Love Letters

Mona Simpson

It is hard now to recover the thrill of underground discovery, the hand-to-hand ardour, the feeling of claim engendered by A Hundred Years of Solitude. But Love in the Time of Cholera, like Autumn of the Patriarch before it, gives us something altogether new. With gorgeous, lucent writing, full of brilliant stops and starts, majestic whirls, thrilling endings, splendour and humour, the magician of our century takes on psychological realism.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells his stories with a strange omniscience. He is as capable of seeing the dignity in homeliness and poverty as the hidden jokes and rituals of opulence, as comfortable with science, magic, voodoo, ghosts, as with the riddles of Catholicism. The sources of his omniscience seem to be lodged not in any moral or political system, but rather in time – his voice holds the perspective any sensible person would have, given an easy sliderule to the future. And if Time and History are impartial, or impartial to the fate of individuals, so is Garcia Marquez. He loves his characters, but with a full knowledge of their limitations, which he blames less on them than on their position in history and in the Earth’s geography. In his propensity to write passionately, and even beautifully, about the inner life of a character he ultimately dislikes, his insistence on never sentimentalising his protagonists in such a way as to exceed their place in history, he is a Marxist, but he is also a catholic in his conception of what is universal and inherent in character, in his belief in the soul. These two visions fight it out through the narration, and like everything else in Garcia Marquez, they fight strongly, giving the characters’ public and interior lives a deeply-coloured, taut, specific brilliance.

The narrator in Love in the Time of Cholera (as in earlier stories, such as ‘Big Mama’s Funeral’ – in some ways a preliminary sketch for Autumn of the Patriarch) sometimes slips into plural pronouns, creating a sense of a communal voice. At a formal party, overturned by weather, ‘name cards were in confusion and people sat where they could in an obligatory promiscuity that defied our social superstitions on at least one occasion.’ But though this voice – this sense of a community, this implication that communal progress and communal decline (rather than glamorous or special individuals) are the heroes and vilains – remains constant from Garcia Marquez’s early novels and stories through Love in the Time of Cholera, it tells a very different story.

We are not back in Macondo. We are not (really) in the 19th century. Though set twenty or so years before the calendar turns over into our century. Love in the Time of Cholera shows a decidedly modern sensibility, an urban rather than a rural society, and shows it with less mysticism and more social detail than was deployed in the earlier works. We are in an unnamed Caribbean city, said to be a composite of Cartagena and Baranquilla, and the fictional leap from imaginary village to unnamed port city cannot be underestimated. One can make up a village, starting from the very beginning, as Garcia Marquez did in Macondo, with his prehistoric eggs and things so new they had no names and his community where no one was past thirty and no one had ever died. Macondo, fully-created, can stand for much larger universes, but it is mostly, fundamentally, stubbornly itself. The unnamed coastal Caribbean city of this novel can never truly be held in the palm of the author’s hand. It seems too real. Too big. It holds the resonance and reality of many deaths before our story even begins. It is a city with a history that matches the world’s.

Independence from Spain and then the abolition of slavery precipitated the conditions of honourable decadence in which Dr Juvenal Urbino had been born and raised. The great old families sank into their ruined palaces in silence. Along the rough cobbled streets that had served so well in surprise attacks and buccaneer landings, weeds hung from the balconies and opened cracks in the whitewashed walls of even the best kept mansions and the only signs of life at two o’clock in the afternoon were languid piano exercises played in the dim light of the siesta ... At nightfall, at the oppressive moment of transition, a storm of carnivorous mosquitoes rose out of the swamps, and a tender breath of human shit, warm and sad, stirred the certainty of death in the depths of one’s soul.

This pace, this level of realism, tends towards metaphor rather than allegory. We never quite lose life, life in our world, the way we could in Macondo. This is, of course, a loss and a gain. The intrusion of reality, however, allows for majestic psychological revelations which would have been completely impossible in Macondo. When the young doctor comes home from Europe, he feels a mixture of loyalty and revulsion. ‘He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia. The ship made its way across the bay through a floating blanket of drowned animals.’

