In the second instalment of this series, Richard Gwyn draws parallels between contagion literature and the coronavirus pandemic, tracing ever pressing facts through fiction in the form of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera ((trans. Edith Grossman: Jonathan Cape, 1988).
I never fully appreciated Love in the Time of Cholera when it first appeared, back in the 1980s. I was still in thrall to the García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and while acknowledging the meticulous skill of its composition, was confused that he had written what seemed like a nineteenth century novel. Looking back now, I can see that my reaction said more about me than about the book itself. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a young person’s novel, written in an explosion of creative energy over eighteen months and a million cigarettes, and Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel of maturity, or at the very least, of middle age. Its premise is the unfashionable concept of eternal love, involving a trio of characters: the eighteen-year old Florentino Ariza falls for the schoolgirl Fermina Daza, and courts her throughout her adolescence, before eventually being ditched when, at the age of nineteen, Fermina marries the far more eligible and somewhat older Dr Juvenal Urbino. The doctor, returning from Paris where he has worked with the leading physicians of the day, first meets Fermina during the time of cholera, when she is suspected of having the disease (it turns out to be only a mild intestinal infection).
Dr Juvenal Urbino, the scion of one of the city’s great families, rises to even greater eminence for bringing the epidemic under control, imposing strict rules of cleanliness and quarantine for the infected. In the meantime, far from being defeated by the seemingly irreversible obstacle of Fermina’s marriage, Florentino views it as a temporary setback, settles (but never settles down) and waits: he waits — as we are reminded on several occasions — 51 years, 9 months and 4 days, before proposing to Fermina at the funeral following Dr Urbino’s death in a fall from a ladder while chasing an irksome parrot up a mango tree. Understandably, she tells him to get lost. This much — Urbino’s death and Ariza’s proposal — is covered in the long opening chapter, after which we flash back more than half a century to the time of cholera itself. But cholera, as Thomas Pynchon pointed out in his New York Times review of the book, has two meanings in Spanish: ‘In their city, throughout a turbulent half-century, death has proliferated everywhere, both as el colera, the fatal disease that sweeps through in terrible intermittent epidemics, and as la colera, defined as choler or anger, which taken to its extreme becomes warfare. Victims of one, in this book, are more than once mistaken for victims of the other. War, “always the same war”, is presented here not as the continuation by other means of any politics that can possibly matter, but as a negative force, a plague, whose only meaning is death on a massive scale. Against this dark ground, lives, so precarious, are often more and less conscious projects of resistance, even of sworn opposition, to death.’
In this novel, however, cholera — or disease in general — is also cognate with love.
Perversely, in light of the novel’s overarching themes of love and disease, by the end of the story it is only by concealing the more extreme and obsessive dimensions of his character, which have sustained him over half a century of longing, and by offering her instead a more rational, reflective version of himself, does Florentino ultimately succeed in his goal of seducing Fermina. This is achieved by wearing a mask, the mask of rational ‘Old World’ wisdom and culture, rather than the raw, impassioned (New World) persona which she rejected five decades before. There is no suggestion in the novel that beneath this mask, Florentino does not continue to harbour the same romanticised fantasy of Fermina that he has always had.
I am taken with the idea that the novel’s ending — the reunited lovers ploughing the waters of the River Magdalena for eternity in an almost-empty river steamer — while suggesting that Florentino’s love for Fermina has finally overcome all resistance, also reveals that their relationship succeeds because it can only take place in a hypothetical world in which they are free from the quotidian responsibilities of life: ‘It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love.’ They are both at ‘the heart of love’ and ‘beyond love’— a seemingly contradictory predicament. They are like ‘an old married couple who have lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.’ Their love is a third age re-enactment (or parody) of young love, but at the same time they both know they are play-acting at being their younger selves, and they both know they are not. The affair works because they are at ease with this ambivalence and can appreciate that it is perfectly suited to their narrative present; two characters living out the remainder of their lives, which, however, is what we are all doing, one way or another.
