Christopher Bram: Love in the Time of Garcia Marquez

Garcia Marquez. Foto: The Douglas Brothers; Copyright Harper-Perennial


November 12, 2007

I am rereading Love in the Time of Cholera, in part because of Draper’s recent pleasure in the book, in part to feed my new novel, and because I’m afraid that if I see the upcoming Mike Newell movie I will never be able to read the book again without seeing his images.

I first read the book five years ago. I see it more whole this time. The class issues read more clearly. Two people from the lower classes, Fermina and Florentino, fall in love, but Fermina marries up in the world with Dr. Urbino. Yet she’s not consciously ambitious. And one of many fine twists is that Garcia Marquez gives her a happy marriage while Florentino pines from afar. (In fact, he gives both protagonists good lives while we wait for love to be requited.)

The book is constructed out of endless shaggy dog stories: elaborately woven rugs of situation that are abruptly pulled out from both reader and character. Some of the stories are playful, such as Florentino’s long, lushly described journey upriver to his new job to escape Fermina, only to turn around and return to the coast as soon as he arrives. Others are tragic, such as the affair with Olimipia Zuleta that abruptly ends when her husband cuts her throat. But the chief shaggy dog story is quite profound, the central plot itself: Florentino courts Fermina with letters, nothing but letters, for four years, overcoming all obstacles. Then one day, in the marketplace, in a single paragraph, Fermina sees him up close and love dies. “Instead of the commotion of love, she felt the abyss of disenchantment.” It’s brutally perfect. These two young people barely know each other. They’re in love only with the idea of love. (But aren’t we all, the book seems to say. This is playfully illustrated in Florentino’s second career as an author of love letters. Love is so general, so formulaic, that he can conduct both sides of a romantic epistolary duet between two people he doesn’t know.)

Again I am struck by the language, Garcia Marquez’s elegant sentences that mix pretty ideals and prosaic reality. “After his erratic experience with the Widow Nazaret, which opened the door to street love, he continued to hunt the abandoned little birds of the night for several years, still hoping to find a cure for the pain of Fermina Daza. But by then he could no longer tell if his habit of fornicating without hope was a mental necessity or a simple vice of the body.”

November 13, 2007

The book defeats the old argument of “show, don’t tell.” The book is almost all telling, but it’s storytelling, which is a very different animal.

I spoke too soon about Fermina’s happy marriage. Florentino and the town assume the Urbinos are happy. However, after the honeymoon trip to Europe, Fermina is trapped in a sad household with Dr. Urbino’s awful mother, who forces her to eat eggplant. The old lady finally dies, and the pair reinvent happiness, rediscover love. “Together they had overcome the daily incomprehension, the instantaneous hatred, the reciprocal nastiness and fabulous flashes of glory in the conjugal conspiracy. It was the time when they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity.”

Under the many jokes, there is real experience of married life here. And despite the insistent, lighthearted cartoonyness, there is genuine sorrow, too. Something real is always at stake in the novel’s contest between domestic and romantic love. (The novel makes an interesting companion to Anna Karenina, more comic and tolerant yet ultimately as serious and sad.)

November 14, 2007

Garcia Marquez loves his stories, and he deftly packs one inside another. The mystery of Fermina’s two-year exile in San Juan de la Cienaga is slowly explained with the tale of Dr. Urbino’s affair with Miss Barbara Lynch, the black Protestant. The episode is remarkably fair to all parties involved. We know what Florentino doesn’t when he finally sees the two at an outdoor screening of Cabiria and realizes that they are growing old, not just the doctor but he and his beloved. There’s a lovely series of pages on Florentino’s loss of hair, teeth, and his changing wardrobe.

(Draper thinks Fermina is a bitch because she’s mean to Florentino. I find her quite sympathetic, first in her disenchantment, and later after the death of the doctor when she tells Florentino to leave her alone. From her point of view, Florentino is a pest–although from his point of view, I guess she is a bitch.)

November 15, 2007

My friend Michael Bronski likes to say that gay people and straight people are exactly alike, but straight people lie about what they want. There are, however, many straight novelists who tell the truth about love. Garcia Marquez is one, especially here. Many gay men would have no trouble seeing themselves in Florentino’s shoes.

