- Love in the Time Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Edith Grossman
Cape, 352 pp, £11.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 224 02570 8
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.