The narration is full of worldliness. The community with whose voice this narrator speaks is a full century older than Melquiades’s timeless agrarian voice in A Hundred Years of Solitude. This narrator knows, for example, when ‘only the most sophisticated’ wore their ordinary clothes and that rich, high-born ladies from the District of the Viceroys won’t wear a particular European-designed shoe because it is too much like the slippers ‘black women bought in the market to wear in the house’. This narrator uses references far beyond the Caribbean city of the novel, describing ‘the way Arabs cry for their dead’ and ‘the pubic hair of a Japanese’. At the same time, one feels an intimacy with contemporary Latin America, its jumble of contradictions, its settled air of mixed heritage, decay. ‘There were Sèvres vases and bowls everywhere and little alabaster statues of pagan idylls. But that European coherence vanished with the rest of the house, where wicker armchairs were jumbled together with Viennese rocks and leather footstools made by local craftsmen.’ This is urban social detail, acute and fanciful, but of this world.

Spanning the half-century roughly between 1880 and 1930, the novel is about love, in all its ages. Garcia Marquez is said to have modelled the romantic triangle on the courtship of his parents, though the years correspond more to the lives of his grandparents. No matter. On the first page, we see Dr Juvenal Urbino, a dapper and illustrious octogenarian, presiding over the examination of a recent suicide by gold cyanide. The opening is a kind of joke. ‘Era inevitable,’ the narration begins, ‘that the scent of bitter almonds reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.’ We learn that the victims of unrequited love often have crystals in their hearts. But the suicide here was the victim not of unrequited love, but of a resolution against old age, of the eternal battle against mortality. Nor is suicide the fate of any of the loves, requited or not, in this book. Much has been written about Faulkner and Kafka as the mentors of Garcia Marquez, but in this thorough and intricate exploration of time and desire, he is an heir to Proust. (Proust’s father, Professor Adrien Proust, is playfully mentioned as the famous epidemiologist Juvenal Urbino studied with in Paris.)

‘The heart changes,’ Proust wrote, ‘and that is our greatest tragedy.’ Like a sensible grandmother, Proust admonished the unrequited lover not to suffer so much, promising that long after the lover becomes indifferent, the object of so many pains will desire him, futilely. You get what you want only after you want it. Garcia Marquez takes this riddle to its extravagant conclusion. What if you tricked fate and the heart didn’t change? Garcia Marquez has always written about magic, the art of legitimate deception. Now, he takes on nothing less in need of sleights-of-hand than the human heart, replete with its 20th-century doubts and woes. But a constant heart is the destiny of Florentino Ariza.

Only Garcia Marquez would dare to write for nearly a hundred pages about extravagant, pink, innocent, high-pitched, romantic love. Florentino Ariza falls irrevocably in love with Fermina Daza one day in the last century: he is delivering a telegram to her father and comes upon her teaching her spinster aunt to read. He woos her with letters. His letters were ‘a dictionary of compliments, inspired by books he had learned by heart because he had read them so often’. Reading and writing are integers in the accumulating arithmetic of their adolescent love and it is no accident that it is the children who teach their parents to read. Fermina Daza ‘would lock herself in the bathroom at odd hours and for no reason other than to reread the letter, attempting to discover a secret code, a magic formula hidden in one of the 314 letters of its 58 words, in the hope that they would tell her more than they said.’ He sends her a lock of his own hair. She sends him the veins of leaves dried in dictionaries, the wings of butterflies, the feathers of magic birds. It is the stuff of sighs and violets and valentines. Florentino, sick with love, eats roses until he shows symptoms of cholera. They are both half-orphans, he the illegitimate son of a scandalous liaison, she the daughter of a reputed horse thief. Their epistolary romance, aided by the kind and now-literate spinster aunt, culminates after years of secret serenades from the paupers’ cemetery in a proposal that rings of an ultimatum. The response arrives ‘torn from the margin of a school notebook, on which a one-line answer was written in pencil’ and reminds us that we are still in the kingdom of childhood, where love lives in a pure and eternal air, devoid of the earthiness and torment of the body, before any intimations of mortality. ‘Very well, I will marry you if you promise not to make me eat eggplant.’

