Heartsick

Love in the Time of Cholera

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Edith Grossman
Knopf, 348 pp., $18.95

The most casual reader, of García Márquez notes his fondness for numbers. There are one hundred years of solitude, and in the novel of that name the rain pours down on Macondo for exactly four years, eleven months, and two days. A traveler circles the earth sixty-five times. Gargantuan eaters consume for breakfast eight quarts of coffee, thirty raw eggs, and the juice of forty oranges. The numbers call up an air of legend, a precision that mildly mocks the idea of precision. But numbers can also suggest patience, an intimacy with the slow seepage of time. Closer to the numerical flavor of his new novel (published in Spanish in 1985), the sad and long-suffering hero of No One Writes to the Colonel needs, we are told, every counted minute of the seventy-five years of his life to arrive at the simple word that summarizes both his defeats and his dignity, his refusal to accept the unacceptable. He is a courteous, old-fashioned man, and has earlier rebuked a group of local youths for swearing. At last, however, nothing short of rude anger will do. “Mierda,” the colonel says.

Love in the Time of Cholera ends on a milder phrase, but one that has been similarly stored, one that similarly reflects an arithmetic of obstinacy and concentration. A captain asks how long he can be expected to keep his boat going up and down a tropical river, and the answer he receives has been brewing for “fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.” It is an answer that looks forward as well as backward: “Forever.”

It takes the reader some time to get here too, and I found myself counting pages occasionally, the way the characters count years and months. Good stories are best told slowly, Thomas Mann says, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and Mann may not be the ideal witness in such a cause. García Márquez really needs the snail’s pace he sets, I think, but we are probably going to need some patience to understand his need.

The book begins with a corpse, and the scent of almonds, which indicates death by cyanide. “It was inevitable,” the doctor thinks who is examining the body, “the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” Inevitable, fate, love: we are reading the opening sentence of the book, and we seem already to be deep in an oldfashioned romantic novel. So we are, but we are also caught in the first of García Márquez’s narrative lures. What is inevitable is not that deaths by cyanide should be those of lovers, but that the doctor should think of such deaths. This one in fact is the first cyanide death he can recall that has nothing to do with love, unrequited or requited. It is not an exception that proves the rule but an unruly event that makes us wonder whether we know what the game is …

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