The rhythm of the title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s beloved novel “Love in the Time of Cholera” has been ringing in my head all year. And no wonder: One only has to do a quick internet search to find dozens of headlines that have cannibalized the structure of this title. It’s a simple formula: Replace “Cholera” with “Corona” or “COVID-19,” and “Love” with anything else you like (or keep it as is, if that is your topic of choice). As scholar Steve Mentz observes, “Few phrases have rolled off more typing-fingers than variations on [this] title.” With all this literary bandying about, I decided it was time for me to see what all the fuss was being made over.
I was not disappointed. “Love in the Time of Cholera” tells the mesmerizing story of the beautiful Fermina Daza and the two loves of her life: Dr. Juvenal Urbino — her husband and the most renowned doctor and philanthropist in the city — and Florentino Ariza — poet, employee of the Riverboat Company of the Caribbean and her first sweetheart. The span of this novel is vast; Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza when she is a teenager, and he stays in love with her for more than 50 years even though she is married.
“Love in the Time of Cholera” may be about love, but it begins on the note of death — the death of a man named Jeremiah de Saint-Amour who “had made the irrevocable decision to take his own life when he was sixty years old” because he refused to grow old. And wisely so, growing old is all that the rest of the characters seem to do. We follow Fermina Daza, Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Florentino Ariza through their whole lives, watching just as they do for signs of age, signs that love may succumb to the powers of disillusionment and forgetfulness.
But it does not. Florentino Ariza persists. He remains in Fermina Daza’s periphery, always tracking where she is and what she’s doing, having affairs (622 of them, to be exact) but never marrying because he swore his everlasting love to her. In the 51 years, nine months and four days that he waits for her husband to die, he lives a whole life: an eternity.
Even the structures of “Love in the Time of Cholera” feel never-ending. Garcia Marquez writes in long paragraphs and long, long chapters. Hardly any dialogue breaks up the narrative flow of the novel, and within paragraphs we are often transported to different times, experiencing life and memory nonlinearly. Any characters new to the novel are so seamlessly and smoothly introduced to the reader that we wonder if we have already met them. In this way, change is buried underneath the constancy and sameness of the narration. The hand of time makes its changes undetected.
And so it is with this creeping, almost invisible movement of time that Garcia Marquez miraculously simulates the experience of living itself. For what is a life but a long duration, a single span of sustained change that we never notice except in rare moments of lucidity, when we are awakened from the trance of time to discover that we have changed. When Florentino Ariza sees Fermina Daza at an event after a prolonged absence, both of them nearing old age, he is shocked at her appearance:
“Until that time he had maintained the fiction that it was the world that was changing, and its customs and styles: everything but her. But that night he saw for the first time in a conscious way how Fermina Daza’s life was passing, and how his was passing, while he did nothing more than wait.”
This has been on my mind of late. As we approach the one-year mark of starting quarantine, many of us are likely experiencing the shock that Florentino Ariza so often feels, that the extraordinary slowness by which life has moved could not possibly have brought us to where we are now, one full year older than we were when we entered the trance. What feels as if it were only yesterday suddenly reveals itself to be part of a distant past. We realize that life is passing, and that there is nothing more we can do about it than wait. We are not the same people. In the words of Florentino Ariza: “Damn it!”
In “Love in the Time of Cholera,” the epidemic of cholera itself is relegated to the background. It appears in the poor neighborhoods of the places Fermina Daza travels, and part of Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s renown comes from his strict handling of the disease in the city after his father died from it.
But throughout the book, cholera also becomes a stand-in for the passions of love. Florentino Ariza, when he is first lovestruck and in anguish after sending Fermina Daza a letter, falls ill with diarrhea, green vomit and sudden fainting spells. His mother, terrified, observes: “The symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.” In the last chapter, our characters find a refuge for their love in the limbo of quarantine, a stasis that puts off the final stroke of death. What we find at the end of “Love in the Time of Cholera” is that some things — some people, some feelings — despite the wreckage of time, can last.