Reading Update: Love in the Time of Cholera

And so, another week begins.  As I mentioned yesterday, this is the week of conferences in Chicago and filming my Welcome Video, so suffice it to say, I’m not necessarily thrilled it’s Monday.  Currently, I’m lounging on the couch, actively resisting starting my day, which is unfortunate since my laziness will most likely kick my ass later (long to-do list).  But no matter.  Since I’ll most likely over-work myself today, I’ve decided to start the day by writing a review of Love in the Time of Cholera in the hopes that doing something I enjoy will motivate me to get off the couch.  We’ll see.

I have to tell you:  it was SUCH a relief to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, what with all the time I’ve spent recently on shitty books.  The Bourne Identity?  Didn’t do anything for me, except lower my faith in the general book-reading public.  And now, Djibouti by Elmore Leonard?  I haven’t even hit the 100th page, but every time I pick it up, I have the overwhelming urge to dropkick it to the curb (I know I said I wouldn’t mention the book until my review was published on Patch, but it’s getting hard to keep my opinions to myself).

But Love in the Time of Cholera?  Ahhhh.  There’s a certain demographic that feels relief when they crack open the spine of a juicy, escape-worthy romance novel.  That’s how I feel with literary fiction, particularly classics.  The return to quality!  Compound sentences!  Complex themes!  Groundbreaking prose that speaks for a generation of writers!  I’m reminded that books are published because they are the work of genius, and that some authors can transcend time and international boundaries in their near-perfect exploration of the human spirit.

This isn’t necessarily what I think of Garcia Marquez, but it’s pretty damn close.  Love in the Time of Cholera is about one thing: love.  Why do we suffer from it?  Is “lovesickness” really a disease?  In what forms (especially the perverted ones) does it manifest itself?  What effect does age have on our ability to love both emotionally and physically?

Love in the Time of Cholera tells what appears to be a simplistic story:  Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love when they’re very young, but Fermina’s tyrannical father forbids the marriage.  Fermina eventually marries a charming doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who loves her more for her haughtiness, and she becomes wealthy and well-known, in a marriage that everyone assumes is happy.  Meanwhile, Florentino is heartbroken at Fermina’s marriage, but goes through life determined to win her back.

Ah, but Garcia Marquez once said his novel was “a trap,” and one must be wary of falling into it.  First, there’s the cholera.  Florentino Ariza, Fermina Daza and Juvenal Urbino are colonists living in an unnamed Caribbean port city, and since Garcia Marquez was Columbian, I assume his characters are South American as well.  From the first moment Florentino Ariza lays eyes on Fermina Daza, til the time of Juvenal Urbino’s death, a cholera epidemics ravages the countryside, leaving the jungle landscape littered with bodies.  And yet, it not physical illness that ails Garcia Marquez’s protagonists, but lovesickness.  After learning of Fermina’s marriage, Florentino spends weeks isolated, shivering on a cot, close to dying.  He vomits after eating flowers, trying to capture Fermina’s scent.  The man also suffers from chronic constipation his whole life, a malady closely aligned with his years of yearning.

Then, there is the different forms of love, and how much of what we assume of it is far from the truth.  Society sees Fermina Daza and Juvenal Urbino’s marriage as stable and happy.  And yet, only a few years into their marriage, both are forced to return to Paris—the site of their honeymoon—in order to rekindle what love they have left.  On more than one occasion, Fermina Daza leaves.  Juvenal Urbino has several affairs.  And yet, the novel opens with scenes from the couple’s last days; both are in their 70s or 80s, and have become so accustomed to and dependent on the other’s presence, there’s no other word for it than love.

Garcia Marquez deconstructs the notion of “love” even further in the character of Florentino Ariza, who has been compared by scholars to Humbert Humbert from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.  Readers may be tempted to fall into Garcia Marquez’s “trap” and sympathizing with his star-crossed lover, charmed as they are by his dedication to his first love.  And yet, Florentino Ariza is actually portrayed as a rather strange man, reserved, obsessed with preserving himself, an assumed homosexual, and yet with voracious appetites.  We are privy to hundreds of Florentino’s nightly affairs, including ones with amorous widows, married women, and even young girls.  Toward the end, we learn that 78-year-old Florentino has been entrusted with the guardianship of a 14-year-old girl.  A sexual relationship develops between the two, beginning with him coaxing her to lick honey off his penis.  This is not the portrait of a romantic hero, but a pervert and sex-addict.  And yet, Florentino constantly justifies his actions with his melancholy and almost holy pursuit of Fermina Daza.  He never marries, “saving himself” for Fermina.  And yet, when they finally consummate their relationship, he lies and tells her he’s a virgin.  The clash between physical and emotional love is never fully reconciled (at least, in my view), and yet is ever present our idealized conception of love.

I enjoyed Love in the Time of Cholera immensely, even if I didn’t *get* all the academic theories.  The book was a pleasant read, and I loved how Garcia Marquez shifts voices and moves through time, all without breaking the narrative’s rhythm.  It’s a flowing, free-form narrative that feels as if all the main players are sitting in a room with you, interrupting each other, reminiscing, turning over the main events of their lives over and over again until they are as smooth as a river rock.  Their final conclusions hardly matter as much as their discussions thereof.  It’s a form that doesn’t lend itself to reliable narration, but in this case, it doesn’t matter.

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