Beyond Love: The Wisdom of Love in the Time of Cholera

I. Love in the Time of Cholera is not Gabriel García Márquez’s best novel. It has lapses, and misses the preternatural perfection of One Hundred Years of Solitude. But it is definitely, whether it rattles some or not, a formidable narrative machine, and more than that, it manages a fulfilling, life-affirming narrative about a subject so trampled and vulgarized these days: love.

Now that the book, first published in Spanish in 1985, has enjoyed resurgent popularity worldwide, it is worth revisiting as a curious cultural artifact, a late 20th century novel, already considered a classic of world literature, which tackles a subject that is usually left to melodramatic soap operas, “bodice-ripper” genre novels, chick lit, the Hollywood romantic comedy, or pop music. More than just telling a love story, Love in the Time of Cholera can be read as an investigation into romantic love and all its implications and ramifications. What is love? the novel asks, and dares to offer a kind of answer. Although there have definitely been other accomplished contemporary novels organized around an inquisition into love, its joys, challenges, and discontents— Norman Rush’s novel Mortals comes to mind— no novel I know is as single-minded about investigating the theme as this one is.

II. The book’s newfound mass readership worldwide, of course, has everything to do with the recent release of an English-language film version by acclaimed British director Mike Newell (and to a lesser extent by Oprah Winfrey’s selection of it for her book club late last year). Mike Newell was somehow able to convince García Márquez (now an octogenarian) to sell the movie rights, despite the Colombian writer’s widely-known reticence to have his major novels filmed.

Well, García Márquez could have done much worse than Newell’s movie. The film is competent, at times moving, and faithful to the novel— perhaps too much so. It crams so many of the book’s emblematic moments into its 140-minute length it feels as if the screenwriter had ticked them off a grocery list.

The film gets off on the wrong foot, too. An opening scene in which a central character falls out of a tree is marred by a histrionic but oddly flat reaction by a servant leaning out of a window — it looks and sounds like something out of a bad television reenactment. A few wince-inducing moments like these occasionally reduce the production to the quality of a made-for-TV miniseries or worse.

Still, the film is worth seeing if for nothing else than the handful of principal male roles: Spanish actor Javier Bardem’s convincing performance as the unrequited but indomitable lover Florentino Ariza; Benjamin Bratt as Ariza’s rival in love — the unimaginative and vain Dr. Juvenal Urbino; and finally, John Leguizamo as the irrepressible mule trader whose daughter Fermina Daza becomes the object of these men’s affections.

Leguizamo’s performance is particularly interesting. In the book, Lorenzo Daza is a Spanish immigrant of cloudy background. John Leguizamo’s Lorenzo Daza speaks with a thick New York accent (the film is in English) and carries himself more like an eccentric street corner tough than a 19th century man of ill-repute anxious to marry off his daughter, but the effect is somehow appropriate, despite the incongruity. There’s also beautiful scenery — the lush vegetation of coastal Colombia and the cobblestone streetscapes of Cartagena. (In fact, the city in which much of the action takes place goes unnamed in the book, but through historical details such as its vulnerability to cholera and the appearance of certain street and neighborhood names, which correspond to Cartagena, we can be sure of the city’s identity).

Where the film truly succeeds is in capturing and communicating the kernel of García Márquez’s premise: love as the true drama that determines the shape of our lives. Through the lens of Love in the Time of Cholera, we see life itself as a romantic itinerary, and our loves as occasional stations on a long, strange trip involving our passions and affections.

III. Just as a soap opera melodrama gets its hooks into us by portraying scene after scene of characters confronting one another in emotionally-steeped moments related to romantic attachments, Love in the Time of Cholera presents the world as a stage on which people move about and crash against one another due to reasons originating in the spot songwriters call the “heart”. Everything else in life, in fact, is a backdrop, or acts to facilitate the real drama, structured by endless webs of romantic intrigue.

In this case, the novel’s hero, Florentino Ariza, is spurned after a youthful and ardent (if chaste) courtship, and waits over 50 years to finally win the heart of the woman he’s lived his entire life waiting for, Fermina Daza. Though the novel takes slight detours to offer us glimpses into history and geography, it never veers away from this basic storyline focused on the stubborn, unflappable love of one man.

