What do you do when you come up against an author who is pretty clearly established as THE major voice of Latin American fiction of the 20th century? It’s not like I’m going to be able to say anything new here – I’m pretty sure everything that could be said has been said about Márquez. So prepare yourself for some discussion that you’ve probably heard a thousand times before.
When Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies, his widow, Fermina Daza, is met with a letter from her childhood sweetheart, Florentino Ariza. He wants, after sixty odd years, to get back together, and grow old with her. And so our story unfolds, covering the lives of these two people, and how they came to be as they are, all against the background of early twentieth century Colombia.
This is, as the title clearly suggests, a novel about love – but I’m not sure it’s actually a love story. And I think there’s a distinction there that I want to talk about for a bit here. Ostensibly, this is a novel about how Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza (spoliers!) fall in love, fall out of love, and spend their lives with other people. But Márquez does seem to be far more interested in how the concept of “love” actually shapes these two lives, and how it affects the way they interact with the people they meet during their long lives.
Probably the term most people associate with Márquez’s name is magical realism – it almost seems as though you cannot talk about one without the either. Now, either my definition of magical realism is way off, or I’m just really thick. I don’t really see any kind of magical realism in Love in the Time of Cholera. For me, magical realism has always been, essentially, the literary cop out for when a “real” author writes something that has fantastical elements in it, and I usually think that to mean mystical creatures, wizards, or even weird supernatural happenings, a la Murakami. Nothing like that really happens here. In fact, tying it back into what I was talking about above, this is a truly Romantic novel, with a capital R. He’s working with only a few main characters, but the canvas he’s working on is pretty huge, and covers a pretty vast stretch of time. And he does want to deal with the idea of love, and how love affects people – in both positive and negative ways.
The vast majority of the novel hinges around one decision made by an impulsive young girl who, seemingly on a whim, decides that her fairytale romance, conducted almost entirely through letters, is too ridiculous, and ends it. Just like that. One has to wonder what it was that caused her to do this, and it took me a long time to work through it. I still don’t think I really understand the reason for Fermina Daza’s rejection, and it jarred with me for quite a while. Perhaps it was a youth thing. Maybe she thought love couldn’t possibly come to someone as young as her, and so she rejected it, waiting for ‘real’ love to arrive.
Of course, neither Fermina Daza nor Florentino Ariza are happy throughout their lives. Fermina Daza quickly realises that her husband is not someone she particularly likes, and yet remains with him, stubbornly not thinking about what her life could be like. Florentino Ariza, on the other hand, remains obsessed with what might have been, and spends his life waiting for Urbino to die. What interests me most about Ariza is the fact that he can completely dissociate love from sex, so much so that, despite being a giant man whore for the entire novel, he can say to Fermina Daza at the end of it, with a straight face, that he is a virgin, having saved himself for her. His love for her is what sustains him throughout his life, often to his detriment.
Actually, what I find quite ironic about the whole thing is that, having read Roberto Bolaño, and being a pretty big fan, it’s interesting to come back and see what he was reacting against. Bolaño and his crew were all about creating a new kind of South American fiction, one that moved well away from the established voices of Márquez et al. But not really knowing anything about what he was reacting against, it’s nice to come back and see the original stuff. I don’t think this is bad literature – I really enjoyed reading it. But I can understand why someone like Bolaño might get frustrated with Márquez’s work. Márquez sees his world as a truly Romantic place, where love abounds, and there is a romanticised view of the town in which these characters live. Despite the name, cholera is only ever a spectre here. And it is kind of safe. I don’t know if that’s just ’cause I’m reading it 25 years after the fact, but it doesn’t feel revolutionary or genre-bendingly.
And I’ve decided I have to stop reading blurbs. Every time I read one, the twist in the middle of the novel is spoiled, or it is only tangentially related to what the novel is about. Seriously, people.