Love in The Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Love in the Time of Cholera (LTC), still a popular seller after nearly 20 years and the subject of a movie not long ago, along with One Hundred Years of Solitude and two dozen other books, earned its author the Nobel Prize. As LTC is the only Marquez book that I have read, it is the sole source of my views about him. In brief, LTC is the story of the effectively unrequited love of an average looking telegraph worker, voracious reader and poet, Florentino Ariza (Florentino), for the stunning, self-assured beauty, Fermina Daza (Fermina), whom Florentino “courted” through a protracted correspondence that led to an ill-fated engagement; Fermina married Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and, for the ensuing 40 years, Florentino pined for Fermina, despite having numerous paramours, and remained “true” in his heart to Fermina. Upon Dr. Urbino’s death, Florentino, then 62, begins his courtship of the then 58-year-old Fermina again. As in the past, the courtship takes the form of correspondence and poetic exchanges that continue for over a decade. Finally, at ages 76 and 72, respectively, Florentino and Fermina “get together” in all senses of the phrase. Throughout, there is miniscule reference to the cholera epidemic of the time, but cholera and its issues add virtually nothing to any aspect of the book or its efficacy. “Love”, then, not cholera, is the central theme.

“Love”, the author advises, can be divided in two parts, that which is above the waist and that which is below the waist,” in other words, intellectual and physical love. Consistently, his lead character, Florentino, demonstrates both kinds of love, but the author presents major defects in both his Great Love and in his often indiscrete sexual dalliances.

As to his Great Love (from the “waist up” and from the “waist down”) for Fermina, he feels intellectual and physical love, although he never spends sufficient time in her presence, until he is 76, to support intellectual love or to his experience his physical lover (rendering both credible). His love of her intellect, if you can call it that, is speculative, wishful thinking or, perhaps more accurately, the author’s fantasy of a Great Love. Improbably, it begins with a first meeting at which the author reveals that Fermina felt no chemical attraction for Florentino! Thus, it was a one-way street from the get-go. Their “courtship” was comprised almost entirely of Florentino’s epistles to Fermina, which gradually enticed her to accept engagement to him. Florentino’s physical love (read “chemical attraction”), no doubt, was quite real, but there is no evidence to support anything more than mental masterbation.

Most of the book deals with the time after his brief “courtship” of Fermina, in their late teens, and the time before her husband died (when she was 58), some 40 years; during this period, Florentino had no contact with Fermina, other than to catch furtive glimpses of her “on her husband’s arm”, glances that were studiously ignored by Fermina. So, this “Great Love”, on which the book is premised, from his early 20’s until he is 60, existed only in our hero’s mind, and it was based, in its virtual entirety, upon his physical attraction to her, not on anything that she wrote, said or did. During the years after his brief “engagement”, a period of roughly four decades of no contact with this True Love, Florentino engages in countless trysts with myriad women, and admits to having various levels of crushes on them, but he is always careful never to be seen in public with any of them or to allow any rumors of his affairs to get back to his true love, Fermina – although it is doubtful that she would have cared. As best the reader can determine, during these four decades of abstinence from each other, Fermina thought little or not at all about Florentino. Yet, after several decades, Florentino still “trembled” when he saw Fermina on her husband’s arm. Really? To compound these unbelievable events and people, after Fermina’s husband dies, when she is 58, it takes another 14 years for Fermina and Florentino to “get together”, a period also filled with correspondence, though not as much with love-poetry as with commiserations and well wishes, but, still, an unrewarding use of the characters’ (and the readers’) time.

As to unrequited love, especially between those afforded zero physical intimacy, can it rise to a logical definition of a “Great Love.” Haven’t most of us experienced unrequited attractions? How long did any last? Could we have possibly pined for them for four decades? At the very end of the book, at ages 72 and 76, respectively, these semi-lovers finally have physical contact, and, despite well-documented sagging skin, wrinkles, age spots, etc., their coition is gruesomely detailed, which, without the assistance of today’s medical aids, is another improbability. By this so late date, the reader could care less what happened between them. The author thus asks us to believe the seeming impossible: a Great Love existed, although unfilled for 40 years, between two people, one of whom felt no physical attraction for the other and loved only “his mind”. Can any of this form the basis of heterosexual love as most of us know it? Or, rather, doesn’t Florentino’s conduct, as it relates to Fermina, seem idiotic?

