by Gabriel García Márquez
“There is a great deal that is interesting in cholera.” Chekhov
One seventh of July at six in the afternoon, a woman of seventy-two and man of seventy-eight ascend a gangplank to begin one of the greatest adventures in modern fiction. The man is Florentino Ariza, President of the Caribbean Riverboat Company. The woman is his childhood sweetheart, the recently widowed Fermina Daza. She has ear-ache. He is bald and lame. Their journey upriver holds out a shimmering promise: the consummation of an amor interruptus spanning half a century.
There are novels, like journeys, which you never want to end. They act as a temporary stand-in for life and compensate for its shortcomings. That is why, if I could be a fly on any wall in literature, I would choose the cabin of a Colombian riverboat in the mid 1920’s.
A book which becomes part of your life can have this effect: it sucks you into an imperishable world, yet you remember with a vivid clarity where you were when reading it. The book locates you. My first memory of Love in The Time of Cholera is of a square, dark room in the wintry melting-pot off London’s Portobello Road. At the time I understood fiction to be an on-going squabble. I believed that novelists write not only in response to life, but also in reaction to other novelists – from a grub of dissatisfaction. As the afternoon wore on, as the evening wore on, as the next day came and went, I arrived at the jetty on the Magdalena river with a conviction that even the most argumentative author would, on reaching this far, lay down their pen for a few beats. In the early hours of that September morning, for the moment at least, there seemed nothing interesting left to add. García Márquez had had the last word. He occupied the same pinnacle as did Tolstoy in Chekhov’s estimation: “As long as there is a Tolstoy in literature it is simple and gratifying to be a literary figure; even the awareness of not having accomplished anything and not expecting to accomplish anything in the future is not so terrible because Tolstoy makes up for all of us. His career is justification for all the hopes and expectations reposed in literature.”
It is a hard thing to describe what you really feel when a novel engages your emotions without in the least bit cheating them. A favourite book touches one like a lover, with a lover’s extravagance. With how many others, I wonder, do I share the novel’s promise that it calls uniquely to me, that I alone understand it. One, two, five million? But Love in The Time of Cholera earns its promiscuous appeal because it consoles us with a miracle, placing this miracle within the grasp of each one of us. We can have anything we want, it proclaims, as long as we demonstrate the patience and the stubborness and the faith. An epiphany to late-flowering love, it wears joyful on its sleeve the belief held by Florentino’s uncle, that life obliges human beings “over and over again to give birth to themselves”. It is heart-breaking, it is optimistic, it is snortingly funny. I have urged it on those owning to “a problem” with modern fiction, to couples in the agony of separation, and once to a friend who was dying. If she couldn’t face the whole book, I said, just read how Florentino Ariza embraces the destiny of his total baldness on page 257.
The exact date for the riverboat’s departure is not given. All the text tells us with certainty is that the first steamboat was registered on the Magdalena in January 1824, and that the elderly couple sail aboard the New Fidelity “more than a century” afterwards.
The last journey of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, if indeed made in 1924, would have coincided with the first publication of The South American Handbook. Designed to broadcast information “upon countries of which disproportionately little is known”, this annual guide became a traveller’s bible, indispensable.
The first edition confirms a number of European prejudices and brims with useful data – including a diverting essay on Nobel Industries, makers of explosives, bicycles and parrafin lamps. The guidebook warns of the advisabity of inoculation against contagious diseases. It records that the British Consul in Barranquilla, where García Márquez attended school and from where the boat departs, has authority to register lex loci marriages; and from it we learn that the Magdalena is navigable for 930 of its 2000 miles, and contains 500 tributaries.
The guide aimed part of its appeal at adventurous foreigners who contemplated an excursion into the interior.
Paddle up one of the Magdalena’s tributaries and conventional attitudes to time and space cease to apply. You enter the lost worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and Evelyn Waugh, which García Márquez would retrieve as his own.
In Waugh’s masterpiece, A Handful of Dust (1934), a dyed-in-the-wool Englishman abandons his brittle, unfaithful wife to Mayfair, and washes up in the South American jungle with calamitous consequences.
“Tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that.” Somewhere in a planter’s clearing, Tony Last is still reading Dickens to Mr Todd. His fate, among the most chilling in English fiction, sums up a widespread perception of the continent. This is a region, goes the uneasy feeling, where the casual visitor is swallowed up, preserved in a suspended state and doomed to repetition and obscurity, rather like a Conan Doyle dinosaur.
Love in The Time of Cholera presents an alternative vision which carries all the authority and authenticity of the home-grown. The future which Waugh would have us shrink from, García Márquez urges the reader to desire with longing. Asked by the Captain just how long the New Fidelity can hope to carry on steaming up and down, Fermina’s lovesick admirer delivers his unforgettable reply. “For the rest of our lives”.
Time, on this river, does not change. It winds back on itself, over troubled waters, deceptive rapids, innopportune sandbanks, mimicking the river. Even the riverboat personnel appear untouched by its passage. Twenty years later we find another European, Christopher Isherwood, embarking on his obligatory river trip. The agent of the Magdalena River Boat company is a dead-ringer for Florentino Ariza. “He has a bust of Verdi on his desk, and on the wall a coloured print of Jesus with the Sacred Heart, illuminated by red and blue electric lights.” Lofty and top-heavy, with curtained decks and a big paddlewheel, the agent’s boats have “the air of disreputable old hotels” – just like García Márquez’s brothels. In their stately and patient progress upstream, in the beat of their paddles like a succession of short snores, they remind one of the geriatric suitor who approaches a certain cabin door: Florentino Ariza himself, whose heart “has more rooms than a whore-house”.
García Márquez made this trip four times a year after moving from Barranquilla to a school near Bogota. The journey from the coast to the chill interior took a week. Not even the boats were indigenous. They were built in Cincinatti and modelled on Mississippi river-steamers: from the same world as his literary mentor, William Faulkner.
García Márquez was twenty-two when Faulkner flung down this blazing gauntlet. The young writer of today, he said, had “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing…” Until he remembered “the old verities and truths of the heart” he wrote under a curse: “He writes not of love, but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, and victories without hope and worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.”
Faulkner addressed his Nobel speech to the young men and women “among whom is already that one who will some day stand where I am standing.”
No better reminder exists to a budding writer of his duties and it would find no better student.
García Márquez shares with Faulkner the legacy of a society lessoned by defeat. He grew up in a place like the Deep South, intimate with racial tension, civil war, invasion. He responds to Faulkner’s world and, inevitably, to the world Faulkner creates; a world of time suspended, rocking on the rim of things. From Faulkner he would learn to situate his actions in a future which had already taken place. He learnt how to salvage his childhood.
García Márquez in an interview hints that Florentino’s journey with Fermina takes place “more or less when I was born, ” suggesting that he, the author, becomes the impossible fruit of it. In this voyage, he is telling us, he understands his origins.
He was born on March 6, 1928 in Aracataca, a banana town south of the coastal swamps. He had been alive eight months when the bananas started rotting on the trees: the United Fruit Company had stopped work. Among other grievances, the 32,000 strikers demanded payment in cash, and toilets. Soldiers shot them from a moving train “like rabbits”.
One night 120 strikers were captured, taken to the cemetery, executed. The Conservative government forbade mention of the incident. It was excised from the history books. It had not happened. García Márquez’s first taste of forgetfulness.
He grew up in a violent place. His earliest memory was of a decapitated man. He ran outside to see the man’s wife walking beside her husband, cradling a head in her arms. The man had come off worse in a machete fight and rags covered his body. García Márquez was disappointed not to see it. He was three or four. “The fact is,” reckoned Flannery O’Connor, another Southern writer who finds a responsive chord in him, “anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
He survived his childhood without his parents. Love in The Time of Cholera is in part a chronicle of their courtship. Gabriel Eligio García was a Conservative, a philanderer and a medical student who became a telegraph operator. He fell in love with a Colonel’s daughter, Luisa Santiago Márquez Iguaran. He wooed her with his violin, with secret love poems and telegraph messages – as in the novel, “word for word”. The Colonel, a Liberal, opposed the match after learning that Gabriel had fathered four illegitimate children. He packed Luisa on a mule and sent her on a journey calculated to forget the man he described as a “dead leaf”. It had no effect whatsoever.
