Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

Love in the Time of Cholera
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez
Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
New York: Penguin Books, 1999

Review Copyright © 2001 Garret Wilson — 5 May 2001 7:00 a.m.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a profound novel. It's not that one can immediately feel its depth, although Gabriel García Márquez somehow reaches beyond his native Spanish through an English translation to immediately evoke a sense of awe, of intense, inevitable sadness from the opening pages. It is profound because his novel gains tenacity from its examination of the grandeur of the most fleeting of commodities: life

If a reader weren't careful, he or she might easily identify the melancholious aura that arises from the pages as the smells of impending doom, as the "scent of bitter almonds" foreshadowing the "fate of unrequited love" (3) that would surely urge Florentino Ariza to take his own life after the ultimate rejection of Fermina Daza. But that would be an incorrect assumption. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour did not take his life because of love, but because of the fear of old age. It was, as Dr. Juvenal Urbino realized, "the first [suicide by] cyanide that had not been caused by the sufferings of love" (5)

It is Jeremiah de Saint-Amour's motivation for death that pervades the book from its opening pages: the inevitability of time and its consequences. The aura descends immediately, bringing an oppressing feeling of an unchangeable destination. The feeling, perhaps, could be compared to that found in Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, but strangely its melancholy emanates from a sweet recognition of a life among many bound for death, of the happiness that may or may not be recognized as such.

In the case of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, it should be cleared up at the outset: the young lover with his letters does not succeed in winning the heart of Fermina Daza. No, the two people who find each other in the fading twilight of their days are completely different people than the young lovers seeking fleeting images. "It was," as Márquez notes, "the first time in half a entury that they had been so close and had enough time to look at each other with some serenity, and they had seen each other for what they were: two old people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer theirs but belonged to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their grandchildren" (305-306).

It's not for certain that Fermina Daza was really enraptured with Florentino Ariza from the start. Fermina responding to Florentino's writings with "distracted letters, intended to keep the coals alive without putting her hand in the fire, while Florentino Ariza burned himself alive in every line" (69). This passage, one of the few places where Márquez's pervading lyricism turns into witty poetry, illustrates a certain stubbornness of Fermina, a refusal to fully involve herself in the joys of her life. It was the same air of noncommitment that would cause her for most of her life to smoke only in the bathroom, even in her married years. Her refusal to admit being impressed was evident when she later "returned home overwhelmed by so many experiences, tired of traveling, drowsy with her pregnancy, the first thing she was asked in the port was what she thought of the marvels of Europe, and she summed up many months of bliss with four words of Caribbean slang: 'It's not so much'" (163).

But if Fermina was trying to fool the world, Florentino was consumed with fooling himself. Fermina Daza's claim that Florentino Ariza was not in love with her, that he was merely infatuated with some ethereal concept of the woman perfect for him, is certainly not baseless. Florentino wanted something deeply, but he wanted the objects of his desire to be just the way he expected it.

Fermina's first rejection of Florentino came at such a point, when he greeted her with a rebuke for her presence by saying, "This is not the place for a crowned goddess" (102). His attempt to enclose her in his own conception of her was frequently evident, even as they both grew older: "Florentino Ariza felt himself in agreement with the person whose comments he heard above the din, to the effect that [riding in a balloon] was not a suitable exploit for a woman, least of all one as old as Fermina Daza" (225-226).

What makes the novel somewhat of a mystery — or perhaps what the novel brings out about the mysteries of living — is the meaning of happiness, its recognition, and whether one can be substituted for the other. More perplexing still, Márquez seems to invoke a certain synonymity between "happiness" and "destiny": both are sought by the characters, both are gained, but it's not clear that both did not arrive throughout their lives but were not recognized as such.

As Love in the Time of Cholera makes clear, Fermina Daza's marriage to Dr. Juvenal Urbino could not be seen as unhappy or even unsuccessful. It could even be said to have had its place in Fermina's life, even to have been the right destiny at that portion of her life. Likewise Florentino certainly experienced various "relationships", and it's just as clear that there were many instances of valid, meaningful feelings that, many times, Florentino ignored, resisted, and even subordinated to his "love" for the image of the schoolgirl sweetheart of his youth.

What Love in the Time of Cholera makes clear is that none of these things are lasting, neither youth nor the love of it. Love never remains because people change, and if love exists it is because it has changed with the time that has changed those involved. Time, Márquez seems to stress, is inevitable, along with the changes it brings. Death also is inevitable. It's clear that the recognition of the inevitability of death is inevitable as well. If Love in the Time of Cholera holds further messages, one may be that even love is inevitable. Maybe Márquez is explaining that it's the conflict between the inevitability of death, its inevitable recognition, and the recognition of love and happiness that brings the sweet sadness of life that's present from the moment he writes the first word until he ends with, "Forever."