In every great treatment of love in the world’s literary and popular tradition — from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the classic 1986 Brazilian rock ballad “Eduardo e Monica” by Legião Urbana, or the Medieval Spanish classic El libro de buen amor by priest Juan Ruiz — the idea is pretty much the same: love conquers all. Juan Ruiz, writing in the 14th century, calls it, again and again, “crazy love”, so as to distinguish romantic or passionate love from the pure and peaceful love for God — or family and friends, I would add.

And love definitely is crazy, because it can create and destroy entire life edifices, imagined or real, from one day to the next. All that is required for that to happen is one encounter that generates the right spark (a neurobiologist would talk of the chemical and neural pathways of attraction). Love really is something to contend with: one night of infidelity, a single serenade, one exchange of glances, and destinies are made and unmade forever. Literature always has had to account for love’s power.

Even classic Greek historian Herodotus, hardly a sappy sort, finds himself obliged to begin his monumental Histories with an account of how the Mediterranean’s historic rivalries were stoked by the kidnapping of women by Phoenicians and Greeks; these “abductions”, in more than one case, were really nothing more than the voluntary flight of women who had fallen in love with a man in the enemy band. The most famous case, of course, is that of the kidnapping of Helen, which legend and myth says sparked the Trojan War. Even geopolitics, then, can spin around the axis of romances ostensibly occurring in private lives.

One might even say there are only two types of stories, because true love stories seem to exclude all other genres. In other words, there are stories in which love is portrayed as determinant above all else, and there are stories in which it might be important, but is circumscribed to a subsidiary role while the real action takes place in the arenas of politics, religion, crime, history or war. Like Herodotus’ Histories, One Hundred Years of Solitude is engaged primarily with history writ large; Love in the Time of Cholera belongs solidly — it could be even called a modern archetype of the tradition — to the “love conquers all genre”.

IV. One of the attractions of the pure love story is its relative simplicity. All the suspense required to carry the story forward is contained in the single enigma of whether the lovers will finally come together. It’s a naturally simple structure, binary, into which any amount of obstacles might be introduced to add suspense to the thing. And in the case of this novel, structured by a classic love triangle, the obstacle between Florentino Ariza and his love Fermina Daza is Dr. Juvenal Urbino, the blue-blooded doctor she ends up marrying.

The only significant innovation introduced by García Márquez into the traditional love story is the extended parenthesis of time, a lifetime in fact, in which the two lovers are separated. It will take decades and hundreds of pages, all manner of intervening events, as well as the persistence of the florid and dreamy Florentino Ariza (a kind of Caribbean Pepé Le Pew), before they can come together.

It’s not surprising, then, given its rather narrow subject, that Love in the Time of Cholera is García Márquez’s most conventional novel. One caveat: it is marvelously sophisticated in the handling of time, jumping constantly back and forth across characters’ lifetimes, sometimes on the same page, without ever causing whiplash in the reader. A diagram of the novel’s course through the chronology of events would look like a kid’s tangled doodle on an Etch-a-sketch.

Sometimes, though, Love in the Time of Cholera is too eager to please (not necessarily the reader; perhaps it is the author who is over-indulging his stylistic appetites). The novel brims over with satisfying symmetries, pulse-quickening reversals, well-rounded characters, and lush images. There are also recurring metaphors in heaping helpings. Sometimes, this cornucopia of Literature 101 literary devices can distract the reader rather than offer him new resonances.

One of the more annoying of these stylistic tics is García Márquez’s occasional lapse into a sort of half-hearted Magical Realism. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published in 1967, 18 years before Love in the Time of Cholera, the well-known violations of realism — levitation, a self-directed trickle of blood, etc. — worked because the novel was transforming history into myth. The town of Macondo and the Buendía family on which One Hundred Years of Solitude centers are not ordinary, representative; they are far more than that. They are myth and legend, and were written into being with a tone suited to this purpose — a near-biblical narrative voice that easily absorbs the miraculous, fantastic, or simply extraordinary. And the time period in which One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place is often fuzzy, as all mythic pasts are, and so is more forgiving of supernatural occurrences and ornamentations on reality.

