Love in the Time of Cholera appeared in English thirty years ago this month.
Two years later — owing to a crush on a pretty British girl I took classes with in Paris, or more precisely her roommate, who volunteered at the English Language Library for the Blind — I read the book onto tape there.
I suppose many blind English-speaking Parisians have heard my recounting. For all I know, they’re still using it. They don’t seem to have a web page to check on.
If you love Gabriel Garcia Marquez, you love the opening sentence to One Hundred Years of Solitude, written before he won the Nobel Prize. It contains more richness, complexity, nuance, and subtlety than most novels or poems:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Years forward and back in time, fire, ice, fatherhood, military, proximity, distance, discovery. Many essays have explored this sentence.
Fewer have explored the opening to Love in the Time of Cholera, but it contains similar multitudes.
It’s easy to see Love in the Time of Cholera as a beautiful, romantic love story, if delayed decades by circumstance to old age. That love’s not time’s fool doesn’t undo that the book isn’t so simple, despite the deceptive beauty of its language.
What Robert Frost said about the nearly universally misunderstood The Road Not Taken: “You have to be careful of that one; it’s a tricky poem — very tricky,” applies to Love in the Time of Cholera.
No one I’ve spoken to about it has noticed Garcia Marquez’s tricks, though its title and first two sentences portend the theme. Here they are:
Love in the Time of Cholera
It was inevitable. The scent of bitter almonds always reminded Dr. Juvenal Urbino of the fate of unrequited love.
Say the words “love in the time of cholera” out loud. Listen to the sound and meter.
Doesn’t it sound lovely? Starting with “love” continuing with “. . . in the time of . . .” It sounds romantic if you don’t think about the meaning.
The similar sounding “Love in the Afternoon” was a slogan for soap operas I heard growing up in the 80s and the title of a 1957 Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper romantic comedy. The phrase sold romance.
We’ll treat the ‘cholera’ part after looking at the rest of the opening.
The opening sentences
Say the words “the scent of bitter almonds” out loud too. Don’t they sound romantic too? I can’t help but think of almond blossoms like these:
But he says bitter almonds, not almond blossoms. We’ll come back to that difference in a second.
The opening’s close, “. . . the fate of unrequited love,” returns us to the love we started with, this time “unrequited.” Again, leaving meaning behind, “unrequited” sounds nineteenth century — from a romantic age.
Squinting to avoid details, we get the picture: this book tells a romantic love story.
But the details matter. Garcia Marquez’s poetic, romantic words and flowing meter set the tone. It’s a trap.
Cholera, though few think of it when they read the title, means diarrhea for days, often vomiting, and sometimes death. Despite Garcia Marquez’s lovely words, Wikipedia tells the details:
The classic symptom is large amounts of watery diarrhea that lasts a few days. Vomiting and muscle cramps may also occur. Diarrhea can be so severe that it leads within hours to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. This may result in sunken eyes, cold skin, decreased skin elasticity, and wrinkling of the hands and feet. Dehydration can cause the skin to turn bluish.
“Large amounts of watery diarrhea that lasts a few days” kind of undoes the romance, doesn’t it? We’ve all had gastro-intestinal problems. They aren’t like stubbing your toe, where you curse at yourself, wince, and suffer a few minutes.
Gastro-intestinal problems turn your world upside-down. We evolved to learn to avoid poison by our bodies teaching us lessons. Food is important and the lesson is severe.
That’s what his title is about beneath the surface. It’s an amazing feat to have hidden it in plain sight.
Do you know the scent of bitter almonds? They aren’t almonds past ripeness, like spotted bananas. They look like sweet almonds and you might not tell them apart by sight. Here’s a bitter almond tree:
It looks as lovely to me as a sweet almond tree.
So what of this bitterness?
It’s more serious than you’d think. Bitter almonds’ bitterness comes from cyanide.
This inevitability of Doctor Urbino’s recollection was prompted by the scent of cyanide.
Unrequited love reminds us of romantic-era stories, but what part of them. Unrequited, however lovely sounding, means deep and unreturned. We’ve all been there and we know what it means.
Unrequited love means feeling envy, worthless, lost, helpless, jealousy, and rage. Makes for great romance novels and terrible parts of your life.
Putting it together
Putting aside the romantic sound and meter and putting together the meaning, we have
Love in the time of days of diarrhea and vomit
It was inevitable. The scent of cyanide always reminded Doctor Juvenal Urbino of what happens when unreturned love makes you feel envy, worthless, lost, helpless, jealousy, and rage.
Get the picture?
The man walked into a suicide scene in a time and place inundated with watery diarrhea and puke.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Garcia Marquez knew the scene. He could have described what he saw as he saw it. He chose instead a palette to paint so colorfully that we don’t notice the poop, vomit, and corpse.
Where he began One Hundred Years of Solitude with a one-sentence story, he began Love in the Time of Cholera with a vignette laden enough to suggest an underlying story, but full of questions.
What the opening and the book are about
A college literature professor once told me always to reread the first sentence or paragraph of every book I read. It will always tell you what the work is about. No author can resist, she said, making that opening what the book is about.
It’s always worked. It’s a reason I collect great opening lines to books.
What is Love in the Time of Cholera about then? It’s a tricky trap where superficial beauty hides life’s vulgar, mortal, gross, yet natural inevitabilities.
Beyond being a story, the book is a slight-of-hand trick Garcia Marquez is playing with your perception. He’s telling you, like a magician, to look here while the action is happening there.
Yet he’s suggesting that if you don’t pay attention too much, you can spend your whole life romantically enjoying superficial beauty without noticing the poop. Maybe blissful ignorance isn’t so bad.
Blissfully ignorant romantic disregard kept Florentino Ariza’s love for Fermina Daza unaltered when it alteration found, rosy lips and cheeks lost to time.
Who among us doesn’t pine for the one who got away, dreaming that we could rekindle our lost love? I’ve loved several Ferminas whose memories, decades after the last embers of rational hope went dark, still inspire the Florentino in me to hold out. Maybe in our 80s we’ll find each other again.
Well, Garcia Marquez tells you the dream is there if you want it. You may outlast unrequited. You may have to endure cholera and risk cyanide. But maybe you’ll win each other back.
In the end it’s a love story, as rich, complex, nuanced,subtle, and tricky as our memories of the ones that got away.
For a slightly different, audio version of this piece, click here.