The novel illustrates how love can take on multifarious forms and serve different purposes over the course of a person’s life, or as Nicholas Shakespeare observes in his Introduction to the acclaimed translation by Edith Grossman in the Everyman edition: ‘It might appear in conventional frills parading the stock clichés of undying love, but underneath that lace it proposes, in all seriousness, something more subversive, more affirming. We can have what we want, says García Márquez. But we may have to wait a lifetime to appreciate properly its worth.’ I find this summary oddly unsatisfactory. And I know why, because finishing the novel, this time around, I cannot help thinking: but what of América Vicuña?
América Vicuña is a minor character in the novel. She is only fourteen when she first meets her legal guardian, Florentino Ariza, who initiates a sexual relationship with her. Florentino considers sex to be exempt from moral obligations, and chooses to ignore the power dynamics in a relationship foisted by him — a man now in his seventies— on an adolescent. It is a relationship that elsewhere (outside of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, that is) would be termed paedophilic, and he remains oblivious to América’s anger, sadness and self-loathing when, after a couple of years of forbidden sexual liaisons, which he closely manages and controls, he abruptly terminates their relationship to devote his energies to Fermina Daza.
Here is the way that García Márquez introduces América: ‘She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her.’ And as if this account of grooming were not creepy enough, the narrative insists that América, rather than being the victim of abuse, begins to ‘take the initiative’. The details are presented in their full ickiness: ‘She was no longer the little girl, the newcomer, whom he had undressed, one article of clothing at a time, with little baby games: first these little shoes for the little baby bear, then this little chemise for the little puppy dog, next these flowered panties for the little bunny rabbit, and a little kiss on her papa’s delicious dickey-bird. No: now she was a full-fledged woman, who liked to take the initiative.’
Whose fantasy is this, we wonder, of a ‘full-fledged woman’, with América now all of sixteen? It goes on, in the episode with the typewriter upon which Florentino has embarked on his second series of daily letter to Fermina: ‘She continued typing with just one finger of her right hand, and with her left felt for his leg, explored him, found him, felt him come to life, grow, heard him sigh with excitement, and his old man’s breathing became uneven and labored. She knew him: from that point on he was going to lose control, his speech would become disjointed, he would be at her mercy, and he would not find his way back until he reached the end. She led him by the hand to the bed as if he were a blind beggar on the street, and she cut him into pieces with malicious tenderness; she added salt to taste, pepper, a clove of garlic, chopped onion, lemon juice, bay leaf, until he was seasoned and on the platter, and the oven was heated to the right temperature.’ The reader will observe how this culinary vignette echoes the earlier reference to América being ‘led to the slaughterhouse’ by her guardian.
Of course, América never becomes ‘the kind of woman she was going to be’ because she dies by her own hand, in heartbreak at Florentino Ariza’s desertion of her. Having deflowered her as a child, taken her innocence and used her to gratify himself in his grotesque self-pity, Florentino Ariza callously dumps her once he has decided to focus all his amorous intention on wooing the widow Daza. After news of América’s death, when Florentino Ariza is on his pleasure cruise with Fermina, we learn that: ‘At a certain moment, the pangs of grief for América Vicuña made him twist with pain, and he could not hold off the truth any longer: he locked himself in the bathroom and cried, slowly, until his last tear was shed. Only then did he have the courage to admit to himself how much he had loved her.’
Considering how love and cholera are so intertwined in this novel, and the fact that this symbiosis of love and disease — or love as a kind of disease — is flagged up throughout, it seems to me significant that the innocent América falls victim to the outrages of the much older, sophisticated figure of Florentino (whose name derives from the city that, more than any other, evokes the European Renaissance), just as the native Colombians fall victim to the plague of cholera, brought about in large part by passenger ships from Europe, in an epidemic that persists throughout the novel, even re-emerging at the very end — in spite of official denials — when Florentino and Fermina are enjoying each other on their way to the city of La Dorada, on the banks of the river Magdalena.