García Márquez would be the eldest of twelve more children. Gabriel and Luisa were poor and he lived instead with his mother’s parents, in their spacious house in Aracataca. For eight years this was his world. “I feel that all my writing has been about the time I spent with my grandparents.” His grandfather, the Colonel, was a veteran of several civil wars. He had killed a man in a duel and could think of no greater burden. He taught García Márquez how to use a dictionary, took him to the circus, introduced him, at the United Fruit Company store, to ice. “My grandfather was the biggest eater I can remember, and the most outrageous fornicator.”
Few male novelists understand women so well as García Márquez, a knowledge he owes to his Aracataca childhood. He grew up among stable and practical females and saw the world through their eyes. Between the rooms bustled his grandfather’s illegitimate daughters, his great aunts and – most important of all – his grandmother, Tranquilina Iguaran Cotes. A woman like Fermina, of rough honesty with her feet on the ground, she was the originator of his story-telling.
She lived by her premonitions. She told fantastic tales with absolute conviction and “a brick face”. If he moved at night, dead people would come out of the rooms. “Don’t listen to that,” grumbled his grandfather. “Those are women’s beliefs.” But García Márquez didn’t dare budge. “It was like being in the Roman Empire, governed by birds, thunderclaps and other omens.”
Later, he knew he would be a writer when he read The Metamorphosis and recognized in Kafka the voice of his blind grandmother: her lapidary phrases, her archaic vocabulary, her deadpan delivery “in a completely natural tone of voice”. He reasoned if Tranquilina had told him of supernatural things and he had believed them, why not write the same way?
It was a defining moment, but there is another. García Márquez is twenty-one. He has come back with his mother to sell his grandparents’ house. He has not returned to Aracataca since he was eight. He walks up the hot, dusty street, where he used to breathe dust at midday. “The houses were exactly the same, but eaten away by time and poverty and through the windows we saw the same furniture, but fifteen years older.”
This return to his childhood home is crucial to an understanding of his work. “When we find the world too bad,” Flaubert wrote, “it is necessary to take refuge in another.” So with García Márquez. Fiction enables him to pass again through those windows. His novels are preoccupied with reclaiming a lost world, of tapping out worms and arresting decay. Which explains his attraction to the Deep South. “The atmosphere, the decadence, the heat in the village were roughly the same as what I had felt in Faulkner.” For both writers, the past was a refuge which loomed over the present. It had be wrested back from the margin and restored with baroque care, in a language that would make it ineradicable. This is when we were important.
He has a phrase for this process of recuperation. He calls it “the poeticisation of space”.
In 1982, García Márquez repeats Faulkner’s achievement. He uses his Nobel speech to reiterate the marvellous things seen by Pigafetta when circumnavigating the globe for the first time. He reminds his audience of a Latin American reality.
“He had seen hogs with navels on their haunches, clawless birds whose hens laid eggs on the backs of their mates, and others still, resembling tongueless pelicans, with beaks like spoons. He wrote of having seen a misbegotten creature with the head and ears of a mule, a camel’s body, the legs of a deer and the whinny of a horse. He described how the first native encountered in Patagonia was confronted with a mirror, whereupon that impassioned giant lost his sense to the terror of his own image.”
Held up to European eyes, García Márquez implies, Latin America has never shaken off this image. The continent remains but a series of bizarre and troubling reflections. Either it conveys a landscape of tropical excesses, of talking pomegranates and the unlikely levitations which García Márquez himself had helped propagate; or else it has to be domesticated in terms of a cartoon. As the doctor says with a laugh in No One Writes to the Colonel: “To the Europeans, South America is a man with a mustache, a guitar and a gun.”
This European distortion prompts García Márquez to lament to the Swedish Academy “the lack of conventional means to render our lives believable”. It was, he said, “our crucial problem”.
He sought an answer in his next novel which would be both conventional and contemporary. Published in 1985, it was “the book that was written from my gut.” The Novel Prize, instead of silting him up – as it had silted Camus and others – released him. He had no hesitation in calling the novel “my best”.
