Love in the Time of Cholera has to be one of the most beautiful novels ever written. Young Florentina Ariza falls hopelessly in love with adolescent Fermina Daza. He is so smitten that for two weeks he can do nothing else but sit in the park and ogle at her as she walked home with her aunt. He soon gets the courage to write her a note which expressed his feelings: all sixty pages of it, written on both sides, which he could recite from memory.
The two soon fall in love, and for the next two years there is a frenetic exchange of love letters even though they hardly talk to one another. Finally, Florentina Ariza asks Fermina Daza to marry him, and she accepts. Fermina’s father, the cunning and calculating Lorenzo Daza, gets wind of the affection between the two and takes his daughter away so that she can forget about Florentina Ariza. Lorenzo has greater ambitions for his daughter. It is a scheme that works. When Fermina Daza finally returns to her hometown, she was disgusted with herself for ever falling in love with Florentina.
Fermina Daza is soon wooed and married by the respected, charming and rich Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The happiness in Fermina Daza’s marriage only lasted as long as her honey moon. She soon realised that her husband was a weak and passionless man without even the poetic charms of Florentina Ariza. She loathes her ‘imbecilic‘ and ‘half-mad’ in-laws. She felt lonely in her large house. She even began to have indecent dreams of unclad men that a happily married woman shouldn’t have. When asked at confession if she was ever unfaithful to her husband, she abruptly and wisely leaves never to go back again.
Dr.Juvenal Urbino justifies his own weakness by blaming the institution of marriage. It was an ‘absurd invention that could only exist by the infinite of grace of God,’ he railed After all it went against all reason that two people of different backgrounds, character and even gender could be expected to be committed to living with one another when they had separate destinies.
Florentina Ariza didn’t fare well either. When Fermina Daza got married, never a day passed without him pining for her. He was so tormented by her memory that he daily prayed for Dr. Urbino’s death. He embarked on startling promiscuity, and by the time Dr. Urbino dies, fifty-one years, nine months, and four days since Fermina Daza rebuffed his advances, ‘he had some twenty-five notebooks, with six hundred and twenty-two names of long -term liaisons.’
I asked myself of Florentina Ariza, undoubtedly the main character in the story, as I read the book: ‘How do I describe thee? He seems to be a compound of romance which though noted is not admired, and of lust which is detested and despised. Was he stricken by obsessive-compulsive behaviour? What kind of young man would write a sixty-six page love letter to a girl he hardly knows? What sane person would wait five decades for love? If you do find it, how much of it will be left to enjoy after all that time? What sane person would drink cologne so that he may know his lover’s scent?
Was he an unrepentant sadist? Hamlet uses the sword to slay his enemies. Florentina Ariza’s conquest of his vulnerable women suggests rage and retaliation for his rejection. He makes no distinction between the married and the unmarried or children and adults. Even when one of his lovers is slain by a jealous husband, he continues indiscriminately and almost without lamentation with his amorous and loveless pursuits. In the end he deserts his fourteen-year old lover, and niece, to be reunited with Fermina Daza. As he stumbles in pain, self-pity, and fury through the story, one is tempted to say to him, like Laertes to Hamlet: ‘the devil take your soul‘.
However it is difficult not to love the character of Florentina Ariza. Though wanton he is no cad, and his character is stained with no crime. He never stopped weeping about the rebuff from Fermina. Even the women, who fall for him, seem to do so out of pity, as he hovers like an abandoned puppy around the ruins of his love. It is as if they can, like the reader, see his devastated and prostrate soul. They offer him companionship even though they perhaps realise they cannot give him fulfilment.
When Dr. Urbino finally dies at the age of eighty one, though Florentina Ariza made a point of going to see for himself his dead rival lying in his conjugal bed at his house, he didn’t rejoice. Instead, he ‘suffered a crisis of constipation that swelled his belly like a drum.’ Thus the author leaves it to the reader to unravel these varied and confounding facets of Florentina Ariza’s tragic and yet still comic character.
The book has a wonderful ending. After a year of widowhood Fermina Daza finds her heart softening towards Florentina Ariza. The two started writing love letters to each other again. There is something charming about the river ride on a boat that the two old lovers take. As the boat reaches its final destination, Fermina Daza sees people she knows and understandably seeks to avoid them.
Florentino Ariza coaxes the Captain to raise the yellow flag of cholera, which he does. There remain no passengers aboard but Fermina, Florentino, and the Captain. No port will allow them to dock because of the reported cholera outbreak, and they are forever ‘exiled’ to cruise the river. You wonder, as they sail away, if the two aged lovers will indeed find the happiness that had eluded them all their lives.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez must have spent a lot of time studying humanity-an enquiry that he conducted in great depth and with great interest. In this story he delves beyond superficial emotions and deftly describes the fears, desires, and the uneasiness below the surface. He cunningly refrains from moral judgement. As one reads the book one is constantly in touch with writer’s formidable and ranging mind. Once again the reader is afflicted with a multiplicity of emotions-a rollercoaster ride of both joy and sadness.
Love in the Time of Cholera is a true classic, and an amazing celebration of literature.