My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) by Gabriel García Márquez is one of those books where the writer fully understands his characters and he is able to masterfully and powerfully portray these lives as if they were his own. At times the passages seem to burn with a holy fire invoked, as even Márquez writes of Florentino Ariza, by the Holy Spirit.
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love,” the book opens with a sentence that one might consider belongs to the dual-protagonist, Florentino, the man who waits his entire life to be with Fermina Daza. But the next sentence proves the reader wrong: “Dr. Juvenal Urbino noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house where he had hurried on an urgent call to attend a case that for him had lost all urgency many years before” (p 1). Here Dr. Urbino is the one reflecting on the scent of “bitter almonds.” There is a point to all this, so be patient.
A great writer never gives away his secrets. The truly special one can slip up from time to time. Márquez shows his “slight of hand” in a few places that makes an educated reader sit back and say, “Aha! So that’s how you did it.”
Actually, throughout the novel almonds have nothing to do with Dr. Urbino but rather the attachment that his wife, Fermina Daza, has with Florentino when they were young lovers.
Rooftop Garden at City University of Hong Kong
Hong Kong, June 2014
Here is the passage referring to almonds:
“One night she came back from her daily walk stunned by the revelation that one could be happy not only without love, but despite it. The revelation alarmed her, because one of her cousins had surprised her parents in conversation with Lorenzo Daza, who had suggested the idea of arranging the marriage of his daughter to the only heir to the fabulous fortune of Cleofás Moscote. Fermina Daza knew who he was. She had seen him in the plazas, pirouetting his perfect horses with trappings so rich they seemed ornaments used for the Mass, and he was elegant and clever and had a dreamer’s eyelashes that could make the stones sigh, but she compared him to her memory of poor emaciated Florentino Ariza sitting under the almond trees in the little park, with the book of verses on his lap, and she did not find even the shadow of a doubt in her heart” (p 104).
The above passage clearly illustrates how the connection of almonds remains solely with Florentino as he was a young man who courted Fermina by spying on her from beneath almond trees. Dr. Urbino would know nothing of this memory, and would have no deep sentiment to express such a statement as he does in the very opening of the novel. No. Rather the first sentence reading: “It was inevitable: the scent of almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” In this sentence it is clear to see that Florentino is the subject behind the allusive ‘him.’ However, on a rewrite one may suspect that having a dual-protagonist to disrupt True Love’s intentions between Florentino and Fermina might serve as a much better story. And it does. So, as the writer revises, one can image slipping in the adjective ‘bitter’ to draw an interrelationship among Fermina, Dr. Urbino, and Florentino. A classic love triangle.
Sham Shui Po Park, Hong Kong
This is not the only time Márquez shows a lack of mental prowess in his much beloved novel. He actually steals a line from himself (no harm in that) and copies it word for word, either that or we can lay blame on the translator Edith Grossman.
Notice the striking similarities these two passages have and they appear some 243 pages apart.
“At night it was necessary to anchor the boat in order to sleep, and then the simple fact of being alive became unendurable. To the heat and the mosquitoes was added the reek of strips of salted meat hung to dry on the railings. Most of the passengers, above all the Europeans, abandoned the pestilential stench of their cabins and spent the night walking the decks, brushing away all sorts of predatory creatures with the same towel they used to dry their incessant perspiration, and at dawn they were exhausted and swollen with bites” (p 168-169).
The above passage is reserved for a young Florentino Ariza as he takes a river boat to escape the anguish of Fermina Daza’s wedding ceremony.
Now compare when Florentino, a very old man by now, takes the same river cruise but this time with the widowed Fermina.
“Even in the days when the waters were at their best, the boats had to anchor at night, and then even the simple fact of being alive became unendurable. Most of the passengers, above all the Europeans, abandoned the pestilential stench of their cabins and spent the night walking the decks, brushing away all sorts of predatory creatures with the same towel they used to dry their incessant perspiration, and at dawn they were exhausted and swollen with bites” (p 411).
In a novel where every single word matters, it is hard not to feel a little cheated at this self-plagiarism, and one can begin to see the threads in the novel’s garment to stick out. Just don’t pull on one because the whole book might collapse on itself.
Actually, I’m a huge fan of Márquez and have read most of his books. There is an ease and skill to his craft that draws me into the nakedness of the language and the story, each lending to each the rare quality of its natural beauty.
For example, notice the raw power of this casual meeting when Florentino and Fermina first lay eyes on the other:
“As he passed the sewing room, he saw through the window an older woman and a young girl sitting very close together on two chairs and following the reading in the book that the woman held open on her lap. It seemed a strange sight: the daughter teaching the mother to read. His interpretation was incorrect only in part, because the woman was the aunt, not the mother of the child, although she had raised her as if she were her own. The lesson was not interrupted, but the girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later…
“So he decided to send Fermina Daza a simple note written on both sides of paper in his exquisite notary’s hand. But he kept it in his pocket for several days, thinking about how to hand it to her, and while he thought he wrote several more pages before going to bed, so that the original letter was turning into a dictionary of compliments, inspired by books he had learned by heart because he read them so often during his vigils in the park” (p 64-65).
And once again we arrive back to the imagery of the park where the almond trees stand and he beneath. An image and memory and scent meant only for one man, Florentino Ariza.
Most often the sentences in a Márquez-book unfurl like smoke from the end of a cigar, and in that there is a reading of signs and wonders.
“Two days later, after an argument with his mother, Florentino Ariza took down from the wall of his room the stained-glass case where he displayed the braid as if it were a holy relic, and Tránsito Ariza herself returned it in the velvet box embroidered with gold thread. Florentino Ariza never had another opportunity to see or talk to Fermina Daza alone in the many chance encounters of their very long lives until fifty-one years and nine months and four days later, when he repeated his vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love on her first night as a widow” (p 123).
At times, especially after reading Márquez, it is easy for me to imagine such true love existing in the bitter world around us. To imagine that you swear off the opposite sex for the rest of your life (well, for the year at least) and to know that inside you that love is not possible, cannot be for reasons why you will never know, and to know that True Love cannot exist, cannot be possible or plausible, and any notion of ever finding true love is laughed at and all hope abandoned for more reasonably mature thoughts. Yet the next day someone walks into the room, flies in from some other place and some other time, and it takes but a single side-glance and the racing of your heart to know such love can exist in the world if only it were allowed to breathe, to spread its wings and fly. And then to feel that person’s spirit as they stand next to you, something that you never thought could happen because it had never happened before, but all the same you felt that person’s spirit as strongly as your own and it was reaching out to you. Love is what we make of it, and so many of us choose not to make it real and true.
Márquez, however, is a master at such sentiments without crossing the threshold into melodrama. And the careful placement of such a division in our own lives as well as in the life of Fermina Daza is all done through choices.
“Sister Franca de la Luz tucked the gold rosary into her sleeve. Then from the other she took a well-used handkerchief squeezed into a ball and held it tight in her fist, looking at Fermina Daza from a great distance and with a smile of commiseration.
“‘My poor child,’ she sighed, ‘you are still thinking about that man’” (p 152).
And to end where I started, here’s a comment about love that we should all aspire to achieve:
“The other was finding a sentence that he thought he had composed but that his father had written in the notebook long before he was born: The only regret I will have in dying is if it is not for love” (p 202).
I must also share in that regret.