Love in the Time of Cholera
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.
The doctor himself unfortunately doesn’t have much time to wonder, since he dies later the same day in a ridiculous accident, trying to recapture an escaped parrot. And this is the second narrative lure we have already stumbled into. The story we hear at length in the first part of the book is not that of the corpse, as the initial plot moves seem to promise, but that of the doctor and his city and his day. In the rest of the book we hear little more of the corpse or of its earlier life, but a great deal more about the doctor, and his wife/widow, and the indefatigable, obsessive fellow who has been in love with her for the amount of time so carefully detailed above.
The corpse is that of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, an escaped convict turned photographer, who killed himself at the age of sixty (not seventy, as the translation says, anxious perhaps to stick to the traditional human span) because he had decided long ago that he did not want to live beyond that age. Sadly, at the end he found himself regretting his resolve, but couldn’t think of changing it—“as the date approached he had gradually succumbed to despair as if his death had been not his own decision but an inexorable destiny.” This is an important phrase. Love in the Time of Cholera, like García Márquez’s other novels, is an exploration of destiny, but of this kind of destiny: the kind we invent and displace and fear and desperately live up to or die for.
The setting of this novel is an ancient city on the Caribbean coast of Latin America, the former favorite residence of the viceroys of the New Kingdom of Granada. The city is not named, but is a composite picture, García Márquez has said, of Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Barranquilla, places in Colombia where he spent much of his early life. It has a cathedral, a former slave quarter, and a grim colonial building which once housed the Inquisition and now (a detail that perhaps nods toward the shade of Buñuel) is occupied by a severely Catholic girls’ school. The place resembles Haiti and Cuba because of the sea and the heat and the tropic and the life of the port; it is connected to a colder, mountainous Latin America through its language and its history of empire and independence and civil war. There is much talk of river navigation, of manatees and caimans sporting on the muddy banks of the Magdalena, as well as of ships passing for New Orleans, and of fabulous galleons sunk by English pirates as late as the early eighteenth century. Joseph Conrad is mentioned as involved in an arms deal, the doctor studies in Paris with Dr. Adrien Proust, the father of the novelist. We hear of Dreyfus, the new waltzes of Johann Strauss, the première of The Tales of Hoffmann, the screening of a film called Cabiria.
The country is not named either, but it has Colombia’s Liberals and Conservatives (the only difference between a Liberal president and a Conservative president, a character says, sounding like Colonel Aureliano Buendía in One Hundred Years of Solitude, is that the Liberal is not as well dressed), its War of a Thousand Days, which took place in 1899–1902, and plenty of towns and rivers that would allow us to find our way on an actual map of Colombia. It even anticipates the terrible peacetime violence for which Colombia has become notorious since 1947, a chaotic, wholesale murdering by crooks and guerrillas and the police and the army, a butchery that lacks even the historical shape of a civil war but is nonetheless real for that. When the Violence (as it is simply, sparely called) was taken to be more or less under control, by 1962, there were still some two hundred civilian deaths occurring each month. It appears here grimly, casually, almost silently, as it does in García Márquez’s other books, this time in the shape of corpses floating down river toward the sea, a strange, unaccountable sight, “for there were no more wars or epidemics.” Like many other words in this book, and in the historical Latin America it evokes, this clause is both true and deceptive. There are no more epidemics, and we are near the end of the novel. But cholera still exists, even if only endemically, so the time of cholera continues in that sense. There is nothing going on that can really be called a war, unless we insist on the “larval wars that governments were bent on hiding with distracted decrees.” But there is random killing, a plague as lethal as any other.
The time of the novel is the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries. A recent event is a showing of the movie All Quiet on the Western Front, which was released in 1930 but may have reached Latin America a little later. More precisely, the present of the novel is just under two years in the 1930s, when all the principal characters are quite old, a lot older than Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, and have no thought of taking his view of things; and there are extensive flashbacks that give us the youth and backgrounds and long lives of these people.
