Love in the time of cholera book cover

Love in the Time of Cholera book review

Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, who died in 2014 at the age of 87, has been called the greatest Colombian who ever lived. Affectionately known throughout Latin America as Gabo, or Gabito, he was awarded the 1972 Neustadt International Prize for Literature and the Nobel Prize in Literature ten years later. Although he did not personally invent the concept of magic realism, he’s so closely identified with the genre that it’s impossible to say his name without calling it to mind.

Having said that, Love in the Time of Cholera is set more firmly in the real world than the magical. It begins with the death of Jeremiah Saint-Amour, longtime friend and chess competitor of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who kills himself at the age of 60 so that he will not grow old. After being called in to examine the body, Dr. Urbino returns home to discover that his pet parrot has escaped from its cage and is perched on a top branch of a mango tree. Attempting to retrieve the bird, Dr. Urbino falls to his death, leaving his wife, Fermina Daza, a widow.

The good doctor’s body is scarcely cold when the hero of our story, Florentino Ariza, turns up on her doorstep, hoping to pick up where they left off, 51 years, nine months, and four days ago. He has loved her all that time, despite the fact that she has never once, since breaking off their youthful courtship, given him a single encouragement to do so. Appalled that he’s had the temerity to approach her like this, Fermina sends him packing. Florentino, however, is not one to be deterred. He has, after all, nurtured his love for this woman for half a century – there has not been a day, scarcely even a minute, when she’s not been in his thoughts.

He is, in fact, sick with love, a condition comparable to cholera, which was rampant in Latin America in the 19th century. Like cholera, love causes physical and emotional pain and in Florentino’s case it plagues him relentlessly for a half a century; there is no cure.

We are then taken back to the time, all those years ago, when the disease of love infected him. A shy, forlorn young man, Florentino dresses unfashionably, writes unremarkable poetry, and works as a telegraph operator. In spite of his demeanour, the young women of the town are fascinated by him, and hold lotteries to decide who will date him. Florentino goes along with all this, but keeps himself apart, determined to maintain his innocence until the right woman comes along. One day, while delivering a telegram to Lorenzo Daza, he catches sight of Daza’s beautiful daughter, Fermina, who studies at the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin and is escorted there and back by her Aunt Escolástica. Florentino begins to stalk her as she walks to school and eventually he manages to recruit her aunt’s assistance, and the two young people begin to exchange letters. Her father, however, is against the marriage: Florentino is poor, after all, and even worse, he was born out of wedlock. Her father sends her off to stay with her cousin. When she eventually returns, she realizes she doesn’t love him after all, breaks off the engagement, and marries someone else. Someone more suitable, in the person of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, a wealthy and accomplished national hero.

On the face of it, she’s made the right decision. She has wealth, financial security, and an adoring partner. They seem in every way to be the ideal married couple. The author’s point, I think, is that they are: any two people who live, love and argue together for 50 years have a right to call theirs a successful marriage; most of us don’t get anything close to it.

Love in the Time of Cholera is set in a city on the banks of the Magdalena River, at the turn of the 20th century. The city is never named, but it’s likely based on Cartagena, whose walled city and fortress was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. Cartagena is where García Márquez went to university, studying law, and where he began his career in journalism. He evokes the richness of the city in all its perverse beauty with lyrical descriptions of the old colonial mansions with their whitewashed balconies draped in bougainvillea, the former monasteries and convents, the horse-drawn carriages, the crowded markets teeming with traders, the filthy, sewage-covered streets. And, of course, the brothels. It reminded me intensely of Savannah, Georgia, as depicted in John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: a city populated by eccentric characters and ancient ghosts, some of whom continue to wield power amongst the living.

Florentino is disappointed when Fermina rejects him, but he’s not finished by a long shot. He’s nurtured this passion, this illness, for so long, he would be lost without it. And so, ever so gently, he renews his courtship, writing her daily in the hope that one day she will write back – assuming, of course, that she reads his letters before tossing them in the fire. He knows he can’t win her with fire and passion; he’s too old for that – they both are. But he’s the master of slow, steady persistence, and he believes in his cause. He’s waited all these years for Dr. Urbino to die; now, the only thing standing in the way of perfect happiness is Fermina herself.

García Márquez was in his late 50s when he wrote this book, and I think that’s significant. It’s not a youthful love story but rather one of middle age. It’s a story of endurance, of a love – even a passion – that lasts for half a century, but is fraught with irritations, disagreements, and with the petty annoyances that creep up on us as we age. As a romantic hero, Florentino is deeply flawed. He’s selfish, promiscuous, and chronically constipated. He claims to have had sex (not always consensual) with more than 600 women, one of whom has just turned 14 (when he was over 70). And while Florentino himself would have you believe he has stayed single because he’s saving himself for Fermina, the real reason may be less chivalric: as a married man he would have less opportunity to go out stalking women day and night, and taking them to bed. As he admits to himself in a moment of anger: “My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse”.

So no, I didn’t like Florentino very much, but I found myself rooting for him in the end. I wanted Fermina to soften, to accept him as a companion, if not a lover, if only because that kind of dogged determination deserves some kind of reward. I was pleased when she came to the conclusion that appearances be damned: if she wanted to spend time with Florentino she would. As she tells her daughter-in-law, “They can all go to hell. … If we widows have any advantage, it is that there is no one left to give us orders.”

Amen to that, sister.

And I was pleased when she agrees to accompany him on a journey up the river, and finally admits – to herself and to him – that she loves him. When they reach La Dorada, everyone but Florentino and Fermina disembarks and the boat prepares to take on passengers for the return journey. Fermina frets that some of them may recognize her and Florentino persuades the captain to fly the yellow flag of cholera, preventing anyone else from coming on board. It’s as if, by doing so, all three characters, the captain included, are accepting that true love is indeed an illness – a plague, even – and those who suffer for it should receive special dispensation. Back in their home port, however, the captain is told that because of the cholera flag they can’t leave the boat until the authorities have investigated the situation. When the truth comes out it will be devastating for the captain – he could very well lose his licence. Florentino’s solution is to turn the boat around and head back to La Dorada. The captain looks at the two old people: “he was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits.”

“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.

Florentino had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.

“Forever,” he said.

Love in the Time of Cholera is written, I think, as a fable, although I’d be hard pressed to find the moral. Perhaps it’s simply this: that if you live long enough, and try hard enough, you might eventually get what you want, after all.

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