No modern novel on the face of it could be more conventional. Love in the Time of Cholera is stiff with nineteenth century godfathers. There are little genuflections made to Dumas, to Proust, to Conrad, to Flaubert, who wrote in a letter: “You know that it has long been one of my dreams to write a romance of chivalry.”
Among other influences are: Maria, by the romantic Colombian novelist Jorge Isaacs; Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague year; Albert Camus’s The Plague; and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which García Márquez has pronounced perfect. “Behind every idea,” he says, “there is a thousand years of literature.”
The novel, in its sumptuous evocation of period, has invited comparison to a turn-of-the-century photograph album: all lace and sepia and powdered faces. But that suggests it’s safe. It’s not. The book opens with a photographer of children killing himself with photographic acid because he can’t stomach the prospect of growing old. From the first page, García Márquez subverts the conventions he appears to celebrate. He decks his characters in the latest European clothes, but their bodies, their hearts are Colombian.
García Márquez undermines as well any expectations we bring to his work. Bolivar waiting for a passport. The Colonel waiting 56 years for his war pension. His stories tend to be studies in postponement. There’s a lot of standing around, waiting for something to happen when, in fact, everything has happened already. They champion defeat, not victory.
“And meanwhile what do we eat?” she asked and seized the colonel by the collar of his flannel night shirt. She shook him hard.
It had taken the colonel seventy-five years – the seventy-five years of his life, minute by minute – to reach this moment. He felt pure, explicit, invincible at the moment when he replied:
Love in the Time of Cholera signals a new departure. It looks back, at the wake, yet also forward. It is propelled not by fatalism, but by nostalgia. “All my life I have been a romantic,” García Márquez told an interviewer. “But in our society once youth is gone, you are supposed to believe that romantic feeling is something reactionary and out of style. As time passed and I grew old I came to realise how primordial these sentiments are.” Having sacrificed himself in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Autumn of the Patriarch (1975) to violence and power and ideology, this time he dedicates himself to the triumph of romantic love.
He draws for his plot on stories from three generations:
– his affair with Mercedes Barcha Pardo whom he met in Sucre, Colombia, when she was 13 and he was 18. He proposed soon after. Twelve years later they married. They are married still. The novel is dedicated to her.
– the courtship of Luisa and Gabriel, opposed by the Colonel. “Since I was a little boy I had heard my parents tell stories about their love affairs and these stories always appeared to me a little ridiculous. As I came closer to 60, they seemed less ridiculous to me.”
– the stories of Tranquilina Iguaran Cotes.
“We’re fighting this war against the priests so that a person can marry his mother,” says a Liberal soldier in One Hundred Years of Solitude. In his new novel, García Márquez takes the sentiment a stage further – to embrace his grandmother.
If Sophocles stands at one end, at the other stands Julio Iglesias.
Cocteau claimed Les Enfants Terribles was written under the obsession of the song “Make Believe” from Showboat. “If you like this book, buy the record of the song, and then reread it with the volume turned up”. To the delight of the Spanish singer, García Márquez confided that he had written a substantial part of Love in the Time of Cholera while listening to an album of Iglesias’s boleros.
If true, not surprising. García Márquez feeds off many currents: classical to modernist. (Alert to the transitoriness of the latter, in one hysterical scene he has a Chinese immigrant win a prestigious poetry competition. When the laureate reads aloud his sonnet: “No one understood him”). Equally, he warms to the hyperboles of mass entertainment. His characters have a “maniacal” love for popular music, for sentimentality, for melodrama. Their hearts throb to the infallible clichés of the soap opera, which, he believes, intellectuals have left in the hands of the inept.
“I believe most tele-novellas are bad because they don’t have any literary quality. But the facts and the situations are real. They are the situations of life.”
He plunders this repertoire for his novel. He removes the clichés from their stocks, slaps them back to life and restores to old tricks their apparent guilelessness. He prizes two clichés above others: the vow of eternal love, and the notion that as we steam towards old age so we revert to the state of our childhood.