The book has been compared to a naturalist novel and to a photograph album. It’s a lot more like the second than like the first, but we might like to pause over the idea of a sophisticated, affectionate naturalist novel, an evocation of an old, grubby, rigid world for its own sad and charming sake, and not for any grim Zolaesque demonstration it might permit. This is a place where an oldfashioned mother can castigate even the contents of her daughter-in-law’s sleep: “A decent woman cannot have that kind of dream.” The doctor, returning to the city from a long stay in Europe, can hate its filth and its rats and its disease and its backwardness, but still love it enough to look at it straight:
“How noble this city must be,” he would say, “for we have spent four hundred years trying to finish it off and we still have not succeeded.”
From the paupers’ cemetery, one can look down on
the entire historic city, the broken roofs and the decaying walls, the rubble of fortresses among the brambles, the trail of islands in the bay, the hovels of the poor around the swamps, the immense Caribbean.
This is not a romantic vision, but it is a way one might talk of home, and the English prose, incidentally, is a good example of the effectiveness and fluency of this translation.
There is much discussion of reading in the book, of the doctor’s European culture (he is a fan of Loti and Anatole France), of poetry competitions, and above all of the sentimental romances and poems through which so many people conduct so much of their imaginative lives—what García Márquez calls versos y folletins de lágrimas, sensibly rendered by Edith Grossman as “verses and tearful serialized love stories.” A central character immerses himself in books, reads everything from Homer to the lousiest local poets:
But he made no distinctions; he read whatever came his way, as if it had been ordained by fate, and despite his many years of reading, he still could not judge what was good and what was not in all that he read. The only thing clear to him was that he preferred verse to prose, and in verse he preferred love poems.
García Márquez’s implication, I take it, is not exactly that this is an ideal reader, but that there are many worse, and that serious, critical readers are often the worst of all. The language of the book itself, as I have suggested, is that of fate and broken hearts and eternal passions, of “mists of grief” and “delirious spring”; of “private hell” and “the desert of insomnia”; of blood pounding in the veins and “eternal night on a dark sea.” Yet the effect, finally, is neither pastiche nor straight imitation but a form of homage to popular literature, an acknowledgement of the truths of feeling it catches in its often soupy prose. And the prose here is not soupy, in spite of the phrases I’ve just quoted; stately rather, a graceful orchestration of old verbal tunes.
What distinguishes this novel from the sentimental work it continuously alludes to is not irony or distance but a certain persistent lucidity. This is not a tearful text; just scrupulously loyal to tearful stories, only occasionally murmuring words like “fallacy” and “illusion.” If it moved faster it would have to judge summarily, settle issues, could hardly avoid the recourse to irony. As it is, time and our patience situate the events and the characters. A girl, for example, is suddenly sure that what she thought was love is nothing of the kind. She looks at the suitor she has not seen for some time and feels not the passion she has been diligently nurturing but only an “abyss of disenchantment,” desencanto, one of those wonderfully mournful Spanish words we find both in Baroque poems and lingering as the names of modern streets and lanes. Is she right, or is her great disenchantment just ordinary disappointment, of the kind lovers often feel after absences? She is probably wrong, and the text, much later, hints that she is. For the moment, though, she is sure she is right, acts on her feeling, condemns her suitor to a lifetime’s despair; moreover, since she is not a person who can admit mistakes, she will in her own terms always have been right, whatever shifts of feeling may take place in what this novel calls her heart.
When García Márquez writes of her “discovery,” and of the “correctness” of her decision, the words are simple and clear, but several meanings have piled up in them. They point, among other things, to a conviction that alters reality and then takes that alteration as proof of the conviction’s justice. A form of destiny. Conversely, the suitor thinks of himself as someone who has “loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had”; in spite of the fact that he has slept with hundreds of other women (he has a list of 622, but there are other affairs too casual to be registered), and even loved some of them. His fidelity is like her certainty, clear to its possessor, questionable to others. By fidelity he means being unable to forget or replace his first love, and being able to ensure that news of his apparent infidelities doesn’t reach her. And the great romantic moment of the book is also a great climax of hypocrisy. The old boy has kept his antics so quiet that he is able to say, casually and with a steady voice, like a character in a truly terrible novel, “I’ve remained a virgin for you.” His partner, as it happens, doesn’t believe him for an instant, even though she knows nothing of his six hundred plus adventures, but she too is fond of romance and likes “the spirited way in which he said it.”