In Love in the Time of Cholera, the proportion of Marquesian plot to character has radically changed. He still introduces thousands of plots, traditional and idiosyncratic, from the most predictable to the sublime, but they only hover around the central characters. In a cartoon gesture, Lorenzo Daza, Fermina’s shady father, stalls the wedding. He has other plans for his Fermina. ‘When his wife died he had set only one goal for himself: to turn his daughter into a great lady.’ Surprise, surprise. ‘The road was long and uncertain for a mule trader who did not know how to read or write and whose reputation as a horse thief was not so much proven as widespread.’ He turns out, in fact, to be no mere horse thief but an arms-dealer, having dealings with Joseph Conrad, but that is slipping the sliderule ahead. ‘He understood that San Juan de la Cienaga was too narrow for his dreams. Then he liquidated his lands and animals and moved with new impetus and seventy thousand gold pesos to this ruined city and its moth-eaten glories, where a beautiful woman with an old-fashioned upbringing still had the possibility of being reborn through a fortunate marriage.’

For a while, action seems to take over. The pace of the narrative speeds up, as Lorenzo takes Fermina on a journey to ‘make her forget’. They travel the ridges of the Sierra Nevada, amid Aruac Indians. On this frontier, Fermina and her cousin Hildebranda feel the exhilarations of girlhood, learning to masturbate and going daily to the regional telegraph office, where messages from Florentino wait. During her absence Florentino, too, lives the last of his boyhood. Diving in search of sunken galleons, he enters the ‘interior still waters of the archipelago in whose coral depths they could pick up sleeping lobsters with their hands’. Except for these brief scenes, there are no childhoods in this book.

It is not Lorenzo Daza, after all, who prevents Fermina from marrying Florentino. That kind of plot only goes so far in this novel. Garcia Marquez sets up the predictable plot only to get a little fun out of it before twisting it around or letting it fall away softly. The real obstacle is much more internal and thus, finally, modern. When Florentino sees the returned Fermino walking through the market, he recognises her maturity – her ‘braid had grown in, but instead of letting it hang down her back she wore it twisted over her left shoulder, and that simple change had erased all girlish traces’ – and follows ‘the gold of her laughter’. She, on the other hand, seeing him, recognises only a mistake. ‘No please,’ she says to him. ‘Forget it.’ Sweet, innocent high-childhood romance does not end in marriage. Letters, veins of leaves, locks of hair tumble back to their originators and thus begin the 51 years, nine months and four days of Florentino’s vigil. For it is Florentino’s fate to wait for love and to make the most out of waiting.

Meanwhile, Peggy Sue gets married We’re never sure why, but then neither is she. Many crucial questions of motivation, though hovered over, are left, as they are in life, mysterious. Many suggest – a jealous lover of Florentino Ariza blatantly says it – that Fermina Daza married for money a man she didn’t love. She does not see it that way. No. ‘She was stunned by the fear of an opportunity slipping away, and by the imminence of her 21st birthday.’ What, exactly, is true? It is true that before she accepted the Doctor’s proposal her father arrived home drunk one night and said: ‘We are ruined. Totally ruined.’ It is true that Fermina Daza was alone in the world. ‘Her former schoolmates were in a heaven that was closed to her.’ Here as elsewhere, it is and isn’t so simple. Garcia Marquez has succeeded in making a character the product of her history, of her place in a social system, but also independent of it.

For his part, Dr Juvenal Urbino, though wooing a girl beneath his class, is not motivated by a great passion. This would seem to defy the arithmetic of Marxist prediction. ‘The truth was that Juvenal Urbino’s suit had never been undertaken in the name of love, and it was curious, to say the least, that a militant Catholic like him would offer her only worldly goods: security, order, happiness, contiguous numbers that, once they were added together, might resemble love: almost be love. But they were not love and these doubts increased her confusion, because she was also convinced that love was really what she most needed to live.’ And so they marry, for better or worse. Garcia Marquez leaves it at that and moves on, because, of course, as we all know in the 20th century, marriage belongs at the beginning, not the end of a novel.