The plot would not shame a soap. In an unnamed coastal city – a combination of Barranquilla, Cartagena and Santa Marta – a young telegraph operator falls in cataclysmic love with a haughty and unpredictable young girl, Fermina Daza. Her father has more advanced plans for her, but Florentino Ariza writes 70-page letters full of half-baked endearments filched from tearful serialised romances. The letters work. She agrees to marry him and he promises perfect fidelity, everlasting love and not to make her eat eggplant. In a world where physical ailments reflect aspects of character, his chronic constipation mirrors his chronic romanticism.
Then, meeting her by chance in the Arcade of Scribes, Florentino says the wrong thing. Where a glance had installed his love, so a sentence destroys it. Fermina rejects her fiancé in “a lightning flash of maturity”, erasing Florentino with a hand-wave.
She marries, soon after, a fastidious physician. Dr Juvenal Urbino is recently returned from Europe. They have two children. Ideally, Dr Urbino would like a third, to be called after “the best-loved word in the house”: Eggplant Urbino. In a classic tribute to life’s unpredictability Fermina is now the vegetable’s most fervent consumer. The marriage is a long and bourgeois affair. For Fermina’s husband, a good marriage is not happiness but stability; the consolation of old age, “sexual peace”.
In his sexual contentment and conformism, Dr Urbino is not unlike Charles Bovary, doctor and domino player who subscribes to La Ruche Medicale to keep himself up to date. In a similar fashion, he himself is “always very alert to latest trends from Europe.” He is rooted on shore, in the provincial city, not in the flowing river. All his thoughts and habits are borrowed. He has much in common with his parrot.
Dr Urbino’s suit, in contrast to Florentino, had not been undertaken “in the name of love”. He is an examiner; he doesn’t participate. He knows how to manipulate the glands, but not the heart. In the conduct of his sole infidelity, panic-stricken with his trousers about his knees, he stays the exact time needed to give an injection.
Instead, he reserves his passions for his parrot, “whom he loved as if he were a human being”; his games of chess (his “ruling passion”); and his city, which obsesses him with its dangerous lack of sanitation.
Florentino, consigned to the shadows, does not give up hope. Far from it. While his rival devotes himself to “the ethical management of forgetfulness”, Florentino carries treasured in his memory every detail of his youthful passion. He is not motivated by politics – “his indifference to politics hovered on the absolute”; nor by religion, being “in no way expert in matters pertaining to the church”. What fires him, what places him in a state of permanent grace, is love: “not the means to anything, but the alpha and omega and end in itself”.
No other man, writes García Márquez, was so in need of love. Ignored by her, forgotten, Florentino continues to behave as if he is the eternal husband of Fermina Daza (known always by her unmarried name). To win her back becomes his sole purpose. For half a century he is never seen with a girl – just with a vampire’s umbrella, in funereal clothing. Yet all the while he is hunting them down, out of sight, like a chicken hawk, “sleeping with them for as long as they pleased him, for as long as he could, for as long as they liked” – but never so that it interferes with his determination to remain free for Fermina. So that when, at last, the time comes to re-woo her, he knows what he’s talking about.
By this time Florentino Ariza is seventy-six years old and it promises to be a love among the ruins.
Old age is not a territory crowded with examples of passionate romance. Conventional morality stands guard too closely, like a Hemingway barfly. “I wouldn’t want to be that old,” says the barfly. “An old man is a nasty thing.” One is aware of Fermina’s daughter, circling. “Love is ridiculous at our age,” she shouts, “but at theirs it’s revolting.”
A casual reference to Florentino’s “sentimental education” reminds us of García Márquez’s debt to Flaubert, whom he reread in order to prepare his assault on this bastion. In A Sentimental Education, Frédéric meets Madame Arnoux on a river boat and she becomes the glittering focus of his life. He waits a mere twenty-seven years for her to climb his stairs. At last she seems prepared to give herself to him. “At my age! Frédéric! No woman has ever been loved like I have! What’s wrong about not being young? I don’t care.” But Fréderic does care. Suddenly, repugnance and terror overcome him. Alarmed at his expression, she scissors off a lock of white hair – and flees forever.
No such flight takes place in García Márquez. What in real life morality squashes and stunts finds in his fiction a sanctuary, a breathing place. Jubilantly, with yellow flag flying, he recaptures the terrain of old age, a time “when no one is left to give orders”, and salvages it as a thriving concern.
