Gabriel Garcia Marquez
“An Appreciation of Love, Aging, and Cholera”
By Richard Ault
The Man ….
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps the most honored and well-known Latin American novelist of the modern age was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1927. These origins identify him in Colombia as a “Costeño,” a native of the Caribbean coastal region of the country known for its color, vibrancy, and the rhythm of its music and language, contrary to the dreary, wet, mountainous interior where the capital city of Bogota is located. His Costeño origins will loom large in his life, his journalism, and his fiction. To Americans the most accessible entry to “Costeño” culture is Cartagena, a coastal city frequented by American cruise lines.
Marquez lived a childhood filled with considerable instability. His father was an itinerant pharmacist/homeopathic quack, and while his family still remained partially intact despite the instability he was raised frequently by his maternal grandparents in Aracataca, and moved occasionally to Barranquilla, the other primary Costeño city. These locations are significant because most critics identify the unnamed city at the center of our story as an amalgam of Cartagena and Barranquilla. In my opinion, the most important influence on young Gabriel was his grandfather, Gabriel Eligio Garcia, a man greatly respected in the Costeño region for his refusal to remain silent about political atrocities during Colombia’s seemingly endless civil war, in particular the massacre of perhaps as many as 3000 banana workers by thugs employed by the infamous United Fruit Company. These atrocities occurred the year after Gabriel’s birth. Indeed, his first novel, Leaf Storm, is a searing reimagination of these events.
After his secondary school graduation in 1947, Gabriel’s higher education took an uncertain path. He spent two years studying law at the National University in Bogota, largely to please his father. He transferred to the University of Cartagena in 1950 after the National University closed during a period of particularly intense political violence which is, after fùtbol, Colombia’s national pastime. His dedication to his legal studies was essentially non-existent and there is no record he ever attended a class in Cartagena. He gravitated to journalism at this time, and it is the profession that supported him, more or less, until the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude led to fame and some fortune.
Unsurprisingly, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was an outstanding journalist, pioneering what was, in effect, investigative journalism and, probably years before the term was even coined America. Similarly, Gabriel’s role as a journalist in Colombia presented a precarious way for him to make a living because of the instability of many of the country’s newspapers and magazines, to say nothing of having to navigate through the dizzying array of loyalties and betrayals in the seemingly never-ending “La Violencia” which gripped Colombia for much of the 20th century. Ultimately “La Violencia” morphed into the Narco-terrorism of Escobar, Ochoa, and Lederer. Luckily for Gabriel, by the time the Narcos came to prominence he had made his fortune and spent very little time in Colombia. Otherwise, it is likely that Pablo Escobar would have had him assassinated for dangling a participle.
Before we move to more literary concerns, we must speak a little about Gabriel’s politics. It will come as no surprise to anyone that he was a leftist and an undying admirer of Cuban dictator, Fidel Castro. Of course, we must place the leftist politics of almost all Latin American intellectuals into proper context. The sad reality is that without a democracy-promoting middle class, given the unholy alliance among the great landowners, the Church, the Military, and whatever western capitalists were relevant in a country (United Fruit, Anaconda Copper, Royal Dutch Shell, etc.) on the right, and the Socialists and Communists on the left, the choice was easy. And it was made easier still by the power and bumptiousness of the Great Gringolandia to the north. When Castro came along and thumbed his nose at the Yanquis, it was true love for Gabriel, a love that never wavered even after Castro revealed himself to be the murderous thug that he was. Gabriel’s later political journalism was marked by pirouettes and tight-rope walking worthy of a Wallenda to justify “La Revolución.”
And His Literature …
Throughout much of his professional life Gabriel (or Gabo to his friends) lived an almost hand-to-mouth existence, supported, such as it was, by his journalism. Despite the fact that he had been publishing fiction regularly since Leaf Storm in 1955 (it took him seven years to find a publisher) he saw very little material success until the publication of One Hundred Years of Solitude in 1967. This magnificent book ultimately sold over 30 million copies, led directly to the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and secured his financial future.
Of course, you can’t get far into a discussion of Gabo without coming to terms with the concept of magical realism. There are about as many definitions of this term as there are critics writing about it, though they all revolve around magical, fantastical, or supernatural themes and events woven into realistic or even mundane circumstances. As another essayist noted it is literature that suspends the physical laws of time, space, life, and death in otherwise realistic circumstances. For reasons that I am not capable of understanding magical realism has bloomed spectacularly in Latin American literature and Gabo is only one of many practitioners. The best I can do to understand magical realism is to propose two possible contributing factors to the phenomenon – First, the undeniable music in the Spanish language; second, the rampant despair and poverty in so much of Latin America which might promote a desire to escape the crushing reality.