While A Hundred Years of Solitude and Autumn of the Patriarch are full of first and last things, in this novel, Garcia Marquez’s spirit of invention turns inward to the intimate discoveries of one marriage. ‘He was the first man that Fermina Daza heard urinate ... That memory often returned to her as the years weakened the stream, for she never could resign herself to his wetting the rim of the toilet bowl each time he used it.’ Dr Juvenal Urbino would say: ‘The toilet must have been invented by someone who knew nothing about men.’ On their honeymoon, Fermina says: ‘How ugly it is, even uglier than a woman’s thing.’ Whatever else it is, marriage is not romance. It doesn’t resemble what Fermina Daza embroidered with Florentino Ariza, whom she has deliberately forgotten and who lingers in her imagination only as a field of poppies.

Garcia Marquez writes brilliantly about the daily bonds and tensile strength of a marriage. And throughout, the question ‘but is it love?’ hovers, floats, skirts the tankard that is marriage. Dr Juvenal Urbino

was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure that there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.

That depends, of course, on your notion of mistake. Fermina Daza and Dr Juvenal Urbino never conclusively invent true love, but they do endure the daily miseries and commonplace fights, the happy establishment of a high bourgeois marriage.

Dr Urbino, a self-satisfied husband, is given to pronouncements on the matter. He told his medical students: ‘After ten years of marriage women had their periods as often as three times a week.’ To himself he mused: ‘The problem with marriage is that it ends every night after making love, and it must be rebuilt every morning before breakfast.’ And ‘worst of all was theirs, arising out of two opposing classes, in a city that still dreamed of the return of the viceroys. The only possible bond was something as improbable and fickle as love, if there was any, and in their case there was none when they married, and when they were on the verge of inventing it, fate had done nothing more than confront them with reality.’ But the ship that is their marriage, with its mansion, servants, rituals, European furniture and a Paramaribo parrot, floats on. Garcia Marquez has a diabolical knack for the drama of domestic arrangements, ‘If anything vexed her, it was the perpetual chain of daily meals ... He was a perfect husband: he never picked up anything from the floor, or turned out a light or closed a door.’ Dr Juvenal Urbino makes statements worthy of Desi Arnez. He’s an old-style husband charming enough to make the reader almost nostalgic for chauvinism. ‘This stuff tastes of window,’ he rants. ‘This meal has been prepared without love.’

For her part, Fermina Daza, the lonely girl of the forlorn mansion, becomes a woman of the world. She turns into the bourgeois great lady her father wanted her to be.

Before she had been married a year she moved through the world with the same assurance that she had as a little girl in the wilds of San Juan de la Cienaga, as if she had been born with it, and she had a facility for dealing with strangers that left her husband dumbfounded and a mysterious talent for making herself understood in Spanish with anyone anywhere. ‘You have to know languages when you go to sell something’ she said with mocking laughter. ‘But when you go to buy, everyone does what he must to understand you.’ It was difficult to imagine anyone who could have assimilated the daily life of Paris with so much speed and so much joy, and who learned to love her memory of it despite the eternal rain. Nevertheless, when she returned home overwhelmed by so many experiences, tired of travelling, drowsy with her pregnancy, the first thing she was asked in the port was what she thought of the marvels of Europe, and she summed up sixteen months of bliss with four words of Caribbean slang: ‘It’s not so much.’

Fermina becomes the kind of Latin American woman who, as the saying goes, has more in common with a woman in Miami than with another Latin American woman two miles away in the pueblos jovenes.

While Fermina Daza is shopping and running a household, moving through the satisfactions of a settled family life, Florentino Ariza waits with a ‘mineral patience’ for her husband to die. ‘She and her husband made an admirable couple, and both of them negotiated the world with so much fluidity that they seemed to float above the pitfalls of reality. Florentino Ariza did not feel either jealousy or rage – only a great contempt for himself. He felt poor, ugly, inferior and unworthy.’

