Book review by Rob Couteau
Arete: Forum For Thought,
Dec. 1988 (CA: San Diego)
As its title implies, Love in the Time of Cholera is a creative amalgam of two starkly contrasting elements: the sacredness of love, and love’s embodiment in everyday experience. Ultimately, the transcendental power of love emerges as the beautifully rendered theme of this evocative and paradoxical masterwork.
Throughout his oeuvre, Marquez has displayed courage in his willingness to explore a variegated stylistic repertoire. While Love in the Time of Cholera has formal similarities to his other great works–One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch–it avoids relying exclusively on the stunning, hallucinatory quality of the former or the lush density of the latter. Maintaining a folklore quality and grounded with the feel of everyday gossip, it incorporates images of love that hover between an otherworld beauty and a netherworld terror.
The historical setting of the novel is an “in between” time: from the end of the nineteenth- to the first decades of the twentieth century. The location is an unnamed Caribbean seaport: one resembling Cartagena. Florentino Ariza–who, with his long frock coat and melancholy air, resembles a “rabbi in disgrace”–is overwhelmed by his love for Fermina Daza, a comely girl whose “doe’s gait” makes her “seem immune to gravity.”
Florentino’s antiquated attire and excessive sentimentality symbolize the romanticism of the last century, which is parodied and caricatured here and extended, like the frock, beyond manageable proportions. Indeed, he cannot even compose a business letter without incorporating lyrical flourishes. Love is his raison d’être, yet he reeks of it rather than shines, following always in its shadow, never seeming to grasp its essential light.
Florentino is placed in a precarious position when Fermina suddenly rejects him (after returning from an exile imposed by her father, who disapproves of Florentino for reasons of class). Her years of travel have so broadened her vision of the world that one quick glance at Florentino is enough to blot out every trace of her former passion and dreamy-eyed innocence. She simply tells him to “forget it,” demands he return her letters and gifts, and promptly decides to forget he ever existed.
Fermina embarks upon “a marriage of convenience” to the esteemed Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who in many ways serves as a counterpoint to Florentino’s overblown romanticism. After completing a “course of specialized studies in France,” Urbino becomes “known in his county for the drastic new methods he used to ward off the last cholera epidemic suffered by the province.” He founds the Medical Society and organizes the construction of the first aqueduct and the first sewer system. He serves as president of two academies and is conferred with honorary titles from various organizations. In one of the most powerful passages in the book, he and Fermina fly in the carriage of an “aerostatic balloon that on its inaugural flight carried a letter to San Juan de la Cienaga, long before anyone had thought of airmail as a rational possibility.” Thus, he personifies a logical, pragmatic approach to life. Therefore it comes as no surprise that, when they marry, they do so in the absence of love. Even after they consummate their marriage, Urbino is “aware that he did not love her,” yet he’s “sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love”–like any other rational invention.
Love in the Time of Cholera is an “anatomy” of love. One of its most ingenious portrayals (in an anatomical and a visionary sense) is the growth of love out of the profane environs of “convenience.” All the meaningless details of everyday life shared by two people bound together (all the unpleasant smells, degrading tasks, and dulling routines; all the unspoken bitterness and rancor; all the sullenness and gloom engendered by unlived possibilities) are unmercifully catalogued. Love’s power to grow in such dark interstices–and to transcend life’s profanity and to remain unscathed–is one of the more skillfully rendered themes of this work.
Just as love may transcend the limits of hyperrationalism, it may also transcend physical passion. Florentino’s nostalgia is eventually transformed into an awareness of the reality of love as it must be lived, in the present. While Dr. Urbino’s studies in France include his tutelage under the “most outstanding epidemiologist of his time,” one “professor Adrien Proust, father of the famous novelist,” Florentino is fated to live in the haze of a Proustian nightmare: one that evokes a bloated nostalgia for Fermina at his every turn. While much of his time is spent traveling from one to the other of his 622 erotic assignations, through it all he still considers himself a virgin–untouched by anything other than his unrequited love for her.
After waiting half a century for Urbino to die, Florentino ends his self-imposed emotional exile (of fifty-one years, nine months, and four days) of unrequited love. He declares his “vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love” to Fermina–while she’s attending to her husband’s funeral. Outraged by his poor timing, Fermina forbids him to return. Yet, through a series of letters that are meditative and philosophical rather than flowery and romantic, he persists. And then the final courtship of Love in the Time of Cholera commences.
Culminating in a steamboat voyage up the Magdalena River, the various themes of the novel coalesce into a symbolically complex and emotionally compelling adventure. Throughout this final chapter, Marquez deftly evokes the higher aspects of love while maintaining a dark earthy humor:
On the riverboat, Florentino considers a quote: “Love becomes greater and nobler in calamity.” Later, as they paddle along and pass the sorrowful stretches of denuded forests, the “nauseating stench of corpses floating down the river,” the “bogs of ashes,” and the “vast silence of a ravaged land,” the quote calls into question the survival of higher values in the midst of such decay.
Florentino’s meditations also mark the inception of a new era: one that is as stripped of natural beauty as it is profaned in matters of the soul. Just as mankind was ravaged by the cholera plague, now the first signs of a humanly induced ecological devastation appear. Thus the voyage bears witness to certain historical developments. Along with personal signs of decay that reflect the aging process, we simultaneously witness the aging of Latin America and the world-at-large. The passengers are unnerved by such horrific images and are sadly haunted by all that is forever lost: