Sunday, 12 March 2006

Review: Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1988)

Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s city is a sad, strange place of old customs and older habits, a petri dish of barely consummated desires and occasional filth. Marquez’ long, fluid sentences and perfect timing serve to render the city in a quiet somnolence punctured by violent outbursts of passion. He gives back to words their original meanings by using them with a specific gravity that is as difficult for a novelist to achieve as for an athlete to win a tournament.

Indoors, in the cool bedrooms saturated with incense, women protected themselves from the sun as if it were a shameful infection, and even at early Mass they hid their faces in their mantillas. Their love affairs were slow and difficult and were often disturbed by sinister omens, and life seemed interminable. At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.

Florentino Ariza’s unrequited love for Fermina Daza — now bereaved of her husband Dr. Juvenal Urbino — has been fortified by half a century of longing and pain. It’s the story of how a young telegraph operator wooed the daughter of a rogue trader, but it’s also much more. Florentino waits for her on the route to the Academy of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, where she is at school. He also stalks her at Midnight Mass:

Her doubts were still unresolved on Christmas Eve, when she was shaken by the presentiment that he was in the crowd at Midnight Mass, looking at her, and this uneasiness flooded her heart. She did not dare to turn her head, because she was sitting between her father and her aunt, and she had to control herself so that they would not notice her agitation. But in the crowd leaving the church she felt him so close, so clearly, that an irresistible power forced her to look over her shoulder as she walked along the central nave and then, a hand’s breadth from her eyes, she saw those icy eyes, that livid face, those lips petrified by the terror of love. Dismayed by her own audacity, she seized Aunt Escolástica’s arm so she would not fall, and her aunt felt the icy perspiration on her hand through the lace mitt, and she comforted her with an imperceptible sign of unconditional complicity.

In Marquez everyone is given their due. That’s why there’s no fear, until the end of the novel, only hope, because nobody has been cast out of the infernal radiance of the author’s regard, to offer the reader a sight of the meaning of damnation. Even the girl who collects used condoms at the transient hotel owned by Lothario Thugut has an assigned character:

One afternoon at six o’clock, when the girls were dressing to receive that evening’s clients, the woman who cleaned the rooms on his floor in the hotel came into his cubicle. She was young, but haggard and old before her time, like a fully dressed penitent surrounded by glorious nakedness. He saw her every day without feeling himself observed: she walked through the rooms with her brooms, a bucket for the trash, and a special rag for picking up used condoms from the floor. She came into the room where Florentino Ariza lay reading, and as always she cleaned with great care so as not to disturb him. Then she passed close to the bed, and he felt a warm and tender hand low on his belly, he felt it searching, he felt it finding, he felt it unbuttoning his trousers while her breathing filled the room. He pretended to read until he could not bear it any longer and had to move his body out of the way.

It is almost impossible to select quotations from this book because every paragraph contains some new pearl of perfect composition that deserves to be included because of the simple fact that as you read it you discover that there are tears running down your cheeks, or you find your arms tingling with goose bumps.

The characters become so iconized by the prose that when they do something, such as expressing a wish to search for a sunken galleon, their gestures become solidified, as if you are seeing them rendered on a canvas, in paint, as in a historical painting such as Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West or The Declaration of Independence by John Trunbull. Their slightest gestures become heroic and unprecedented, as if they were historical events. This effect, I believe, is unique among modern novelists — no one else has this ability to make the mundane soar into the empyrean of existence, like Marquez does. And when Fermina Daza walks through the city’s markets followed by Florentino Ariza it is as if we are seeing a painting of Dante watching Beatrice emerge from a cathedral, painted by some eminent nineteenth-century artist. The drama is palpable, superreal, compelling. It is this quality, I believe, that sets Marquez apart. The prose has a concrete feel about it, as if we are witnessing momentous events rather than following a simple love story. Every event makes its own claim on our attention; we are riveted to the particular in such a way that our imagination sees these things happening. A wonderful gift.

The image even of Gala Placidia shrieking at the tradesmen from the balcony of Lorenzo Daza’s house is apocalyptic in its fervour and ferocity:

That was true: from the time she awoke at six in the morning until she turned out the light in the bedroom, Fermina Daza devoted herself to killing time. Life was imposed on her from outside. First, at the final rooster crow, the milkman woke her with his rapping on the door knocker. Then came the knock of the fishwife with her box of red snappers dying on a bed of algae, the sumptuous fruit sellers with vegetables from María la Baja and fruit from San Jacinto. And then, for the rest of the day, everyone knocked at the door: beggars, girls with lottery tickets, the Sisters of Charity, the knife grinder with the gossip, the man who bought bottles, the man who bought old gold, the man who bought newspapers, the fake gypsies who offered to read one’s destiny in cards, in the lines of one’s palm, in coffee grounds, in the water in washbasins. Gala Placidia spent the week opening and closing the street door to say no, another day, or shouting from the balcony in a foul humor to stop bothering us, damn it, we already bought everything we need. She had replaced Aunt Escolástica with so much fervor and so much grace that Fermina confused them to the point of loving her.

