When one reads a classic there are a million extra ways to be surprised, because for so long preconceived notions have been quietly stewing in our minds about what sort of story the book is going to tell. Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera is just such a classic, first published in English in 1988 and an irrevocably iconic work ever since, second only to his Nobel Prize-winning 100 Years of Solitude. Yet in twenty-six years its story – the tale of Florentino Ariza’s devastating love and half-century of waiting for the beautiful Fermina Daza – will not be as instantly recognizable to readers, or as culturally ingrained, as the love stories between Rhett and Scarlett or Cathy and Heathcliff, for example. It’s a young novel yet, but there seems to be an enduring singularity to it that will allow it to slip through the grasp of convention for a long time; and it’s also an impressively subjective novel, with every page giving rise to new reactions in its reader, opening the door for uncountable opinions. These two factors alone make the prospect of writing about it rather staggering, to say the least, but it’s a novel that surely evokes a prolonged, unshakable reaction. To refer to the story of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza as a love story, as it is most popularly categorized, seems to be an extreme oversimplification of everything García Márquez puts forward in the novel; likewise, to say that it’s a tale of unrequited love also doesn't quite hit the mark. Instead, Love in the Time of Cholera embodies the entirety of love in all its scope and forms: through Florentino's devotion to Fermina we see all-consuming love, while Fermina's flighty responses range from adolescent love to the falling out of love (“the abyss of disenchantment”) and eventually a love born of time and understanding. When Fermina, driven away from Florentino by her father’s determination, marries the amiable Dr. Juvenal Urbino, her restless independent nature seems to find a home in married love, and here we find the perpetually unsteady but ultimately well-achieved journey of the novel’s only long-term relationship. Beyond this, as Florentino whiles away fifty years in wait for Fermina, his six hundred affairs explore the many other faces of love; sexual love, of course, being the most obvious. It’s in this way that Love in the Time of Cholera seems to be a character study of love itself, and García Márquez’s profound dedication to his subject uncovers the untidiness of love, its ability to both enrapture and disturb. What results is a novel of astonishing complexity and jolting honesty.
Neither Florentino nor Fermina (nor, for that matter, Juvenal Urbino) are presented to the reader as unflinchingly pure characters. Fermina is at times headstrong against romantic notions, sometimes childishly obstinate in the face of things that displease her for reasons we as readers are not always able to understand; but her agitated spirit has a way of reaching in and finding its kindred within the reader. Florentino, alternatively, forces romance on the novel’s unseen narrator in his furious, inherently selfish pursuit of satisfaction. His relationships with women are at turns perverse, depraved, and tragic, but somehow a character whose ideas and actions demand the reader’s objections manages to draw out compassion instead, perhaps through the perpetual naïveté that renders him childlike and starry-eyed even at old age. He contradicts his platitudes of undying devotion many times (six hundred and twenty-two times, to be exact) under the belief that the love he makes with other women is not real love, and the reader is left to wonder whether his mentality is an excuse for blatant obsession or a revelation of delusion. This is another example of the complexities García Márquez expertly leads his readers through, inviting us to question and probe and unearth the grittiness of love, or non-love, as it may be.
Perhaps the most riveting element of Love in the Time of Cholera is García Márquez's prose, which will captivate the attention of readers new to his craft. The story unfolds through a narrative that is at once dense and fluid, a solid thing with a liquid quality that seeps into the reader’s bones. With very little dialogue, García Márquez relies almost entirely on his narrative power, which in itself is a remarkable departure from the typical structure of a novel; but also mystifying is his ability to weave through time without the convention of continuity. Deaths of prominent characters are merely mentioned and future events are revealed before their time with utmost nonchalance, a collective tactic that lets him playfully taunt the reader with the flimsiness of mortality, time, and other real-world structures. By this effect García Márquez aligns the most poetic reaches of his prose with his reader's vulnerability; he opens the full heart of his Florentino and the uninhibited spirit of his Fermina to the reader, with an aim to leave us questioning everything we knew before beginning the story; he hits his mark with legendary ease and charisma, and with no small amount of mischief.
Love in the Time of Cholera was my March selection for the 2014 TBR Challenge (and I made it by the skin of my teeth, didn't I?). It was my first time reading Gabriel García Márquez, whose work I've been meaning to read for many years, and I loved the experience. I think I had a much different idea of what sort of novel Love in the Time of Cholera would be, but it went an entirely different direction than I anticipated; I expected a complex and deeply thought-provoking book, which I got, but I never expected the complexities and depth to take the shapes they do. Such a very interesting work!
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