Book Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

I read this book last month because it was the first book on the Valentine’s Day List. It was also a book I already owned, so… free. It is also a book that I have already read, though judging from the Border’s receipt inside, I read it in 2002, some time before I began writing reviews here at The Starving Artist, which means it was slated for a re-read even though I didn’t remember liking the book. Not only was it on my shelf, but Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is often listed as one of the best books of all time, a real classic of literature.

Image from Amazon.com

Side note: one of my favorite books of all time is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera is still written with the force of a genius, but it is not magic realism—a genre that is associated with Garcia Marquez and with Colombia (see Encanto if unclear about this). I am a magic realism fan, but, as I will detail soon, that is not the only reason I rate Hundred many times over Cholera. As it is, I really need to give Hundred a re-read and review it here.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a love story. Or so we are told. It is, actually, but if I had to recommend it to you on the basis of something I would probably tell you it’s a book about aging written in some of the strongest prose ever to see a printed page. (Of course, I am reading Garcia Marquez in translation, so I have to wonder how much that affects things, but I think the amazing writing goes beyond the beauty of the words to the construction of the sentences, the paragraphs, even the entire meandering and cyclical plot). At first, I noticed the beauty of the language. This is obvious. (Don’t get it confused with pretty, floral language. His words are powerful but they are often ugly or mundane, like Kurt Vonnegut.) Then I noticed that this story was not being told chronologically. Sure, Sherlock, I mean the story begins with the death of the husband when the three main pieces of the love triangle are in their seventies. But more than the whole start-at-the-end and then bump it way back to the teens and begin again, Garcia Marquez jumps around like Dr. Who on Adderall. When I write this way my writing group slaps me on the wrist. But when I read Garcia Marquez, I didn’t always know if the paragraph I was reading came before or after—timeline-wise—the paragraph I had just read, however, there is a lullaby-like lulling in the way that he tells the story which after awhile convinces us that it doesn’t even matter when things happen. He is, I believe, grouping things in metaphysical categories that are akin to stream-of-consciousness. He balances three POVs like a master and even wields his omniscient-narrator card like its slaying the narration. Oh, sure, I can tell you that little gold nugget. Did it make you laugh? Did it make you cry? Do I write like no one else you’ve ever read and you kinda’ like it?

All this praise, but I did say that in 2002 I didn’t like the book? Well, there are some serious problems (and yes, I said that about a very lauded and beloved book). I see three things that stand in my way of enjoying this book. The first was maybe what turned me off the first time, but I have actually outgrown the aversion: the negative imagery. You know how you might describe a panorama of a city? Now enter Garcia Marquez, and bleeeecchh—suddenly we are seeing past the steely buildings and glinting streets climbing the verdant hills to the run-off poop assailing our nostrils and the birds dropping dead from the skies. He does this, unceremoniously, with everything. Everything. There’s a character smelling their own pee, twice. Nothing about a character, setting, or theme is safe from the scratchy pen of Garcia Marquez, nothing is too holy to exempt it from exposure, from a gruesome magnification. Perhaps this is genius. I have grown to appreciate it, anyhow. The second thing is the concept of love. I am not alone in complaining that this love story is more about an idea or an obsession with love than it is about actual love. I also wouldn’t be alone is complaining that this love story is more about sex than about love and that I don’t believe—as this book seems to posit at times—that sex is a form of love. I mean, right there in the cover copy we find out that while Florentino Ariza waits something like six decades for the love of his life, he has sex with 622 women, many serially. I have to question just what this book is about, honestly, and I’m not sure most people really understand what it is about. Is it a love story? Or is it an anti-love story, or a love story hidden inside a wild ride? I think perhaps the key to its real undoing is in the third “problem” with the book: the pedophilia. Some of you just sighed at me. After all, the age of Florentino Ariza’s final fling is old enough that some cultures throughout history would call her a woman and have married her off. Sometimes, indeed, very young women have married very old men. For stability. And yet pedophilia is what we would call his last hurrah today and I insist on calling it that because the girl was in a position of relation to Florentino Ariza where he held all the power and responsibility for their (unrealistic, I might add) “relationship.” If you’re going to try to sell me on the idea that this final repeat liaison was Garcia Marquez’s coup de grace iteration in our buffet of loves, then gag me, I’m out. If, however, you are going to really dig into the seriously disturbing passages about America Vicuna’s likeness to a young Fermina Daza and to Ariza’s first seduction of her (I can’t even…), not to mention her eventual demise, then I think we end up in a different place: a place where we question all this “love” and even Florentino Ariza’s character and veracity. Even the narrator’s veracity. The truth is, there are many reasons I don’t really like any of the love triangle characters and watching a sex-addicted, immature, lying man stalk his whole life after a self-centered, angry, cold woman sounds truly horrifying until Garcia Marquez’s language gets hold of it. And then I’m conflicted. What is he trying to say? There could be so much to talk about.

