It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
So opens the masterful Love in the Time of Cholera. Dr Juvenal Urbino has been called to the suicide of a man he played chess with. It is an interesting structural choice made by Marquez, to start the novel with someone other than the two main protagonists, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, whose relationship is the core of the story. And yet there is much to be gleaned from that one sentence. For, as it turns out, when we go back fifty years to find Florentino and Fermina’s youthful love, their few face-to-face meetings are held beneath almond blossoms… [p64]:
Years later, when [Florentino] tried to remember what the maiden idealized by the alchemy of poetry really was like, he could not distinguish her from the heart-rending twilights of those times. Even when he observed her, unseen, during those days of longing when he waited for a reply to his first letter, he saw her transfigured in the afternoon shimmer oftwo o’clockin a shower of blossoms from the almond trees where it was always April regardless of the season of the year.
The above passage tells you all you need to know about Marquez’s lyricism. There is a sense of the magical everywhere, from winds so strong they carry away small children, to dolls at the ends of beds that seem to grow as a child would.
Unfortunately for Florentino, those almond blossoms are indeed the very factory of unrequited love, for Fermina rejects his amorous advances and settles instead for Dr Urbino. Not to be deterred, Florentino decides to ‘wait’ for Fermina, to prove his love was real. Of course, his ‘wait’ is quite idiosyncratic – he proceeds to engage in love affairs with some 622 woman over many years, some more involved than others. It is during these long decades that we see a different side of Florentino’s obsessive love, for some of his (many) trysts have perverse and tragic outcomes: there are women who love him but know that he is unobtainable, there is one who is killed by her husband after he finds out the truth of her affair, and there is the fourteen year old girl, America, who is placed in his care as his ward, and whom he seduces into a relationship which ends with predictably harrowing results. There is also the realisation that the Riverboat Company that he has run for most of his adult years has destroyed the luxuriant rainforest along the river. And yet, despite these very human frailties and the collateral damage they cause, we want Florentino to win, to get his girl.
Meanwhile, life has dealt Fermina some of her own lessons. She realises, only after Juvenal’s death, that he conducted an affair during their marriage, and was not really the man he seemed at first to be.
So we see love in all its guises and disguises. We see, also, one of the great ideas of the novel: the celebration of ageing and how love can conquer time.
Of course, the other side of the word ‘cholera’ is ‘choler’, being “anger; irritability”. So while we have the over-arching love theme set against the backdrop of the cholera epidemics that sweep through the townships along the Magdalena River, we also have a darker side, expressed in the never-ending civil war, and there are times when victims of one are confused with victims of the other. It is one of Dr Urbino’s goals to improve the sanitation of the city and townships and rid the country of the recurrent epidemics.
Few other authors can match Marquez for the evocative depiction of setting, in this case a tropical city on theMagdalenaRiverinColumbia.
Take for instance this example, [p17]:
In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best-protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.
And this… [p120]:
There was a full moon. The patio, idealized by anisette, floated at the bottom of an aquarium, and the cages covered with cloths looked like ghosts sleeping under the hot scent of new orange blossoms.
The difficulty is in not quoting more, for there is something on every page that I’ve found myself underlining and pondering.
Love in the Time of Cholera is right up there with One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is so much to like about it, from the deliciously magical images, to the mirth, the darkness, the poetic themes, the many faces of love, and the sublime ending. I’m an idealist, so the notion that love can win over time is for me a comforting thought.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
(translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman)
Source: personal library, (aka ‘the bookshelf rainbow’)