds out and sends her to stay with relatives in the backland. Florentino uses his fellow telegraphers around the country to relay messages.
The passion is total, and totally abstract. Upon her return, Fermina suddenly sees Florentino in all his awkwardness; she switches to the urbane and assured Juvenal, just back from Europe. Perhaps the finest thing in the book is García Márquez's story of a long, fractious, funny and powerful marriage. The quarrels are memorable; an argument over whether Fermina has put soap in the bathroom leads Juvenal to sleep at the hospital for several months.
All the servitude, conventionality and weight of a provincial Latin American marriage is there; yet underneath it, two free spirits flutter in utter originality. Society's two pillars are light as air, as erratic as a tropical breeze. Florentino, meanwhile, pursues his 600 affairs, many of them quite lunatic. Their chronicling eventually seems repetitious and even burdensome, despite their wit and quirkiness.
But if the richness of García Márquez's textures feels briefly excessive, the book's ending has a brilliance and audacity that more than makes up for it.
After Juvenal's death, and after Florentino's unceremonious rejection, the cycle of courtship begins all over again. He writes Fermina letter after letter. They are cool and philosophic, as befits a septuagenarian, and slowly they fill the emptiness that Juvenal's death has made in his widow's life.
Even so, it takes 140 letters—García Márquez's extravagant numbers again—before she replies. A slow courtship ensues; a seduction that is gentle, quiet and astonishingly adapted to the infirmities of two aged bodies. The author gives us geriatric sex aboard riverboat, and makes it deeply comic and deeply moving.
Finally, through a series of bizarre incidents, the ancient couple are set to cruise for the rest of their lives up and down the Magdalena. It is entirely real and entirely magical. It is not so much an ending as a triumphant departure in a balloon.
Love in the Time of Cholera, beautifully translated by Edith Grossman, may be García Márquez's best work since One Hundred Years of Solitude. If the tigers in his Rousseau-like moonscapes are less startling, because we are not seeing them for the first time, the moon, lighting his three lovers, is whiter, more mysterious and more transforming.
Source: Richard Eder, "The Love-Dream of a Prodigious Sleeper," in The Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 17, 1988, p.3.
Paul Bailey, "The Loved One," in The Listener, Vol. 119, No. 3069, June 30, 1988, p. 29.
Michael Bell, Gabriel García Márquez: Solitude and Solidarity, St. Martin's Press, 1993.
Gene H. Bell-Villada, Gabriel García Márquez: The Man and His Work, University of North Carolina Press, 1990.
Angela Carter, "García Márquez: Sick with Love and Longing," in Washington Post Book World, April 24, 1988, pp. 1, 14.
Jean Franco, "Memento Mori," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 246, No. 16, April 23, 1988, pp. 573-74.
S. J. A. Minta, "In Praise of the Popular," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4448, July 1-7, 1988, p. 730.
Thomas Pynchon, "The Heart's Eternal Vow," in the New York Times Book Review, April 10, 1988, pp. 1, 47, 49.
Mona Simpson, "Love Letters," in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 15, September 1, 1988, pp. 22-24.
Michael Wood, "Heartsick," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXV, No. 7, April 28, 1988, pp. 6, 8-9.
Isabel Alvarez Borland, "Interior Texts in 'El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera'," in Hispanic Review, Vol. 59, 1991, pp. 175-86.
Alvarez Borland examines the written texts within the novel and concludes that Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel about writing — both in the literal sense and the figurative sense of the post-modern, self-reflexive text.
M. Keith Booker, "The Dangers of Gullible Reading: Narrative as Seduction in García Márquez' 'Love in the Time of Cholera'," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 17, no. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 181-95.
Booker's reading suggests that Love in the Time of Cholera is not a book about romance, but about politics and history and that its "saccharine surface" conceals a series of textual traps.
Claudette Kemper Columbus, "Faint Echoes and Faded Reflections: Love and Justice in the Time of Cholera," in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 38, no. 1, 1992, pp. 89-100.
This discussion of the novel invites readers to recognize that Love in the Time of Cholera is a satire which attacks the sentimental notions it seems to support.
Robin Fiddian, "Introduction," in García Márquez, edited by Robin Fiddian, Longman, 1995, pp. 1-26.
Included in Fiddian's Introduction is a discussion of the national context of Colombia, Latin American fiction and magic realism. He also provides biographical information and a brief discussion of Love in the Time of Cholera.
Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell, editors, Gabriel García Márquez: New Readings, Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Editors select essays written from a variety of perspectives.
George R. McMurray, Gabriel García Márquez, Ungar, 1977.
The first book-length study of García Márquez in English. The author comments on all his fictional writings and provides plot summaries as well as bibliography and index.
George R. McMurray, Critical Essays on Gabriel García Márquez Hall, 1987.
A collection of book reviews, essays, and articles from the 1960s to the present. There is a wide representation of critics as well as of works discussed.
Kathleen McNemey, Understanding Gabriel García Márquez, University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
A useful study that attempts to interpret the works of Gabriel García Márquez in light of modern and contemporary European and Latin American literature.
Stephen Minta, Gabriel García Márquez: Writer of Colombia, J. Cape, 1987.
Beginning with a very infomiative and useful chapter on Colombia, the book develops an overview of García Márquez's work within a political as well as literary context. Selected bibliography is included.
Mabel Morana, "Modernity and Marginality in 'Love in the Time of Cholera'," in Studies in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 27-43.
Morana proposes that the novel juxtaposes two different social projects which are actualized in the two male characters. Urbino reflects the project of modernization, whereas Florentino incamates the values of national culture as against European-style modernization.
K. E. A. Mose, Defamiliarization in the Work of Gabriel García Márquez, E. Mellen Press, 1989.
An interesting consideration of the figures of speech employed by García Márquez to "defamniliarize" his subject and present the familiar in an unfamiliar fashion.
Bradley A. Shaw and Nora Vera-Godwin, editors, Critical Perspectives on Gabriel García Márquez, Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1986.
A collection of essays on various works by several scholars.
Margaret L. Snook, "The Motif of Voyage as Mythical Symbol in 'El Amor en los Tiempos del Colera' by Gabriel Garcífa Márquez," in Hispanic Journal, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1988, pp. 85-91.
Snook discusses the many journeys in the novel, including that of the narrative itself which reflects the movement of a journey that is interrupted and later resumed.
Raymond Williams, Gabriel García Márquez, Twayne, 1984.
Brief biography and description of works, including commentary on García Márquez's journalism.