García Márquez has very much made one kind of suspense his own. It consists in giving away conclusions, and leaving the reader to guess at how they are reached. The moves are often surprising, and I won’t spill all the beans, but only say that the trick characteristically involves removing most of the plausible narrative props, making us dizzily wonder whether already reached conclusions actually can be reached. It is another way of playing with destiny. Liberty creeps into unlikely human spaces, even what has happened seems doubtful, and hindsight, surely the safest of all forms of prophecy, turns risky.
Thus we know in this novel that the couple I have just evoked do not marry when young, since we first meet them at the ludicrous death of her husband, the doctor. The suitor is now seventy-six, she is seventy-two. He has been waiting, since she first turned him down, for “fifty-one years, nine months, and four days”—a little less than two years short of the final count we have already seen. We learn of their courtship, his numerous affairs, her marriage to the doctor, the doctor’s single, scared infidelity, the lovers’ happy, belated, foolish reconciliation, old skeletons still able to dance and get frightened at their feelings—though then we are told, in a fine phrase, that they wonder what they are doing “so far from their youth,” and that their relation is “beyond love,” because it is “beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion”—desengaño, another of those great Spanish words for cheated desire, caught up again in an ancient rhetoric of suspicion of the world.
What we can’t picture, what we must follow page by page, is how any of this can actually come about, how obstacles are removed, how people can bring themselves to say and act as they must to ensure the named developments. García Márquez’s formality is impeccable here, a slow joke in its own right. He almost always refers to the doctor by his full name and title, for example: Dr. Juvenal Urbino. His wife invariably appears under her Christian name and maiden name, Fermina Daza; her stubborn lover under his Christian name and family name, Florentino Ariza. No modern intimacies of appellation. The text is not solemn. There are sly gags, fantastic images, and abrupt violences; a group of brothers called after popes (Leon XII, Pius V, and so on); a baby carried around in a bird cage; a woman discovered in adultery and murdered by her husband without a word; a ghost who waves from the river bank; a black doll that silently, eerily grows, becoming too big for its dress and its shoes; a suicide for love (with laudanum, though, another blow to the doctor’s theory). But the prose is unruffled, affects not to notice anything untoward. This is a stylistic act, of course, but the chief feature of the act is its discretion. Irony would be too strong a word for the almost invisible humor, the scent of skepticism in the following sentence: “He was a perfect husband: he never picked up anything from the floor, or turned out a light, or closed a door.” Such a husband is perfect in one respect: not a chink between him and the myth.
The time of cholera, which is over and not over, is the time of romantic love. Love is like cholera, we are told several times in the book, even its physical symptoms, dizziness, nausea, fever, and the rest, can be the same. Like cholera, love is mortal, exclusive (because it separates us from our world), and undiscriminating (because it doesn’t care what kind of victims it gets). García Márquez is fond of telling interviewers that the book he took with him when he first left Colombia for Europe was Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year—an anecdote which apart from doubtless being true suggests an interest in communities doomed to clinical isolation. The community here is the teeming Caribbean city, not the backland of Macondo, but it is also the community of all those, in Latin America and elsewhere, who are perhaps too keen on morbid metaphors of love. Love is a disease in this book, and this is a romantic novel; but the disease is one of the self-deluding, stubborn will, a fruit of mythology and obstinacy rather than any fate beyond ourselves.
Indeed the word itself becomes subject to a kind of creative disintegration or dissemination. At first and most prominently used to evoke the unique, histrionic, weepy passion, the endless topic of soap operas and folletíns, the kind of thing that drives people to death through cyanide, it gradually attaches itself to quite various human activities and affections: a long marriage, for example, begun without love, and then finding it and losing it and finding it; the “emergency love,” the “hurried love” peddled in brothels; the “loveless love” of desperate people; love for a city, as we have seen; the love of children, love of food, love for life. The first of Florentino Ariza’s many mistresses teaches him that “nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love.” Florentino Ariza himself thinks at one point, “The heart has more rooms than a whorehouse,” a secular twist on the rumored many mansions of heaven.
The heart: home of sentiment and dream and nostalgia, but also of more erratic, unpredictable emotions, the place where life itself can always turn up and surprise us. Love is the name for attractive and disreputable impulses as well as for all the noble enchantments and illusions, the encantos and engaños, with which we garnish our insufficiently romantic times. If love were always and only a disease, it could only be because life is. Writers have suggested this, but García Márquez is not one of those writers.