Garcia Marquez has written before about poverty and about riches – a brilliant early story, ‘Tuesday Siesta’, about the dignity of the poor in the face of sleepy convention comes to mind – but he has never before taken on the psychology of yearning, the thwarting character of the desire for more. Here he writes, ruefully and comically: ‘In those days, being rich had many advantages, and many disadvantages as well, of course, but half the world longed for it as the most probable way to live for ever.’ In Macondo, people did live for ever. In Love in the Time of Cholera, their wistful collective desire tells us a great deal about the internalised longings born of class inequality.

Florentino Ariza, poet and rose-eater, turns Horatio Alger, in order to live up to the imagined demands of his increasingly bourgeois – and elusive – love. He rises in the ranks of the River Company of the Caribbean, working at business by day, moonlighting in the Arcade of the Scribes, writing love letters for the sick at heart, the disenfranchised. ‘Love is the only thing that interests me,’ he says to his uncle, president of the River Company. ‘The trouble,’ his uncle says to him, ‘is that without river navigation there is no love.’ And in all his years as a businessman (he eventually becomes president of the company), Florentino Ariza never manages to write ‘just one acceptable business letter’. He works his way up the ladder to prove equal to the task of wooing Fermina Daza (should her husband ever die), but he never develops a passion for river navigation. The fleet of paddle-wheel steamboats seems not to exist for him, except on paper. In fact, his rise in the world of work is largely engineered by a faithful (and female) assistant, who learns the political machinery of the company on Florentino’s behalf.

Florentino becomes a womaniser. Saving his true heart for Fermina, he manages to find distraction in an endless series of affairs, great and small – with widows, with a woman who sucks a pacifier, and finally with a child in his custody. ‘He joined in historic battles of absolute secrecy, which he recorded with the rigour of a notary in a coded book, recognisable among many others for the title that said everything: Women. His first entry was Widow Nazaret. Fifty years later, when Fermina Daza was freed from her sacramental sentence, he had some twenty-five notebooks, with 622 entries of long-term liaisons, apart from the countless fleeting adventures that did not even deserve a charitable note.’ With the kind of magical absurdity which has taken the place of the more extravagantly coloured miracles of Garcia Marquez’s earlier books, Florentino Ariza gets his long-awaited second chance. Dr Juvenal Urbino dies in a cartoon pageant of indignity, trouserless, suspendered, chasing an errant parrot down from a mango tree.

The Paramaribo parrot himself emerges as a character, an agent of perversity, aiding Florentino Ariz’s cause. ‘On rainy afternoons, his tongue loosened by the pleasure of having his feathers drenched, he uttered phrases from another time which he could not have learned in the house and which led one to think that he was much older than he appeared.’ Like Melquiades, who was also as old as the world, he has magical powers but still, he is only a parrot. His role is much smaller and more comic than that of Melquiades who functions as the master of ceremonies in A Hundred Years of Solitude. In that book we had a magician gypsy authoring the world: we now have a universe in which our lives are determined by absurd events caused by a mad parrot. Magic here is subsumed into the human, colouring human emotion rather than flourishing tricks of its own.

Florentino Ariza, now rich, still poetic, after his setback of 51 years, nine months and four days, resumes his wooing the first night of Fermina Daza’s widowhood. He is told, in no uncertain terms, to go away. Foiled but undaunted, Florentino Ariza starts his suit the way he did the first time: through the mail, though with a very different kind of letter. This time there are no skeletons of butterflies, no wings of flowers, no symptoms of cholera. Florentino Ariza types his letters. ‘In a certain sense it was his closest approximation to the business letters he had never been able to write.’ Love letters become Florentino Ariza’s most profound business, and the inversion is telling in a novel infused and obsessed with correspondence, with the sense of magic that is the written word. Earlier on, Fermina had been ‘captivated on the spot by a paper seller who was demonstrating magic inks’. When the new century is celebrated by an inaugural journey in a balloon (another civic project of Dr Juvenal Urbino’s), it was used to deliver a letter, the first ‘mail transported through the air’. The magic ink – writing and reading – works: it can win love and recover love. If a childhood romance, hand-made with epistolary ardour and laced with phrases learned from the Spanish romantic classics, couldn’t survive in the face of aristocracy, money, adulthood, the barge of bourgeois life, it can at least resurrect itself by the end, with the help of a typewriter.