Si la vieillesse pouvait. This is García Márquez’s revolution: to show us it can.
Old age, like “the bitter breath of vulcanized rubber”.
Did ever a novel smell so much? Old clothes. Camphor. Foul winds from the port. The ammoniac fumes of Dr Urbino’s urine, fuelled by asparagus. The “tender breath of human shit, warm and sad”. Bitter almonds.
Flannery O’Connor, in an essay on the novel, pooh-poohs the writer who is immediately concerned with grand ideas. A novelist, she says, must appeal through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses through abstractions. Her lesson should be branded on every novelist’s forehead: fiction deals with reality through what can be smelt, tasted, touched, heard and seen. “The writer should never be afraid of staring.”
García Márquez stares as much as he sniffs. Take the scene when Florentino’s uncle blunders into the office and interrupts Florentino with a girl on his lap.
He stares at his terrified nephew over his eyeglasses.
“I’ll be damned!” said his uncle without the least sign of shock. “You screw just like your dad!”
García Márquez shares the gift of Florentino’s uncle, the gift of any great novelist: he looks, but doesn’t moralise. He is the least moralistic writer you can imagine. Even Fermina’s marriage to Dr Urbino is bathed in compassion. He sees the frustrations, the silly lies about soap, but there is also delight and tenderness (a word, as Bunin said when using it of Chekhov, which should be used rarely). “In the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.”
The novel, unlike, say, One Hundred Years of Solitude, presents a world in which anything is possible. It is immensely realistic. “Magic realism” is confined to the ghost of a woman waving from the riverbank. García Márquez examines life in such clear colours that we can taste it, like the tea which tastes of window or the litre bottle of cologne which Florentino drinks until dawn. He cares what each object is made of: “Wooden water collectors whose stone filters dropped day and night into huge earthenware pitchers.” His descriptions smack of emphatic images. A man’s rosebud genitals; the scrapes of elementary school on a girl’s knees; Fermina’s “masculine laced oxfords” or her highwayman’s cigar, which she smokes backward, with the lit end in her mouth. The details jar, but they’re appropriate. They give to his characters a mineral edge, anchoring them in this world, not in the fantasy of a two centavo romance.
García Márquez recreates things so that they’re palpable, brings them close, but his perspective is panoramic. “Springy,” says V. S. Pritchett of his writing: you can bounce on it to the sky. Drifting over space and time, he views his world as if from the balloon in which Fermina and her husband ascend on the occasion of the new century. He is not an intrusive narrator. Rather, like Flaubert, he forgets himself into his characters. And because he loves them without exception, they move with an emotional freedom, unselfconscious. At will he is able to lower and raise himself in their imaginations, through his spyglass catching them in unguarded moments: Fermina sleeping with her hand across her forehead, Florentino seeing her face in a restaurant mirror. García Márquez conjures their presence with a gesture, a sentence. His characters don’t say much; he restricts their lines to a peremptory phrase at the end of a long, lyrical passage. But we know what they’re thinking. They stay in our mind in the way Fermina remains fixed in that mirror. And which Florentino buys because, for two hours, it was occupied by her reflection.
He sees to the bottom of everything, from a cripple’s heart to an ocean. A favourite passage describes Euclides, the swimmer whom Florentino employs to dive for treasure which he might give Fermina. One day Euclides reports that he has found a sunken fleet of caravelles with their sails still intact. “… it seemed as if they had sunk with their own space and time, so that they were still illumined by the same eleven o’clock sun that was shining on Saturday, June 9, when they went down.” Piffle, of course. An invention to keep Florentino happy. But it describes well the effect of García Márquez’s prose, his “poeticisation” of space. Whatever it touches, it preserves with a luminous freshness.
This is his aim: “to take the reader by the scruff of the neck from the first line to the last.” Like Flaubert, he reads each sentence aloud so that it sounds accessible, right. “I’m obsessed for the words to resonate in the reader as they do in me.” His paragraphs ring clear and simple. You don’t stumble over them. His achievement is no less splendid than is Tolstoy’s in that sacred cow, Anna Karenina, only it is much more readable. How many of us, seriously, skip Levin’s meditations on fieldwork? García Márquez makes it impossible for us to skip. A near chapterless flow carries everything in its stream: sweet-scented camellias, iguana-shaped condoms, putrefying garbage.