Love in the Time of Cholera, by contrast, is far more grounded in pedestrian reality and specific historical context. And since it deals primarily with private lives, rather than universal and historical themes, it doesn’t create a proper context for supernatural flourishes. Not to mention that it quite simply doesn’t need them. Love in the Time of Cholera is a book about love and relationships, not a bottom-up transfiguration of the world on the order of One Hundred Years of Solitude or García Márquez’s 1975 novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

Yet García Márquez can’t seem to help himself. He might water it down for use in a love story, but he won’t lay off the Magical Realism sauce. Some examples from Love in the Time of Cholera: angry winds blow roofs off houses, which is fine, but do they also have to carry children through the air?; a clock-like insect sings every hour on the hour in Juvenal Urbino’s bedroom; a few pages later, in a flashback to Dr. Urbino’s childhood, the angel of death leaves “a trail of feathers” in his father’s office; alligators basking along the Magdalena River open their jaws, not to absorb more of the tropical sun to warm their cold blood, but to feed on butterflies; nearing the novel’s end, a ghostly apparition seen from a riverboat seemed to me like a gratuitous smudge of gothic melodrama on an otherwise perfectly pitched lyrical episode.

It doesn’t really matter whether these supernatural or magical moments possess verisimilitude or not (perhaps alligators do eat butterflies?), or whether they are meant to be metaphorical. The point is that amid the resolutely earthly, naturalistic tone dominating the novel, these flourishes jut out and jerk the reader out of the narrative spell. Here, the magic is a monkey wrench. It is a shame, because Love in the Time of Cholera is an ingeniously constructed novel, and save for these ineffective shifts into higher metaphorical gear, it pulls the reader along so effectively that his course through the story feels effortless.

There are a few other lapses. One is in bad taste: Chinese immigrants are said to look “so much alike that no one could tell one from the other.” And there are times when the book simply gets too florid. Not once, but twice, a breathless reference is made to the “field of poppies” that replace remembrances of Florentino Ariza in Fermina Daza’s memory. Then we have the roses: there are so many roses exchanged, planted, attached to passenger pigeons’ legs, implicated in metaphor and courtships, that I simply got tired of reading about them and simply assumed that roses would sprout from every lapel and vase and in the shadow of every tombstone that appeared, until I reached the end of the novel (the movie’s poster, not coincidentally, also embraces the overwrought rose imagery).

But when García Márquez dispenses with the flowers and butterflies, he is razor sharp, and often very funny. Consider these uses of hyperbole, which, without using fairy-dust, reveal so much about the economically stratified society of Colombia’s Caribbean coast:

“No one knew anything in a city where everything was known, and where many things were known even before they happened, above all if they concerned the rich.”

“… the wealthy … did not contract short-term diseases. Either they died without warning, almost always on the eve of a major holiday that could not be celebrated because of the period of mourning, or they faded away in long, abominable illnesses whose most intimate details eventually became public knowledge.”

This last passage points to another important facet of the novel: disease. Like some of the best-known works of Renaissance literature (Bocaccio’s Decameron, for example), the love in this novel takes place against the backdrop of mass death and pestilence.

V. Throughout, from the title until the last page, cholera— one of the fastest-killing diseases in the world— serves at once as a counterpoint to love, and a metaphor for its agony. Again and again, García Márquez compares love’s power to cholera, which in the 19th century was an omnipresent danger in Cartagena and the cities dotting the banks of the Magdalena River, which connects Colombia’s coast to the mountainous interior.

Like cholera (its most characteristic symptom is massive diarrhea), love strikes unexpectedly, renders the body powerless, and is blind to class or race.

By way of this metaphor, García Márquez also links the novel to its temporal and even political setting: the dangerous turn-of-the-century years when bodies floating in the Magdalena could be victims of Colombia’s recurring civil wars or of the intermittent cholera outbreaks, which easily took root in cities and towns plagued by poverty and lack of sanitation. Here, in the following passage, is Cartagena’s sea-side market as seen through the eyes of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, who has just arrived from medical training in Europe, and thus is ultra-sensitive to the breeding grounds of bacteria:

Set on its own garbage heap, at the mercy of capricious tides, it was the spot where the bay belches filth from the sewers back onto land. The offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was also thrown away there — severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood. The buzzards fought for it with the rats and the dogs …

Passages such as these, besides underscoring García Márquez’s unequaled talent for scenery, are a necessary counterpoint to all the perfumed passages about love, heartache, and erotic passion. Cholera, with its rotten stink, suffuses the novel as much as love does. In other words, cholera is not just involved in metaphor-weaving: it is also circumstance, mood, a kind of enveloping aura of death, disease and putrefaction that reminds us of life’s brevity, and so at the same time, of love’s urgency.