This is not a story of boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets her back. Garcia Marquez, as ever, remains stubbornly committed to the voice of the community: individual happiness is not considered an absolute good. So although Florentino Ariza gets Fermina Daza back, his life of devotion was not lived without cost. And Garcia Marquez does not spare us the details of these costs, however much we may be cheering Ariza on. ‘For her sake he had won fame and fortune without too much concern for his methods,’ we are told. When Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza embark on what is to be a dazzling river trip at the book’s end, we see what cost the earth has borne for Florentino’s inability to write a proper business letter, for his concentration on love and not on river navigation. ‘Fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees ... the alligators ate the last butterfly and the maternal manatees were gone, the parrots, the monkeys, the villages were gone: everything was gone ... At night they were awakened not by the siren songs of the manatees on the sandy beaches but by the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea.’

Garcia Marquez and his communal voice judge the single-minded pursuit of love harshly, and his judgment extends to a literature which is only about love, never about the business of the world. ‘Long before he became president of the RCC, Florentino Ariza had received alarming reports on the state of the river, but he barely read them ... With his mind clouded by his passion for Fermina Daza, he never took the trouble to think about it, and by the time he realised the truth, there was nothing anyone could do except bring in a new river.’ Not that anyone else fares very much better. Even Dr Juvenal Urbino’s virile, civic-minded undertakings seem dubious. ‘The restoration of the Dramatic Theatre ... was the culmination of a spectacular civic campaign that involved every sector of the city in a multitudinous mobilisation that many thought worthy of a better cause.’

There seem to be no real politics, no real politicians. ‘A Liberal president was exactly the same as a Conservative president, but not as well dressed.’ The nine civil wars which rage during the half-century of the book seem to be only a human plague, not fought for any discernible cause other than raw destruction. ‘If the truth were told’ they ‘were all one war: always the same war’. At a ceremonial luncheon, ‘their wounds healed and their anger dissipated, sat the two opposing sides in the civil wars that had bloodied the country ever since independence ... he would have liked to point out ... that guests were at that luncheon not because of what they thought but because of the merits of their lineage, which was something that had always stood over and above the hazards of politics and the horrors of war.’ These thoughts are attributed to Dr Juvenal Urbino, but the narrator seems to concur, and the novel’s final judgment of class goes much further and deeper than the good doctor’s could.

As for Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, they, too, live in the world. As friends in old age, they are immune neither to local class prejudice and snobbery (when Fermina Daza’s son invites Florentino Ariza to the social club, he is turned away because of his illegitimate birth) nor to the fate of the river, which they share, when they take a final trip on a River Company of the Caribbean steamboat. ‘Fermina Daza would not see the animals of her dreams: the hunters for skin from the tanneries in New Orleans had exterminated the alligator ... the manatees with their great breasts who had nursed their young and wept on the banks in a forlorn woman’s voice were an extinct species, annihilated by the armoured bullets of sport.’ Much of the time they suffer from heat and pestilence, from the stench of death on the river, as the boat seems to plough through islands of sand.

They are not immune to history. And they are old. Florentino Ariza is bald. The first night of romance, Fermina Daza sends him away, saying: ‘Not now, I smell like an old woman.’ But they are not merely products of personal and public history. ‘Both were lucid enough to realise, at the same fleeting instant, that the hands made of old bones were not the hands they imagined before touching. In the next moment, however, they were.’ Garcia Marquez has brought a new depth to the meaning of the word ‘magic’.