I love finding books that have something to say about aging. Like really say something about aging in a true, non-Hallmark way. This is probably my favorite part of this book. You follow three characters from their teens all the way to their deaths (or awfully close) and you do so with a tour guide who covers nothing up (ostensibly, at least). I loved that they repeatedly in their own ways encountered their own and each other’s aging at various points in their lives. This, my friends, is real. The limitations. The smells. The questions. The inevitability. In a way, I find this book to me much more about aging than it is about love. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I could make a case for it.

And out of all that mess of a review, would I recommend reading Love in the Time of Cholera? Well, since it is 2022, I would put a big sticker on it that warns you of the pedophilia, not to mention a ridiculous amount of sex (although not done in a titillating way, if you can imagine what I mean). I would recommend it for the writing, the sheer mastery of story-telling, the honesty and bareness in its dealing with life and aging. I would not read it as a romance unless you are going to excavate all the way to what might be the real love at the center of it. I would agree with those who say it is about a man who struggles with an idea of love that somehow, despite the depravity and ridiculousness of his life, ends up basically satisfied, and a woman who wanders through life feeding her whims and could honestly care less about the actual people who gratify her in the moment. At most, it’s an exploration of love, like this: Love? We all have to come to terms with life. Oh, and it’s also about how everyone in Latin America in 1900 would go to bed with anyone else at the drop of a hat.

QUOTES (Penguin Great Books of the Twentieth Century edition):

“…it was easier for him to bear other people’s pains than his own” (p8).

“…and that he had won a game of chess from someone she remembered as Torremolinos but in reality was named Capablanca” (p32).

“…she felt an irresistible longing to begin life with him over again so that they could say what they had left unsaid and do everything right that they had done badly in the past. But she had to give in to the intransigence of death” (p47).

“…she was awakened by the despised sun of the morning without him” (p51).

“She reminded him that the weak would never enter the kingdom of love, which is a harsh and ungenerous kingdom, and that women give themselves only to men of resolute spirit, who provide the security they need in order to face life” (p65).

“…but she never imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love” (p66).

“She entered every doorway where there was something for sale, and everywhere she found something that increased her desire to live” (p99).

“He confirmed this with the compassion of sons whom life has turned, little by little, into the fathers of their fathers” (p112).

“But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake” (p159).

“…human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves” (p165).

“’No, not rich,’ he said. ‘I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing’” (p167).

“…his profession had accustomed him to the ethical management of forgetfulness” (p189).

“…after ten years of marriage women had their periods as often as three times a week” (p210).

“…with one look around her she understood that her adversaries were not convulsed with hatred but paralyzed by fear” (p211).

“He was the perfect husband: he never picked up anything from the floor, or turned out a light, or closed a door” (p222).

“The truth is that her sense of smell not only served her in regard to washing clothes or finding lost children: it was the sense that oriented her in all areas of life…” (p237).

“Dr. Urbino attributed it to the natural hardheartedness of women, which allows the earth to continue revolving around the sun, because at that time he did not know that she always erected a barrier or wrath to hide her fear. And in this case it was the most terrible one of all, the fear of losing him” (p249).

“They walked together with measured steps, loving each other like unhurried old sweethearts, she thinking about the charms of Cabiria and he thinking about his own misfortune” (p257).

“Once he had told her something that she could not imagine: that amputees suffer pains, cramps, itches, in the leg that is no longer there. That is how she felt without him, feeling his presence where he no longer was” (p280).

“…they could no understand what they were doing so far from their youth on a terrace with checkerboard tiles in a house that belonged to no one and that was still redolent of cemetery flowers …. they had seen each other for what they were: two old people, ambushed by death, who had nothing in common except the memory of an ephemeral past that was no longer their but belonged to two young people who had vanished and who could have been their grandchildren” (pp305-306).

“He said, ‘Old people, with old people, are not so old’” (p312).

“…he had always believed that old age began with one’s first minor fall and that death came with the second” (p313).

And I leave you with an excellent example of his writing:

“’It is incredible how one can be so happy for so many years in the midst of so many squabbles, so many problems, damn it, and not really know if it was love or not.’ By the time she finished unburdening herself, someone had turned off the moon. The boat moved ahead at its steady pace, one foot in front of the other: an immense, watchful animal. Fermina Daza had returned from her longing” (p329).

Image from Amazon.com

MOVIE: I will watch the 2007 version with Javier Bardem on Tuesday and then I’ll review it for you here. ….Time passes….

This movie tried, for sure. It has nice cinematography and costumes and embraces a time and place. I think that if you haven’t read the book, you’d find it a little confusing. I know I already said it, but it did really try. It got the beauty and the time and even maybe some decent acting, but it missed the mark, somehow. I don’t think it understood the book, exactly, and it was sort of cobbled together, plot-wise. Just like in the book, I enjoyed the aging aspect, but this movie made the love (and sex) thing even more confusing. Rambling. Missed the point. There is some passion hidden somewhere in there. And the ages of the actors is all wrong, let alone the makeup they use to then age them. They should have used different actors through time. Take it or leave it.

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