Love in the Time of Cholera (Garcia Marquez)

Book Reviews were possible, not only to swear love ''forever,'' but actually to follow through on it — to live a long, full and authentic life based on such a vow, to put one's alloted stake of precious time where one's heart is? This is the extraordinary premise of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's new novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, one on which he delivers, and triumphantly.... He writes with impassioned control, out of a maniacal serenity: the Garcimarquesian voice we have come to recognize from the other fiction has matured, found and developed new resources.
Thomas Pinchon - New York Times

Like many great novels, Gabriel Garc ía Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera portrays the tension between illusions and material reality, especially in the context of love. In the novel's final pages, when Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are finally together in their old age, we are told that love "was more solid the closer it came to death" (p. 345). This statement exemplifies the novel's method—instead of saying what love is, and in this way judging the strength of its characters' grasp of reality, it articulates the relationship between love and something else, giving different perspectives but no definitions. This circling around love gives Love in the Time of Cholera the quality of capturing the ineffable.

Different ways of understanding, experiencing, and representing love are embodied by the novel's three central characters—Florentino Ariza, Fermina Daza, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino. For Florentino, love has the properties of a dream; its fullest expression occurs in art (especially in writing), and it stands in opposition to everyday reality, entirely resistant to rational understanding. Like Emma in Madame Bovary, Florentino is filled with notions of love derived from popular literature; he also becomes a comic figure when reality unexpectedly intrudes into the world of his imagination. The bird droppings that fall on Fermina's embroidery when they meet as teenagers in the park and the intestinal disruption that betrays him when they meet following Dr. Urbino's death both testify to the unavoidable fact of the material world. But Florentino's fate suggests neither acquiescence to reality nor the continuation of his belief in a wholly illusory kind of love.

As the relationship between Florentino and Fermina unfolds following Dr. Urbino's death, it seems enabled by Florentino's emergence from the imaginary world in which he has lived for so long—the very existence of his imaginary world is made possible by Fermina's absence from it. The letters Florentino writes to her after Dr. Urbino's death possess, in Fermina's words, "a foundation in reality" (p. 330), as opposed to the letters of his youth, inspired by "half-baked endearments taken whole from the Spanish romantics" (p. 75). But other aspects of the novel's conclusion complicate this interpretation. Before making love, Florentino tells Fermina, "I've remained a virgin for you" (p. 339). In light of his many trysts and affairs, in what sense could this be true other than an imaginary one? When asked how long their ship will sail, keeping up its deception by flying the yellow cholera flag, Florentino answers, "Forever" (p. 348), as if to specifically deny the reality of death.

Because of his belief in the power of the rational mind, Dr. Urbino often appears more grounded in reality than Florentino. He considers marriage "an absurd invention" (p. 209), and his marriage to Fermina represents a lifelong effort to defeat the absurd and replace it with something that can withstand logical analysis. After his death, Fermina recalls his belief that "the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability" (p. 300). On the night they consummate their marriage, Dr. Urbino readily admits to himself that he does not love Fermina, but "he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love" (p. 159). He thinks of love not as an unruly passion, but as if it can be brought into existence merely by an act of will. But his determination to avoid the chaos of emotion can make Dr. Urbino seem just as divorced from reality as Florentino. In his dissertation, Dr. Urbino asserts that, given the human organism's "many useless or duplicated could be more simple and by the same token less vulnerable" (p. 158-59). Is this idea any less illusory than the most extravagant of Florentino's ecstatic proclamations of his love for Fermina?

Between the extremes of Florentino and Dr. Urbino is Fermina. When Dr. Urbino first tells her about the importance of stability, she hears in it a "miserable threat," but when she remembers his words after he dies, she thinks of them as "the lodestone that had given them both so many happy hours" (p. 300). She ends her first affair with Florentino by telling him in a letter that "what is between us is nothing more than an illusion" (p. 102). As coldly precise as this declaration is, Fermina is nevertheless open to the emotional upheavals that attend her marriage to Dr. Urbino. When he confirms her suspicion of his adulterous affair with Barbara Lynch, she wishes he had denied it, preferring the illusion of his fidelity to the feeling that "her rage would never end" (p. 251). Sharing memories of Dr. Urbino with Florentino, Fermina "could not conceive of a husband better than hers had been, and yet when she recalled their life she found more difficulties than pleasures," admitting to Florentino that she does not "really know if it was love or not" (p. 329).

It is tempting to see Fermina as encompassing both the illusory and the real, but such symmetry would reduce her to a thematic device, as opposed to a fully alive character, capable of expecting nothing more from life after her husband dies and then falling in love with Florentino. The fact that neither she nor the novel ever arrive at a fixed definition of love suggests that its elusiveness is part of its very nature.

(Copyright 2007 by the Random House Publishing Group. Permission for use granted by Random House Inc.)

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