Florentino has one last “consolation” lover, his fourteen-year-old goddaughter, America Vicuna. (I will bet she’s left out of the movie.) He is in bed with her when he hears the church bells announcing the death of Dr. Urbino.

Another novelist would give us a simple happy ending here: Patience wins, true love triumphs. But Garcia Marquez complicates it wonderfully. First there is Fermina’s anger. She really does mourn her husband. Florentino is a phantom from her past whom she resents, a vampire loitering at the cemetery. He interprets her angry letter as proof that she really does love him, which she does, but she hates him, too. Second, there is America. A law of love is that one almost never triumphs without somebody else losing. Success will be built on sorrow. (One of the moral surprises of the novel is that Fermina and Florentino aren’t punished because a child suffers.)

November 19, 2007

The love affair ends as it began, in letters. Florentino writes again to Fermina, only these le tters are more modern, less romantic, and composed on a typewriter. They are never quoted but we’re told they’re less subjective, less lyrical, more about life as a whole. We believe in their wisdom without ever seeing them chiefly because they help Fermina through her grief.

The letters go on for over a year, without being answered, before the two lovers meet again. It’s a slow-motion happy ending, Garcia Marquez taking his sweet time, which adds an element of suspense: what if one of the lovers dies before they reconcile?

Finally, they take their boat journey, Fermina wanting to escape town because she’s distraught over the gutter press lies that Dr. Urbino and her best friend were lovers, and revelations about her father’s crooked life. Her son and daughter take different stands on the romantic friendship of their mother and Florentino. “Love is ridiculous at our age,” says Ofelia, “but at theirs it is revolting.”

And still Garcia Marquez takes his time. The boat trip begins in beauty–“the breathing boat carried her toward the splendor of the day’s first roses”–but grows unpleasant as they go upstream. The forests have been cut down for fuel; the parrots and monkeys are gone. Fermina hears about the death of a manatee. She hears about an old couple beaten to death. Yet the lovers still don’t consummate their love. Florentino receives a telegram from Leona announcing the suicide of America Vicuna. She left no note but drank a flask of laudanum after failing her exams. Florentino knows the real reason and is anguished by the memory. “He erased it from his mind, although from time to time in the years that were left to him he would feel it revive, with no warning and for no reason, like the sudden pang of an old scar.”

At long last, bitten by mosquitos, Fermina suffering an earache, they go to bed together–and fail. Florention can’t get it up. He returns the next night, however, displaying it like “a war trophy,” and they fuck, but the act is presented as beside the point. “They were satisfied with the simple joy of being together.”

They reach the end of the journey, then race back downstream flying the cholera flag so they won’t have to take on passengers. Fermina dreads the return home, as if it were death. When they reach the city, the captain finds that the authorities won’t let him dock. Florentino says they should sail back river again. The captain asks how long they can keep up such goddamn coming and going.

Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.

“Forever,” he said.

So what does it mean? What more can one say after describing this wonderful novel as it unfolded?

Garcia Marquez is a remarkably tender realist. He does not choose sides. He does not present romantic love as superior to married love. He even suggests similarities between the two, much as Tolstoy did in Anna Karenina. He doesn’t admire Florentino at the expense of Dr. Urbino. Both men are sympathetic and absurd. Fermina is granted her absurdity, too, yet I think she is the sympathetic center, the novel’s straight man, so to speak, the character we should find easiest to identify with. If we don’t identify with her, she can seem like a bitch and the novel falls apart.

It’s a tall tale of a novel, an absurdist fairy-tale full of very real emotional toads. For me it is Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece, his one complete success. He loses control and balance when he writes about war and power and politics. He has no sympathy for that world, or pity either, and his strengths are dispersed. Writing about love and sex and marriage frees him to feel more. He is not afraid to be tender. The chaos of love doesn’t overwhelm him and numb him the way the chaos of history does. And love enables him to explore time more fully and deeply than violence and death did.

Time is his other great subject. Yet the time of love is so much more human and poignant than the time of brutal history–especially South American history.

–Christopher Bram



Copyright ©2008 by Christopher Bram. All rights reserved.
Christopher Bram: Love in the Time of Garcia Marquez
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