Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Book Review: Love in the Time of Cholera

Title: Love in the Time of Cholera
Author: Gabriel García Márquez; English translation by Edith Grossman
Year Published: 1985, translation 1988
Genre: Romance, General and literary fiction, Erotica, Drama, Historical fiction

Florentino Ariza falls in love with the beautiful Fermina Daza, but just as the two are about to marry, Fermina breaks it off. Worse, she marries the prestigious Doctor Juvenal Urbino instead. Florentino lives a dissolute lifestyle as he pines for his true love, while the seemingly perfect Urbinos struggle with their marriage. Some fifty years later, the old paramours reunite, giving Florentino a second chance to declare his feelings.

Put this way, the plot sounds very straightforward, and I suppose it is. And yet, the book is absolutely captivating. Márquez brings his characters to life in a way that is simply masterful. The protagonists are only ever almost likeable (for me, at least), but there is no doubting that they are human in all their flaws and virtues. As you read their stories, you become intimately acquainted with who they are, how they feel and how they think, though at the same time, there is something about each person that is left a mystery. An exquisite depth and breadth of human experience is captured within these pages, from the mundane to the alarming. The book covers events as varied as Fermina’s and Urbino’s greatest argument (there was soap!) to Florentino’s defecation in a carriage and the brutal murder of a woman following infidelity.

Cholera is set in an unnamed city, presumably in Colombia, during the turn of the 20th century. It’s a context with various social, political and yes, medical concerns which all go to shaping the identity of the characters. Though the flavour of the setting suffuses the entire book, it never overwhelms; rather, it forms a natural part of the story, the characters and the writing. On that note, there is something sensual, visceral and almost sweaty about the way this book is written. I admire the English translator for having achieved (or preserved) this atmosphere, but at the same time, I can only at speculate as to how much has been lost in translation.

I will mention now that while romantic love is the focus of the book, sex and sex-related topics feature prominently. It is at this point that I turn to our hero Florentino Ariza. While some may see him as the ultimate romantic, to me, he is, more than anything, one seriously creepy dude. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he’s the most polarising character of the book. Be ye warned for the spoilery discussion below (though you might want to know about these things if you intend to read the book as a romance) – highlight to read.

<major spoilers>
So, how is Florentino creepy? Well, he “falls in love” with the thirteen year old Fermina at the moment he first he lays eyes on her, transforming into what we nowadays would call a stalker. While we get a great sense of his passion and obsession, there is no real sense of why he “loves” her so fiercely; he just does, or thinks he does. When he is rejected, he swears to stay faithful to her: after all, her husband has to die at some point. Later, after Florentino is sort of raped on a boat, he becomes a sex maniac. He dedicates himself to seeking out women who’ll have sex with him and he documents his encounters in writing. His various affairs (622 apparently) comprise a large portion of his life and of the book. But of course, our hero must stay true to his One True Love, meaning he basically treats these women as (thankfully consensual) sex objects.

As overblown and ridiculous as Florentino’s feelings might seem at times, it’s easy to believe that he believes them. Despite his shifty behaviour, it’s also possible to root for him and wish for his happiness… for most of the book.  For this reader, our hero crosses the moral event horizon when he goes all Humbert Humbert on us near the end, which, as a friend deftly put it, is “totally not cool”. At this point, I found him so morally repugnant that I was all the more amazed at my ability to still kind of sympathise for him. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that he can write a character so vile and so human, whose actions can be seen as both romantic and sociopathic at the same time. I found the ending, with all its romantic airs, to be highly unsettling. The book’s brilliant like that. 

Love in the Time of Cholera is an exploration of love and lust; it demands its reader to think about love and what it is. You may conclude that this is a story of the deepest love, or alternatively, that none of the characters know love at all. It makes you wonder what you know of love. Additionally, the book touches on themes of time and mortality. The foibles of the human body and the vicissitudes of aging are thrown into the limelight, adding another dimension to our thoughts on love – how it lasts and how it changes. There are no easy answers. These notions are integrated organically within the story, and to read and think about them is thus never a chore (…and that is all I will say about the book’s ~themes, for I am neither doing homework nor writing a set of CliffsNotes).

Beautifully written and startlingly human, I highly recommend Love in the Time of Cholera. While it’s an immersive read, you should know that it’s not a necessarily a comfortable one. It’s primarily a meditation on love, but it also deals with sex, perversion and degenerating bodies, which might not be what everyone is after. For what it’s worth, I personally found it tender, sad and disturbing – and much too ominous to be romantic (seriously, look at Florentino, man). It’s not so much a love story as a story about love. The book can be wonderfully romantic, frighteningly sinister, or something else entirely, depending on your interpretation, and that’s what makes Love in the Time of Cholera such a masterpiece.

Alex’s Rating: 4.5/5

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