A Review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera
I think, this, for the first time in the admittedly short history of my book reviews, is a review of a book I didn’t particularly enjoy. With writing about something that I didn’t enjoy outright, there come some difficulties and hurdles. These hurdles are especially pressing, as I didn’t hate this book – it just bored me quite often. Boring things always are particularly hard for my ADHD-brain, and I’m surprised I still managed to read this book so quickly despite the fact I often only managed to press on with a feeling of obligation.
Why did I feel obligated to read this book? Well, it’s lauded as one of the big works of Gabriel García Márquez who incidentally is a Nobel laureate in literature. This should give some indication to the importance this book assumes, and nevertheless, I did not enjoy it as much as I had expected. So this review will be tasked with the job of figuring out why this book disappointed my expectations, and maybe if this is an outlier in Gabriel García Márquez’ work.
As should be noted here, I don’t speak or read Spanish, I can cobble together a few words here and there with my Latin and French, but for this, I relied on a hopefully faithful translation into German by Dagmar Ploetz. To be exact I read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in its German translation as Liebe in den Zeiten der Cholera.
The Physical Book
My edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is the 14th German paperback edition published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in April of 2014, originally published as a paperback in Germany in February of 2004, 10 years earlier, and as a hardcover in 1987. The original Spanish edition was published in 1985.
The book itself is a paperback of middling sturdiness, its cover kept in dark red and purple with a flaming parrot painted by Brad Holland on the front. It’s an understated book despite the saturated colours on its cover. Fitting with the heat this book contains on so many levels.
Never is the city in which the plot primarily unfolds named, and that’s not to a detriment. Through some research and collection of geographical hints dropped within the book, the city could be identified as Cartagena in the north of Colombia, but as a reader, I’m not as much interested in the reality of a place as much as I’m interested in how much I feel like I can become a part of it. García Márquez manages exactly that with his descriptions of city through the lifetime of two adults some time from the latter half of the 19th to the earlier half of the 20th century. Through a changing environment and very much changing story, the city retains its own character.
This place is not, strictly speaking, beautiful. The city is not luring me to a visit (at least not a time-travelling one), but it is nevertheless a fascinating place, that came vividly into my mind with every single one of the 509 pages of this book I turned.
This plot is an outlier in the things I usually like to read, to some extent at least. It is centred around love. The title doesn’t hide it, but the love is not just a side story in a cholera epidemic, no it’s the main point and arguably the only “cholera” this story has to offer. This metaphor might be a bit blunt in English or in German but becomes a play on words in Spanish, or so I’ve heard.
The plot revolves around three main characters and their play around love and marriage. Florentino Ariza plays an extravagant play of courtship when he deeply falls in love with the young Fermina Daza, only to be booted out by her father and the successful and more privileged Dr Juvenal Urbino, who just returned from his studies in Europe. Still, Florentina Ariza vows eternal fidelity to Fermina and never marries. He sets out to wait for Dr Juvenal Urbino’s death in the hope to then get back together with the love of his youth.
He keeps his vows at first completely, but then only superficially as he discovers sex and tries to forget his aching love, that his mother at first compared to cholera, through sex. He becomes an outright sex-addict and his adventures cascade into more and more morally questionable behaviour as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, Fermina Daza experiences the heights and lows of her married life with Dr Juvenal Urbino.
This recounting of their adult lives is framed by the first and last chapter. The first chapter describes the last days of Dr Juvenal Urbino’s life and his death, with a parrot and a mango tree. The last chapter describes life after his death and a fateful voyage on one of Florentino Ariza’s company’s river steamers.
The plot keeps a surprising amount of elegance even if for me the constant love and sex of this story fell somewhat flat. I’m just not too interested in who fucks whom and loves whom with eternal faithfulness, I would have rather have the suicide with which this book opens explored more, but you can’t always get what you wish for.
The two characters this story centres around are two very different humans, at least on a surface level. After closer inspection, they exhibit striking similarities, however. Both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are societal upstarts, moving into the upper society of their city throughout their life. One through marriage, the other through work in anticipation of the end of said marriage.
The main characters are fully fleshed out over their lives. Our narrative point of view jumps back between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, with interludes of Fermina Daza’s husband Dr Juvenal Urbino being the focus of this story. And we follow these characters basically through their entire life from their adolescence to their death or their last years of life. No character is without their moral flaws. At least Florentino Ariza engages in outright gross behaviour at points in this story. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most constant identification points for the reader and to some degree, their flaws make them more human, even if they are still all members of privileged society, and to a striking extent cishet white and male.
Being gay is used as an element of social derision at many points in this book, but that’s probably in keeping with the time this book is set in, but nobody is actually gay. Black characters are mostly only introduced as potential love interests and with a weird racialising tone in their descriptions, to a point they are objectified. At several points, I was left wondering how much of these descriptions had to find their way into this book to capture the racialised tone of the time, or if it could have been framed better. At least a counterbalance to the racialising inner monologue of our main characters would have been a welcome refreshment.
Florentino Arizo appears definitely as a love-stricken sex addict, who doesn’t even recoil from morally questionable affairs with people way younger than him. Fermina Daza appears as a somewhat unwilling wife and victim of cultural expectations of womanhood and Dr Juvenal Urbino seems to be basking in his glory and privilege without being conscious of said privilege.
The Writing & Themes
So neither the characters nor the plot managed to grasp my attention. What kept me from throwing this book aside. Well, aside from the weird feeling of obligation I felt to read this book, there was the writing. I really enjoyed many of the descriptions this book had to offer, ad I felt engrossed by the general mood this book managed to set.
This might just be a case, of “this is not the best book to start with for Gabriel García Márquez”, but it was disappointing to me that a well-written book like this fell down in the plot department. The writing manages to incorporate its themes so well, and the structure is thought out excellently, it feels just like a world you can dive into without trouble.
Thematically, this book sets out multiple different points. There’s the comparison of love as an illness, that is masterfully incorporated in the wordplay around cholera and the physical heat. This oppressive heat was almost recognisable on my skin as I turned the pages of this book.
There are a few other themes that struck me while reading. One of them is the environment. This probably fits in with the theme of illness, at least they are closely connected. The destruction of the natural beauty of the woodlands and mangroves, the dead fish swimming in the overfished lagoon and the sewage of the city itself go hand in hand with the dangers of the cholera epidemic that stays in the background for the entirety of the whole plot. Though there are probably even more themes in this book that a reader could find, and that I could talk about after closer inspection and maybe a second read.
I struggle to recommend this book. If you’re interested so far, you should definitely be okay with reading detailed descriptions of sex and even sex in, in my opinion, abusive situations. This is not an easy read, and it definitely isn’t a book that hides its gruesome elements, be they death or promiscuity and rape.
Other than that, if you enjoy love stories and stories that follow through the lives of others, this is definitely a book for you. Though if you’re just starting out with Gabriel García Márquez, I would maybe recommend starting with another book or even better with his short stories. I myself am not terribly familiar with Latin American culture and writing and I’ve been told there are better things out there, but I also have to concede that in all of Latin American Writing there will be parts lost on me, just because I’m generally not familiar with it.
Maybe these losses hurt my general view on this book, but still for me this was a so-so experience. I enjoyed the writing, themes and descriptions. I missed some nuance to the characters sometimes, but enjoyed how relatable if morally questionable they appear, but I could not give much praise to the plot and story of this book, which just was too much of a privileged love story, that reminded me a bit too much of the somewhat cliché German institution of Rosamunde Pilcher movies.
My last book review was Four Gods of Nature about Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Up next probably a review of a non-fiction book: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?.
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