Review by Gabriel
I was reading Love in the Time of Cholera around the office a lot, and people would come up to my desk, peek at the title of the book, and say “Ew. Love and cholera? That doesn’t sound like a very good combination”. According to my extensive research (on Wikipedia), the main symptom of cholera is “exhaustive diahorrea.” Not the most romantic disease, then. And yet, this is one of the most romantic books I’ve read, which presents not an idealised image of love, but one that gushes (oh yeah. I’m going there) humanity and sensuality. On to the review, and more poo jokes.
The city is in mourning for the great doctor and esteemed citizen, Juvenal Urbino. At his wake, his wife, Fermina Daza, is showing the last of the guests out when she is confronted by a ghost from her past – Florentino Ariza who, with his hat in his hands, finally confesses:
“I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
In his youth, Florentino Ariza wooed the teenage Fermina Daza with letters, poetry and violin serenades. When her father, who wants his daughter to marry into nobility, finds that a commoner is romancing her, he takes her away to the mountains for over a year to cure her of her infatuation. But the lovers find a way to contact each other in secret, and promise to wed.
However, when Fermina Daza returns to the city she has become a woman, and she falls out of love with Florentino Ariza at their first reunion. For Florentino Ariza, this begins over five decades of martyrdom to love, while Fermina Daza marries the dashing Doctor Juvenal Urbino.
The wonderful thing about Garcia Marquez’s depiction of love is how honest and nuanced it is. Florentino Ariza is neither heroised nor lambasted for his lifelong obsession, but is depicted as suffering from a disease of the heart and mind. A doctor mistakes his lovesickness for cholera, and he makes himself ill eating flowers and drinking cologne to capture Fermina Daza’s scent. He enjoys suffering for love. After Fermina Daza’s rejection, he becomes a philanderer, compulsively prowling the streets for “little birds” to ease the ache of his heart, which complicates his claims to fidelity.
He’s not the most likable character. He’s foppish, predatory and a little creepy, and sometimes I felt like slapping him and telling him to move on. Still, there is something endearing in how much of a love tragic he is.
He contrasts with the aristocratic Doctor Juvenal Urbino, a fastidious man in charge of his emotions. While to a degree Juvenal Urbina represents the establishment, and therefore repression, he is by no means a villain. He is kind, sympathetic, and clearly loves his wife, whispering to her as he dies, “Only God knows how much I love you.” The sex scene between he and Fermina Daza is one of the best pieces of writing on a notoriously difficult subject. I love, too, that after decades of marriage full of turmoil and tenderness, Fermina Daza still cannot say if what they had was love.
Garcia Marquez’s lavish writing style only adds to the romance. He either researches exhaustively or has an amazing imagination, because he is constantly running off on tangents full of fantastical, historical detail. It can be a bit heavy going at times, but it communicates an intoxicating passion for life.
The narrative jumps around in chronology and occasionally repeats itself, which left me reading paragraphs and wondering if I’d mistakenly opened the book on the wrong section. Another minor quibble, which may have more to do with the translation than the author, is that the reader is often told that something will “never” happen, only for it to occur later.
As the story progresses, the metaphor of love as a disease, particularly such a messy, debilitating disease, becomes more and more appropriate. Garcia Marquez makes love an undeniable, all consuming force of nature that disregards social convention, logic and dignity. Love in the Time of Cholera is beautiful, insightful and honest, everything a novel should be.