Though critics may not consider Gabo the foremost magical realist, the broader world certainly does, all attributed to One Hundred Years of Solitude. This soaring multi-generational tale of the Buendia family and the Costeño town of Macondo is a breathtaking book. Yet this is, after all, a contribution to a medical literary journal, and I think I can better justify “El Amor en Los Tiempos del Cólera,” as at least tangentially appropriate to this journal’s themes.
I must admit that my absolute love for this book may be a bit unhinged. In my reading life, very few books have affected me as much as Cholera, and I have pondered why this is. I was particularly concerned when my wife, who is not an unsophisticated reader, was profoundly unimpressed with this book. I have thus decided that perhaps only men can be true romantics, and in my opinion the absolute best audience for this book is seasoned men who have experienced love and loss. So, yes possibly, I’m a bit biased. Perhaps it’s just good enough to say that I am a sucker for great characters, and I have never met a more compelling set in my five-plus decades as a reader. Florentino Ariza, Fermina Daza, and Dr. Juvenal Urbino came vividly alive to me, and even the lesser characters – Aunt Escholastica, Lorenzo Daza, Transito Ariza, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, and even that unnamed, malevolent Parrot provide a delicious richness that makes this book, for me, a transformational joy.
While in One Hundred Years, the magic is knitted deeply into the characters and the narrative at literally every point in the novel, Cholera, like several other Marquez books, wears its magic lightly. The book does have its moments – the preternaturally linguistic parrot; Fermina’s dreadful growing doll; the whistling scrotal hernia, the 622 serious assignations in 51 years, 9 months and 4 days (certainly magical for most of us), and my personal favorite: Florentino’s utter inability to compose a simple business letter, despite his immense talent writing love missives for himself and strangers as well in the “Arcade of the Scribes.” The magic in Cholera is an accompaniment to a story of love, obsession, and a bittersweet tale of aging.
And Now to “Cholera”
While to most it is the Feast of the Pentecost, for us it turns out that it is, in fact, “La Dia de los Muertos” as we meet Dr. Urbino, attending to the pre-arranged suicide of his friend, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who has died, according to Dr. Urbino, of “Gerontophobia.” And before this busy day ends the machinations of a malign parrot lead to the death of Dr. Urbino himself. In a few pages we see death at both ends of a bizarre spectrum – one a tightly planned, prepared, and intellectually justified exercise in self-destruction, and the other due to capricious and thoughtless chance, though clearly leavened by a dose of arrogance. At the end of these opening pages only Dr. l Urbino’s wife, the regal Fermina Daza remains. And just as memorable at 72, “Her clear almond eyes and her inborn haughtiness were all that were left to her from her wedding portrait, but what she had been deprived of by age she more than made up for in character and diligence.” She is, we quickly see, a woman of substance who could only stir strong feelings in men. But at this point little do we know how deep these feelings are in the heart of Florentino Ariza, our soon-to-be met protagonist.
A few pages further on, we discover that Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza were the victims of an erstwhile love torn apart by cruelty, class envy, and, perhaps in that time, inevitability. This drama launched them on two separate, but intertwined, paths.
Fermina Daza, of course, becomes the wife of Dr. Urbino, and he was the catch of the century in our Costèno city. He is a classically trained physician, a man of culture and refinement, and at least outwardly, a gentleman of the highest character. Above all, he is a man of the future. Throughout his distinguished medical career he advocates for modern medical practice, and in the seemingly unending battle against cholera, he is at least the savior of the city, if not the country. The marriage of Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza, though outwardly perfect in every way, is not without its challenges. Both are strong-willed which inevitably leads to small tensions and strains, though in the case of Dr. Urbino his stubbornness is multiplied by more than a whiff of childishness. He also succumbs to a dalliance with Barbara Lynch, Doctor of Theology, and this arrangement almost, but not quite, destroys his marriage. Despite these travails, Dr. Urbino and Fermina lead a successful and fulfilling life, and his last words to her are, I think, fitting – “You will never know how much I loved you.” That is a great exit line!
If one were worried that Fermina Daza’s widowhood would be empty and forlorn, leading to inevitable decline, one would not have taken the measure of Florentino Ariza, whom we shall now meet in depth. Just as Dr. Juvenal Urbino is a man of the future Florentino Ariza is indisputably a man of the past. He is the bastard son of Don Pius V Loayza and the remarkable Transito Ariza. Don Pius V discreetly provides for his son, but Florentino Ariza also benefits from his mother who owns a small notions shop, and also makes a very good living as a shylock to distinguished families who have fallen on hard times and cannot bear to borrow within their social circle. Don Pius V Loayza further insures a position for Florentino Ariza at The River Company of the Caribbean, where he is mentored professionally by his uncle, Don Leo XII Loayza, and carnally by Lotario (interesting name choice) Thugut, that rarest of all things, a randy German.
