May Bookclub Review: Love in the Time of Cholera
Published by Penguin
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
Fifty-one years, nine months and four days have passed since Fermina Daza rebuffed hopeless romantic Florentino Ariza’s impassioned advances and married Dr Juvenal Urbino instead. During that half-century, Florentino has fallen into the arms of many delighted women, but has loved none but Fermina. Having sworn his eternal love to her, he lives for the day when he can court her again.
When Fermina’s husband is killed trying to retrieve his pet parrot from a mango tree, Florentino seizes his chance to declare his enduring love. But can young love find new life in the twilight of their lives?
Love in the Time of Cholera is ultimately an allegory for the different stages of love. With sparse dialogue and carefully placed prose (none of the lyrical, wandering paragraphs feel superfluous), you come to understand the generations of love that occur, and the powerful selfishness that the feeling inspires. Florentino Ariza has loved Fermina Daza for decades – from the heady heights of blind passion in youth, to the iron-willed determination of middle-age, to the patience and quiet acceptance of old age. He has never wavered in his love (though in his passions, that’s quite a different matter) and when Fermina Daza’s husband, Dr Juvenal Urbino, dies trying to rescue his pet parrot, Florentino Ariza makes his move… again.
Gabriel García Márquez is famous for being the godfather of magical realism. And, in some respects, this novel holds true to that fact – there is the perfume of the mystical about it. This unnamed city (arguably Barranquilla in Colombia) sits on the banks of the Magdalena River on the Caribbean coast, and is filled with the decaying inevitability of old age, a pestilential heat, and a romance that infects anyone that lives there; filled with scribes writing hasty love letters and the tolling of the bells. It’s hard not to imagine some fantastical city held in time, where nothing changes but magical things can happen.
Hovering in the background is civil war and cholera – the ever-present threat of reality – and you are never allowed to forget it. Márquez invokes a unique reading experience – his frequent use of “we” and “our” sets the narrator firmly within the story, without ever invading the novel. You feel like the final chapter should be told by the narrator in a way that shows they were present for this, they bore witness to the story and now they are telling it to their grandchildren. But the narrator never appears. Instead, it is almost as if the narrator is taking you by the hand so that you can bear witness, acting as your guide in an exotic, confusing city that only the locals can decipher. It is the friendliest, the most comforting of narrations I have ever come across.
As for the characters, although we stay with the timid Florentino Ariza for the most part, it is Fermina Daza and Dr Juvenal Urbino that I love the most. Florentino Ariza, for all his poetic ways, is simply an obsessive, prone to preying on weak women and florid writing, with no head for business and yet becomes president of the family river boat company. He is far luckier than the story would imply.
Yet Fermina Daza, as an impetuous young woman and an imperious older woman, is also a realist. She is stoic, with the coy below-surface passion that causes both Florentino Ariza and Dr Juvenal Urbino to fall in love with her. Dr Juvenal Urbino, too, is a realist. When he dares to pay attention to flights of fancy, he soon discovers his mistake when he returns from Paris to discover his home is not the romanticised Latin port he had thought, but a decaying town slumped next to a river. Their love, from all the descriptions of love, is the one I most like. It is simple, occasionally explosive, enduring and companionable.
Florentino Ariza’s love for Fermina Daza, on the other hand, causes him to eat rose petals and prey on the vulnerable. It is tempestuous, and it is remarkable to survive over fifty years at all. In fact, when he finally achieves his goal to be with Fermina Daza, there is a certain feeling of anti-climax. They are not the children they once were, despite his desperation to recapture that, and he must learn to love her in a different way.
This is a haunting novel that enjoys (and even encourages) being read several times over. Each reading evokes something new, and each time I have read it, I have found myself taking different sides. As a teen, I most sympathised with the tortured soul of Florentino Ariza. Now, it is the self-assured Fermina Daza. The different generations of love mean this is a fluid novel, one that is different each time, because you are looking for a different kind of love with each read.
Márquez explores the love of youth, of old age, of grief, of absence, of motherhood, friendship and sex. All the while, he holds together these three characters as human depictions of love itself, with its flaws and fears, its glorious moments and its less than savoury ones. This book feels like it is a lesson in love, what it should feel like and how to know when you are feeling it, rather than a story of three lives. But in the end, you learn that you can’t expect love or life to be any one way, but thousands of ways. Probably all at once.
“She had never imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love.”
— Love in the Time of Cholera
What did you think of Love in the Time of Cholera?