García Márquez is not shy about exploiting a metaphor; but this cholera trope, unlike the quickly wilted rose metaphor, survives its multiple uses. The reason is that it points to a natural and classic symmetry, that between love and death, Eros and thanatos. So despite the fact that the metaphor is used not only frequently but for multiple purposes — to bring characters together or to highlight their emotional states — it continues to ring true. Love and death dance together in the novel, and it is a close dance.

In fact, García Márquez lets us know that nothing the novel describes, none of its loves, would have happened were it not for cholera. One of the 19th century cholera epidemics, we are told, wiped out a quarter of Cartagena’s population in only three months. And it is right after this particularly deadly cholera outbreak that Lorenzo Daza, a shady, widowed trader, arrives in Cartagena, like an opportunistic buzzard. All that is known of him is that he comes from the town of San Juan de la Ciénaga, and that he brings with him his 13-year-old daughter, Fermina Daza, who will be at the center of the novel’s love triangle.

Cholera is also the disease that seamstress and pawnbroker Tránsito Ariza is convinced her skinny and introverted 18-year-old son, Florentino, has contracted early in the novel, but in reality he is only sick in love because he has fallen for the teenaged Fermina Daza, who will later spurn him for the rich, celebrated Dr. Juvenal Urbino.

It is cholera, again, which makes the outsized reputation of Dr. Urbino. Early in his career, after returning to Cartagena from Europe, he manages to nip a cholera epidemic in the bud by applying modern principles of epidemiology and sanitation learned from Dr. Proust (Marcel Proust’s real-life father, a pioneer in disease prevention).

Cholera, finally, will bring the doctor together with his future wife, because he is called to examine her in the renovated colonial mansion where she is bedridden, suffering from classic cholera symptoms (to her great embarrassment). Her father fears the worst. To everyone’s great relief, Doctor Urbino diagnoses indigestion. At first glance (which is a privileged one, since she has to uncover her breasts for the examination), he falls for his young patient and initiates a courtship of Fermina Daza that is at first resisted but ultimately successful.

VI. The novel actually begins not with love, but with death,. The three characters who will occupy us for the novel’s 300-plus pages are first introduced to the reader very late in their lives, as old men and women who know every day may be the last. It’s as if the novel were starting with the end of something, not the beginning.

The first death, evoked on the first page of the novel, is the suicide of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, a refugee from the Antilles, who is Juvenal Urbino’s protégé and chess partner. Dr. Urbino, despite his advanced age (he is just into his 9th decade of life), arrives at the scene of his friend’s suicide to sort matters out, and is taken aback because in the corpse of his friend he glimpses the face of his own impending death.

As it turns out, Jeremiah de Saint Amour’s death is something of a red herring, only a sort of prelude to a more pivotal death, which takes place later on the same fateful day: the absurd death of Dr. Urbino himself, who falls and shatters his spine into pieces after chasing a pet parrot perched in a mango tree.

Urbino’s death sets in motion the real machinery of the story, allowing the two other components of the love triangle to step into the foreground. At the end of the novel’s first section (the book is divided into three parts), Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza have their first face-to-face meeting in over 50 years. It is one of a handful of moments that are the true points of inflection in the novel.

This first meeting occurs under the most awkward and disagreeable of circumstances. It is the evening of the day on which her husband has died, and an aged and exhausted Fermina Daza, still raw with grief, is showing visitors to the door of her home, after the burial and wake. Florentino Ariza can’t restrain himself, and without even a crumb of tact, he tells her on the spot that he has waited most of his life for the day he might again openly declare his love for her, which he does. Fermina Daza curses him, and exhausting herself by crying with rage and sorrow, eventually falls asleep.

The rest of the novel, sweeping back and forth across the years, describes, in detail, the main chapters in the lives of its characters: Fermina and Florentino’s youthful love affair, and its shocking end after both teenagers had exchanged hundreds of love letters and sworn eternal loyalty; the comfortable yet ultimately loveless marriage between Dr. Urbino and the beautiful but plebeian Fermina Daza; the transformation of a heart-broken and impoverished Florentino Ariza into an unconventional seductor and improbable shipping magnate, who despite his success in career and sex never forgets his love for Fermina, avoiding marriage and patiently biding his time; and finally, the courting, in the years after Dr. Urbino’s death, of the widowed Fermina Daza by Florentino Ariza.