Despite having the material advantages to adopt the accoutrements of his times, Florentino remains sartorially a creature of the past – Formless home tailored black suits, high celluloid collars, hats of no style. And above all, he wears a perpetually mournful visage. A notable highlight of the adaptation of the book is Javier Bardem’s spot-on presentation of Florentino Ariza’s doleful passage through life in spite of the mediocre film depiction.
After Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza’s chaste youthful love affair is dashed by Fermina’s social climbing and thoroughly unpleasant farther, Lorenzo Daza, Florentino vows perpetual fidelity to his lost love, and goes on to violate it in the most spectacular way, though always keeping Fermina in his heart, if not in other organs. This is where the book becomes confounding. Less sophisticated readers will deem Cholera a love story, but this is unsatisfying, indicating a most superficial reading that is, frankly, troubling to me. The novelist, I think, plays with us a bit here and provides Florentino with clearly romantic traits. He is both a poet and a lover of poetry; he serenades his beloved (of the moment) with his violin; and that sweet, sad face – what women wouldn’t fall for it! Indeed, as Florentino begins to stray from his vows to Fermina, we at first view his conquests as almost comical. It’s as if comedy legend Stan Laurel were a secret Casanova. But, after his assignations with the Widow Nazaret, Auscenia Santander, and the woman from the insane asylum, events take a dark turn. We discover that Florentino Ariza, under the tutelage of Lotario Thugut, supplements his consequential assignations by “hunting little birds.” Now, to me, the term “hunting” is jarring and evocative of 20thcentury psycho-sexual killers more than our slightly absurd hero, and this more or less ruins the notion of a love story for me.
As we begin to doubt Florentino , events go from sinister to deadly. First, a thoughtless branding of Olimpia Zuleta’s belly leads to her gruesome murder at the hands of her enraged husband. Then, as Florentino Ariza’s 51 year, 9 month, and 4 days of combined vigil and bacchanal is approaching its end, things get downright creepy as America Vicuna enters our story. She is a fourteen year old blood relative of Florentino Ariza, though the exact degree of consanguinity is never established. Inevitably, she enters Florentino Ariza’s bed, making him a serious competitor to Lolita’s Humbert Humbert as the worst legal guardian ever!
It is in the midst of his dalliance with America Vicuna that Florentino Ariza learns that Dr. Juvenal Urbino has met the parrot with his name on it, and Fermina Daza is now free. Without a thought for America Vicuna and with cosmically awful timing, he bursts into the funeral to declare his undying and eternal love to the newly minted widow. She, in turn, with natural imperiousness, rejects him in no uncertain terms. But, of course, our story does not end here. As she settles into her widowhood Fermina begins to ponder the fact that she has lost her identity as anything other than Mrs. Juvenal Urbino, and that she now possesses perfect freedom to live the rest of her life as she pleases. Once again our story turns to romance, even if it is dimmed by the ravages of age. Step by step, Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are on a path leading inevitably to the luxurious cabin on the riverboat “New Fidelity.” “New Fidelity!” Really!
As our story comes to its floating climax there is still much to ponder. Shortly into the voyage, Florentino receives the fateful news that America Vicuna is dead by her own hand, and he internally vows that all he can do is stay alive and “not allow himself the anguish of that memory.” Is this an act of great self-control, or does it reveal him as nothing more than a monster? The river voyage provides us with a close-up look of love accommodating the realities of old age. The last pages are replete with images and events that shape the future for the aging Florentino and Fermina including the hostility of her children, her loss of hearing, and her lament, “I smell like an old woman!” And, as the couple’s long-delayed passion is consummated “… he dared to explore her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armored in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, the thighs with their aging veins.” Finally, there is their inexpert love-making, perhaps also qualifying as magical realism given the practice Florentino Ariza has had.
In the end, then, we are left only with cholera. Its imagery pervades the book. Dr. Juvenal Urbino has been a tireless combatant against the disease, promoting modern treatment, and more importantly, modern sanitation. His effort partially defeats the disease, particularly among the urban upper classes. The poor, however, continue to suffer as they remain living in squalor. The young Florentino Ariza, after his dismissal by Fermina Daza suffers from acute love sickness, the symptoms off which mimic those of cholera. However, in perhaps the most magical of moment in the book, the dread disease provides our lovers with an unlikely path to their future. After the “New Fidelity” encounters a massive epidemic upriver and has raised the yellow plague flag to speed its return to the city, Florentino orders the Captain to turn around and speed back to the plague zone. Incensed, the Captain asks, “And how long do you think we can keep up this goddam coming and going?”
Florentino had kept his answer ready for 53 years, 7 months, and 11 days and nights:
“Forever,” he said.
Richard Ault, MHSA, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management of the Fay W. Boozman College of Public Health.