‘One Hundred Years Of Solitude’ is 50, but ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is Marquez’s greatest

‘One Hundred Years Of Solitude’ is 50, but ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is Marquez’s greatest
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I first read Love in the Time of Cholera in 2005, during a 28-hour journey in the fastest train to Guwahati from Delhi. I was captivated.

I was going to spend the summer holidays after exams and it seemed like the perfect treat to begin the three-month long break. Unlike many others, One Hundred Years of Solitude wasn’t my first Garcia Marquez. In fact, I only read it when I had to, for a course during my masters.

At the end of One Hundred Years, Macondo – the town where the novel is set and where the twists and turns in the lives of six generations of the Buendia family unfold under Garcia Marquez’s epic tone and breathless narration – is swept away by a tumultuous wind, leaving no traces behind. The world that Garcia Marquez had meticulously created, which had no name when the first of the Buendias had arrived, was mercilessly obliterated by the author until everything that was named or created was destroyed in the powerful storm – “because the races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

This is the bleak note on which the novel reaches its closure. The ending is disturbing, as it leaves no possibility of redemption in the created world. Of course I was fascinated by the work, and I agree that it is one of the most important and most influential novels of the twentieth century. But then, I hadn’t read Absalom Absalom, which ends the same way.

I didn’t know Garcia Marquez had taken a bus tour in Mississippi, where Faulkner’s novel is set, before writing One Hundred Years. It took me a while to discover that the greatest of the world’s novelists were also singing to us through its prose: Faulkner, Kafka (his reading of Metamorphosishad influenced Garcia Marquez immensely), Joyce, and his own grandmother – because Garcia Marquez attempted to narrate the “way my grandmother used to tell stories.”

Love as illness

Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), which I re-read last autumn, was the first novel he published after winning the Nobel Prize in 1982 . Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall in love in an unnamed port city (similar to Aracataca where he grew up), against the backdrop of a spreading cholera epidemic. But her ruthless father objects, sending her out of the city to stay with her cousin. She returns after a long time and realises it was just infatuation.

She asks Florentino to forget her and weds the Paris-educated Dr Juvenal Urbino. But Florentino is madly in love with her, behaving like a sick person, which even causes his mother to suspect he must have contracted cholera. He remains unmarried but sleeps with hundreds of women, keeping a list. On the day Urbino dies, he visits a freshly-widowed Fermina. “I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.” A furious Fermina asks him to leave, directing him never to present himself before her again.

The plot of Cholera is derived from the story of Garcia Marquez’s parents’ courtship. He uses his mother’s memories to create this entire narrative. In a long essay titled How My Father Won My Mother, Garcia Marquez reveals the liberties he took with events when he wrote it. The inspiration to use cholera as a backdrop was found in Daniel Defoe’e novel Journal of a Plague Year (1722) and the ancient Athenian Tragedy Oedipus Rex.

In fact, Garcia Marquez had been obsessed with narratives unfolding against the backdrop of diseases. In his short story One Day After Saturday, he uses the device of a plague to kill a whole flight of birds. He also believed that the political violence in Colombia was akin to a plague. In One Hundred Years, there is an insomnia plague that affects the entire population of Macondo for a long time. It was as though Marquez needed an entire literary career to be able to write this book.

Garcia Marquez actually steps out of the shadow of his literary fathers by creating an even more richly imagined and original text than his other books. Written at the peak of his powers, it is his most mature work. These anxieties are as if best demonstrated through the character of Florentino Ariza.

Although Fermina sent him out of her house the day he had proposed to her after Juvenal’s funeral, that night she doesn’t think about Urbino but longs for her first crush Florentino. Then why did she reject him at the market after returning from her cousin’s house? In the novel, Florentino consistently performs the role of the author by participating in the creation of different texts in different genres : love letters, suicide notes, books and poems.

Writing is love

When Florentino meets Fermina for the first time as a young man, he is inflicted not just with love, but also by sentimental and immature poetry. He writes a great deal, composing a whole suitcase of love letters to Fermina. But he doesn’t know how to control his writing. The first letter that he writes to Fermina, which was supposed to be a short note of love, ends up being a book of seventy pages.

This sentimental, immature love can’t possibly win him the woman he desires. He will have to write more, and with greater control. By the time he woos Fermina again after fifty-one years (almost a lifetime), he has written thousands of love letters for young couples who lack his vocabulary and flair, but want to send the most well-written letter to their lovers.

After Fermina throws him out of the house, he writes her a series of letters through which he eventually wins her over. For Garcia Marquez, it is as if his Fermina is the reader of his words, and Florentino Ariza, almost an alter ego of the author.

Love in The Time of Cholera is a novel not just of immortal epic love, but also of the power of writing. It is about the maturity of a writer, possibly arguing that to be mature one has to write many books. Garcia Marquez wins the reader over as Florentino Ariza, after writing thousands of uncountable letters (texts) through his life, gets Fermina in his old age. His sensibilities have matured, as is demonstrated in his new, refined prose. The book ends with suggestions of a new journey, lush with hope, hinting at the eternal flow of life, unlike the bleak finale of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

“And for how long do you think we can keep this goddamn coming and going?” the Captain of the ship asks Florentino. Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.

Aruni Kashyap is a novelist and translator.