Love in the Time of Cholera ends up being the story of a love affair — as passionate and tumultuous as any — between two septuagenarians. Near the end of the novel, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza find themselves immersed in what is truly the love of their lives, at an age when most have discarded hope for a passion that might return them to their bodies and suffuse their lives with new possibilities.

Age, time, the shadow of death, physical infirmity: all of these realities end up being beaten back, transformed into minor logistical inconveniences, by Florentino’s romantic heroism, as he wins the heart, finally, of Fermina Daza. And Fermina has her own triumph: she finally sheds her guilt complex, and her warped sense of obligation to society and family (especially the figure and memory of her overbearing father, and the prudishness of her own children). She finally musters the courage to risk scandal or gossip by doing precisely what her heart wants, and doing so openly.

In the final pages of the novel, during a sort of symbolic honeymoon taken by Florentino and Fermina aboard a river steamboat, the reader happily absorbs their sense of renewal, wonderment, and profound pleasure, those gifts that come with a love affair in the first days, weeks, or months of its consummation.

Here, finally, is a real love in its first flush: not a teenage love, not a fabricated adult love, full of compromises, “daily incomprehensions, instantaneous hatreds, and reciprocal nastiness”. This is true love, a bottomless fall, the vertigo of total freedom, when truly, nothing else matters except being with the other. It’s a state of grace. This is the real reason why love conquers even death. It’s not because, as overwrought romantic imagery would have it, of a love affair’s possible continuation in the afterlife, but because of the time and life-expanding capacity of love before it calcifies and becomes stiff with routines, obligations and contractual affirmations.

Real lovers exist outside of time, outside of society (a voluntary exile of which the honeymoon is the socially accepted version), outside of themselves as individuals. Love is like cholera in that it robs us of ourselves; when we are infected we are not just ourselves, but something more, possessed by something more powerful, which dwarfs our petty wills, egos, and rationalizations.

But the ultimate meaning we might take from the lives of Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza, and Florentino Ariza is not that love is all that matters, or that it is forever. García Márquez understands human experience too well to fall for facile, tidy messages. After all, nothing in this world, the novel says, is “more difficult than love.”

Love is difficult; which is another way of saying it is as fleeting and delicate as a human life. Love of the sort that sets the mind on fire and bends time and twists destinies — it is as intense as it is ephemeral. Eventually it is worn down by the rust of routine or tamed into domesticity, which amounts to the same thing.

Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

That is why García Márquez does not end his book with Florentino and Fermina’s marriage, in the style of a Shakespearean comedy or a Hollywood ending, or with their matter-of-fact return to Cartagena, raising the possibility of their integration into the city’s society as a couple. To leave the riverboat, to return to Cartagena, Fermina Daza says, would be “like death”. Mercifully, García Márquez leaves them on the riverboat. The vessel’s courageous, large-hearted captain, complicit in their love affair and embroiled in a heady one of his own, arrives at a stratagem so that the four of them might sail on, up and down the Magdalena River, instead of returning to Cartagena: the ship raises a yellow flag. In Colombia’s waterways, that symbolizes there is cholera on board. In effect, it’s a giant “Do Not Disturb” sign. It’s the only way to ensure that the external world won’t encroach on their floating honeymoon suite afflicted with love.

It may have taken them over 50 years, but Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza achieve something unique: they skip the married life, the whirl of conventional love as defined by custom and ritual, the pragmatism that goes with child-raising; and they go directly to a kind of distillation of love, which may not be exactly be what most of us mean when we think of love. At the end, we are left with a sort of mystical theory of love, embodied by Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza:

They no longer felt like newlyweds, and even less like belated lovers. It was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old wary couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

García Márquez is saying that Love, like God or Self, and all those other capitalized concepts which lend themselves to endless and ultimately useless sophistry — it is also ineffable. He raises love to the level of all the great human enigmas, and considers his job nearly done. Then, instead of a pat definition he leaves us with an image that is worth a bookful of love sonnets: an elderly couple together on a riverboat, floating in the middle of a wide estuary.

Somehow we feel they have arrived on that shore so many of us, heart-bruised and anxious, swim toward.