The Widow Nazareth’s fucking of Florentino Ariza is another apocalyptic moment, this time fervid with plush and desire. She returns to her house after the fighting has ceased, only to continue to dispense love like it is a seasonal specialty — and the season goes on all year round. Her laughter is catching.

That night she stopped wearing mourning once and for all, without passing through the useless intermediate stage of blouses with little gray flowers, and her life was filled with love songs and provocative dresses decorated with macaws and spotted butterflies, and she began to share her body with anyone who cared to ask for it. When the troops of General Gaitán Obeso were defeated after a sixty-three-day siege, she rebuilt the house that had been damaged by cannon fire, adding a beautiful sea terrace that overlooked the breakwater where the surf would vent its fury during the stormy season. That was her love nest, as she called it without irony, where she would receive only men she liked, how she liked, and without charging one red cent, because in her opinion it was the men who were doing her the favor. In a very few cases she would accept a gift, as long as it was not made of gold, and she managed everything with so much skill that no one could have presented conclusive evidence of improper conduct. On only one occasion did she hover on the edge of public scandal, when the rumor circulated that Archbishop Dante de Luna had not died by accident after eating a plate of poisonous mushrooms but had eaten them intentionally because she threatened to expose him if he persisted in his sacrilegious solicitations. As she used to say between peals of laughter, she was the only free woman in the province.

The guiding spirit of this book is faithfulness — to a single cause: the love of one woman. Because he cannot have her, however, paradoxically it is by being faithless (in the commonly-understood sense) that Florentino Ariza assuages his passion, and remains sane. His affair with Sara Noriega is typical. He breaks it off, desiring to keep that right for himself rather than relinquish his freedom to another. Because he must remain free: to choose, to leave, at any time, if Fermina Daza becomes available again. He never wavers, and always expects that, one day, Dr. Juvenal Urbino will die:

The relationship with Sara Noriega was one of Florentino Ariza’s longest and most stable affairs, although it was not his only one during those five years. When he realized that he felt happy with her, above all in bed, but that she would never replace Fermina Daza, he had another outbreak of his nights as a solitary hunter, and he arranged matters so that he could portion out his time and strength as far as they would go. Sara Noriega, however, achieved the miracle of curing him for a time. At least now he could live without seeing Fermina Daza, instead of interrupting whatever he was doing at any hour of the day to search for her along the uncertain pathways of his presentiments, on the most unlikely streets, in unreal places where she could not possibly be, wandering without reason, with a longing in his breast that gave him no rest until he saw her, even for an instant. The break with Sara Noriega, however, revived his dormant grief, and once again he felt as he did on those afternoons of endless reading in the little park, but this time it was exacerbated by his urgent need for Dr. Juvenal Urbino to die.

Marquez maps out the human psyche, or soul. He knows what obsession is and how it operates. Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s love-affair with Miss Barbara Lynch is a case in point:

The world became a hell for him. For once the initial madness was sated, they both became aware of the risks involved, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino never had the resolve to face a scandal. In the deliriums of passion he promised everything, but when it was over, everything was left for later. On the other hand, as his desire to be with her grew, so did his fear of losing her, so that their meetings became more and more hurried and problematic. He thought about nothing else. He waited for the afternoons with unbearable longing, he forgot his other commitments, he forgot everything but her, but as his carriage approached the Mala Crianza salt marsh he prayed to God that an unforseen obstacle would force him to drive past. He went to her in a state of such anguish that at times as he turned the corner he was glad to catch a glimpse of the woolly head of the Reverend Lynch, who read on the terrace while his daughter catechized neighborhood children in the living room with recited passages of scripture. Then he would go home relieved that he was not defying fate again, but later he would feel himself going mad with the desire for it to be five o’clock in the afternoon all day, every day.

América Vicuña’s death echoes that of that other death in a love story: Lucette in Nabokov’s Ada. Another regretted suicide. Both stories also portray a long-unrequited love. Ada was published in 1969, the Spanish original of Love in the Time of Cholera in 1985. It’s very likely that Marquez was aware of Nabokov’s novel. Although their styles are radically different, one can’t help but speculate on the likelihood of influence. Why do both books find it necessary to sacrifice a victim to the other, more consuming love? Perhaps to balance the joy of reunion with a sharp alternative. Or perhaps because in the all-consuming fire of a great love there are always casualties — collateral damage, as it were. Certainly, both Florentino Ariza and Van Veen struggle against great odds to obtain what they believe is theirs.

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