His world, as a result, may be scrupulously lush, yet not a word disturbs the undergrowth. His adjectives are exact, unnoticeable as leaves. He explains his secret: “If you say 200 elephants passed by, it’s difficult to believe you. If you say 232, one starts to have doubts. If you say 232 and seven cubs and you say it with great assurance, I believe the figure.”
Hence we believe Florentino’s wait: fifty-three years, seven months and eleven days and nights.
He loses his virginity first time round on the river. He is twenty-two and in mourning for Fermina, about to marry. A hand seizes him while he walks on deck, drags him into a cabin. Florentino never sees his seductress in the dark, but García Márquez describes her as an ageless panther and I like to think that in his description he gives leave for us to imagine that this is the mature Fermina, pouncing from the future. Only Fermina is described as possessing “beautiful panther’s eyes” – and doesn’t she go disguised as a black panther to a fancy dress ball? Her seduction releases Florentino, the chronic constipator, from his preposterous clichés. She shows him that illusory love can be replaced by earthly passion, by the intriguing positions he has observed through the key-holes of a brothel: the bicycle on the sea, the chicken on the grill, the drawn and quartered angel. Whoever she is, she gets him a life.
So begins his apprenticeship, to fill with truth and meaning a love which, this far, has remained unearned and borrowed. As he embarks on the long journey which will culminate in his second courtship, no avenue is left unexplored. Emergency love, hurried love, loveless love, solitary love, every love except married love. His teachers come from all ages, in every shape and size. Sopranos with astronomical bosoms, “skinny young tadpoles who would leave the man who bragged most about his virility ready for the trashcan”, an escapée from the lunatic asylum who has decapitated a guard. At least 622 women, their names filling 25 notebooks, each name teaching him the same vital lesson: that “nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love”.
Half a century on Dr Urbino dies while rescuing his escaped parrot from a mango tree and the time comes for Florentino to present himself again to Fermina. He is now a senile baby, “old and lame, but real.” He has learnt an enormous amount in the interval. The 140 new letters he writes to Fermina are not feverish but clear-sighted, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit. They have experience and substance behind them, a foundation in reality. They allow Fermina “to understand her own life and to await the designs of old age with serenity”. We need not know their contents. It is enough for García Márquez to summarize the first letter with which Florentino recommences his courtship: “it was a meditation on life, love, old age, death”.
The letters, in other words, contain the novel.
And so the moment arrives, shortly after eight in the evening, when the New Fidelity , this “breathing boat”, swings into the Magdalena and the band strikes up a popular tune. At an age when they should reasonably “expect nothing more from life” García Márquez is about to reward Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza with a love which is passionate and sexual, and “more solid” than any childhood affair because it stands that much closer to death. Their two names which begin and end with the same initials, like a bow and stern, now merge into one horizon.
Who knows what will happen when the boat disappears from our view? Maybe Florentino’s intrepid hopes will be realised. Maybe Fermina’s fears. (Notice how haunted she is by the story of an ancient couple, for forty years clandestine lovers, who are beaten to death by a ship’s captain. The New Fidelity’s captain, ominously, has worked on the river forty years).
García Márquez leaves open both possibilities. But at Tunchiplaya, near Iquitos, twelve hundred miles south, I have with my own eyes seen the painting of a phantom paddle boat. On the night of the full moon, this mysterious shape can be observed steaming by, while her passengers dance on deck in formal dress and indulge below in bacchanals. The Indians believe the boat plies up and down the river forever. I hope so.
Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice: Love in the Time of Cholera satisifies each of Faulkner’s verities. It has its roots in the Old World, but is not of it. It is a nineteenth century novel written with the sensibilities of the millennium. It might appear in conventional frills parading the stock clichés of undying love, but underneath that lace it proposes, in all seriousness, something more subversive, more affirming. We can have what we want, says García Márquez. But we may have to wait a lifetime to appreciate properly its worth. To be worthy of our desire.