Review: Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera”

by Miles Raymer

Love in the Time of Cholera

This is the third novel I’ve read by Gabriel García Márquez, and I won’t be surprised if it turns out to be the last. Love in the Time of Cholera is a beautifully-written book packed with a wealth of vibrant symbolism, but its thematic and interpersonal qualities are unmistakably corrupt.

Márquez’s prose––expertly enlivened by Edith Grossman’s translation––is the obvious reason why Love in the Time of Cholera should be considered an important literary achievement. The book’s long chapters unfurl in a discursive, time-traveling stream of consciousness that requires a huge amount of concentration but offers rich rewards to the careful reader. Here’s just one of many notable gems:

Life in the world, which had caused her so much uncertainty before she was familiar with it, was nothing more than a system of atavistic contracts, banal ceremonies, preordained words, with which people entertained each other in society in order not to commit murder. The dominant sign in that paradise of provincial frivolity was fear of the unknown. (211)

The “she” here is Fermina Daza, a woman who is both the carnal and symbolic heart of the novel. A beautiful young woman brought up in a late 19th-century Caribbean port, Fermina Daza is sought after by two very different men: Florentino Ariza and Dr. Juvenal Urbino. These men, as Márquez puts it, “were victims of the same fate and shared the hazards of a common passion; they were two animals yoked together” (191). While Florentino Ariza is a poetic symbol of the romantic era, Dr. Juvenal Urbino is a champion of scientific rationality and the “progress” of industrialization. Both characters are drawn with compassionate precision, though I wish Márquez had fleshed out Urbino a bit more and spent less time on Ariza.

The symbolic layers of Fermina Daza are more difficult to peel away. Sometimes I felt that she was an avatar for the entire planet, a gorgeous and enigmatic pulse of life utterly unmoved by the desires of humankind. Other times she appeared to be a testament to male ineptitude and ignorance, an incarnation of the zero-sum illusion that there’s not enough love and happiness in the world for each man to find his own. By novel’s end, sadly, she began to represent not a defiance of male idiocy but merely an exhausted conduit through which its decrepit final gasps might be sustained.

This brings us to Love in the Time of Cholera‘s shortcomings, which are significant and damning. As I’ve come to expect from Márquez, the novel is replete with sexism. Toxic gender relations are less pronounced early on, but become more problematic as the story develops. There are also many instances of racism that contemporary readers will find distasteful. In one sense, these are merely accurate depictions of views that were commonplace more than a century ago, but “great” literature is supposed to age well, and this simply hasn’t.

There’s lots of sex and infatuation in this novel, but very little cholera and even less love. Márquez’s conceptualizations of love, though wrapped in beguiling language, are so hyper-focused on bodies and sex acts that one wonders if the author has any idea of love that transcends physical desire. What Márquez calls “love” I would recognize as childish obsession at best, and he uses the word to describe not just all kinds of consensual sex but also instances of sexual assault and child molestation.

Without a doubt, the novel’s most repellent feature is its main character, Florentino Ariza. He starts out as a pitiable boy unable to recover from his first encounter with heartbreak, but then develops into an emotionally-stunted asshole whose “chronic romanticism” and constant philandering become first tiresome and then depraved (325). He sleeps with scores of women in a futile effort to erase the disappointment of Fermina Daza’s rejection, fumbling his way into old age without a hint of genuine growth, acceptance, or grace.

Worst of all, Florentino Ariza manages to win Fermina Daza back in the end, which simultaneously undermines her symbolic autonomy and seems to excuse (or at least downplay) his utter lack of maturity. Had Fermina Daza repudiated him one last time, I would have loved this book dearly. But instead I saw Love in the Time of Cholera for what it is: a pretty relic that, while offering a unique window into humanity’s past, will find itself less and less at home in our future.

Rating: 4/10