As to Physical Love (“love from the waist down”), Florentino is similarly incredible. He has endless affairs and seems to be able to jettison them all with callous indifference. Who among us does not become attached at least to some of the objects of our physical advances? Then, Florentino (the avaricious reader and congenital poet, however devoid of ideals), who is clearly an autobiographical character, when in his 60’s, effectively rapes one of his maids in the hallway, without disrobing himself or her, and “leaves her in a family way”, and never mentions the poor maid again – presumably a peon too inconsequential to resolve in some humane manner. The author implies that this is a triumph of sorts and would have us use and discard the victims of such idle sex, as might an animal in the woods. Similarly, the author has one of Florentino’s mistresses, “a black beauty”, fall prey to a very violent rape on a rocky shoreline, which, upon reflection, she liked, and, thereafter, spent years trying to find this rapist to “spend the rest of her life in his arms”. Really? What percentage of the world’s women truly enjoy rape, especially when violently administered? Can the author really believe what he has written here? Can he have that low an opinion of women? Has he ever even discussed such matters with any woman? To the contrary, rewarding sex, for a woman, seems rather to be the opposite of rape – i.e., an integral part of a tender and loving relationship. (This is not to say that, in their teens, women don’t also possess raging hormones that might lend themselves to indiscriminate sex, but not commonly to enjoyment of rape.) The author makes his “black beauty” as incredible as is Florentino. Then, insult of all insults, the author has a 14-year-old beauty fall in love with the then 70+ year old Florentino, an affair that lasts three years, and ends in the girl’s suicide – precipitated by failing her final exams, after she fell from “number one in her class to last”, putatively precipitated by Florentino’s discontinuance of his weekly sexual intercourse with her. What beautiful, or even ugly, 14-year-old would fall madly in love (i.e., in sex) with a man nearly six decades her senior, much less remain there for three years and not find dozens of more desirable suitors within five minutes of such an old man’s departure? (We are reminded of Nabokov’s infamous Lolita, who casually discarded her 30-year-older lover with impunity.)

In addition to having his female characters enjoy rape by a stranger and sex with a 70-year-old (the dream, no doubt, of our aging author), he has his heroine observe that she didn’t love her son because he was her son but, rather, only later in life, after the son became her friend. If I’ve ever read a misguided male’s perspective, that’s it. 99.9% of all women LOVE their children at birth and ever after. Mother Nature ordains it. Where has Marquez lived and with whom? What women can he have known to present such ludicrous characters? His male characters suffer similar infirmities: A hero who rapes his maid, takes advantage of a 14-year-old and who pines over an unrequited love for 40 years? Another shallow character (Fermina’s husband) observes, “Marriage ends every night after love making ends.” Really? Marquez adds that Fermina and her husband had sex “rarely” after their first year or two, and characterizes this as “the fate of most marriages” and adds, “The challenge of marriage is to overcome boredom.” Really? Even subconsciously, Marquez reveals his disbelief in heterosexual love, when he notes that “The symptoms of love and cholera are the same”; from his plot, we can deduce that he views the efficacy of love and cholera as the same as well. Therein lies the book’s only link between love and cholera. Marquez might better have captioned his book, “Contempt for Heterosexual Love.” (As cholera is rarely mentioned, that word should have been omitted.)

Since it is an English translation from Spanish, although it is a relatively good translation, it still presents the basic issues of translations – unknown levels of inaccuracy and patent problems with syntax that are disruptive of meanings. Those issues aside, the author adds to the sins of his incredible plot and characters yet another literary blunder: He jumps ten, twenty and more years, back and forth, within chapters, paragraphs and even sentences – and he rarely mentions a date. This creates two major issues for the reader: (1) It is impossible to know where the author wants the reader to be, chronologically, and, even worse, (2) it reveals the future of the storyline in snippets, just enough to remove the surprise element throughout. What, then, prompts the reader to want to turn pages? Nothing, save the author’s sterling reputation and the fact that this book comes well-recommended. As an example of the chronological issues throughout, he begins his story almost at its end and works backward (then variously jumps back and forth endlessly); from the first few pages, the reader learns that the early “love” between Florentino and Fermina is ill-fated; then he expends 200 pages explaining the reasons. The author similarly kills the potential intrigue with many aspects of his plot and subplots. There is, therefore, virtually no surprise element in the book, and, at the very end, by the time that the inevitable “union” of F&F takes place, they are ossifying, fetid fossils “with the stench of age”, and the reader could care less, being interested only in finishing the book.

One word best summarizes this book: “incredible”. Marquez appears to be one who has never experienced real heterosexual love and perhaps not exceptional sex either. People who have experienced love, are not likely to fantasize rape, or to believe that anyone really enjoys being raped. Yet, Marquez twice presents happily raped women, even one raped by himself, i.e., by his hero, Florentino. Marquez’s view of love, therefore, is alternately quixotic, poetic, violent, illusory, and lunatic. By the end, this reader would have no interest in even meeting this author. He insults our intelligence and bores us to abstraction. Finally, his obsession with death (and of “being forgotten”), so common among older writers, even with giants like Tolstoy, is also tedious. All of us must die – and be forgotten, the only question is, “When?” The point of daily living is to dwell on The Now, not on death, and to make today better for ourselves and others. In the end, as Seneca opined, “What is so bad about returning to the place from which you came?”

The greatest indictment against Marquez’s LTC is this: He has very little to say about life or people (at least those depicted in this book) that is believable, and, equally unrewarding, his believable ideas are already known to us. Marquez’ reality about life and love in fundamentally negative; but love, sex and life are not all negative; all is not lost; there is joy and hope. Among his last words, in a final attempt at profundity, he concludes, “Love is always love, anytime and any place, but it is more solid the closer it comes to death.” He may finally have spoken a truth, as, in parting, we can sense the imminent loss of what we hold dear.