América’s teenage suicide, while Florentino and Fermina are slipping into a second adolescence on the river boat, seems to have been neglected by critics; perhaps it is considered too ‘uncomfortable’ an area to address in the work of a writer as lionised as Gabo, as he is known to Colombians and his devoted readers worldwide. But my objection to this oversight is based not merely on the sexual exploitation and subsequent dismissal América receives at the hands of her guardian; it is more that by minimising this part of the story we might miss something critical. Might it be that there is a deeper message here than merely pointing out the tragedy in which Florentino is implicated, and is found so severely wanting? I scour the internet for articles about América Vicuña and find very little of any significance, and then I stumble across a piece by the Venezuelan writer Federico Vegas, who has an essay in El Nacional about this very subject, titled, promisingly ‘De Lolita Haze a América Vicuña’, in which he draws comparison between the two nymphets (Nabokov’s term). In his essay, he is at pains to point out the seismic importance of Lolita in Humbert Humbert’s life, the fact that she is the focal point of his obsession from start to finish. On the other hand, the episode with America Vicuña is, in the context of Love in the Time of Cholera, nothing more than an anecdote near the end of a long novel. Indeed, as Vegas points out, Florentino’s happiness that América has left no clue of his role in her death seems to occupy more space than the sorrow he endures as a result of it.
Vegas, like me, is returning to Love in the Time of Cholera half a lifetime after his first reading of it. He is a self-confessed fan; Gabo, he says, is one of his four favourite writers, the others being Cervantes, Nabokov and, a little strangely, perhaps, Truman Capote. Like me, he is shocked by the lack of attention paid by critics to the episode with América Vicuña. How, he asks, did he not take in this episode the first time round? While not suggesting that the novelist shares the moral turpitude of his protagonist, ‘he is responsible for the consequences of his actions, or of the effect that they produce on his readers.’ The episode with América seems abhorrent to him — the rape and corruption of a child, effectively and in fact. But there is more than one way of reading the América Vicuña story. One of these reflects a major shift in the treatment of and intolerance towards sexual abuse over the past forty years. Another is, rather shamefully, the veneration in which García Márquez was held, and which, in the machista culture of Latin America, allowed such unsavoury details to be swept under the carpet, especially as an author of ‘magical realist’ novels — that is, novels in which the bar for the suspension of disbelief is raised indefinitely. However, this latter explanation doesn’t convince me any more than the first. A third, more appealing possibility is that the episode is there for another purpose entirely, and that seems bound up, among other things, with her name.
García Márquez always chose the names of his characters with great care, and it seems to me no coincidence that the two main protagonists, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, have names that begin and end with the same letters, and when uttered together produce a particular sort of music, a pleasing symmetry of rhyme and assonance.
América Vicuña — another name that echoes around the vowel ‘a’ — is remarkable in that it bears the name of the continent, as well as almost containing the Spanish word for a cradle (cuna). A vicuña or vicuna, is the name of a species of small camelid ruminant, similar to the guanaco, which might also be significant, in the context. While América is not an uncommon first name in Latin America, deriving from Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) the Italian navigator who made three voyages to the Caribbean and South America between 1499 and 1504 and whose name was thereafter appropriated to refer to both continents, North and South, it is certainly no accident that the author uses it here to refer to the child who is dumped by her protector-abuser and who, ‘in the grip of mortal depression . . . swallows a flask of laudanum stolen from the school infirmary.’
Once again, towards the end of the book, we witness the interjection of the Old World on the New, as a second wave of cholera brings with it death and corruption, echoing the systematic unleashing of diseases such as smallpox — not to mention the blight of slavery — on the indigenous peoples of the continent. How significant, then, that as Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are reunited in love, the approach to the city whose name was taken from the ‘El Dorado’ of legend, fabled as the target for all of Europe’s lust for gold, should also provide the setting for the sudden appearance of bodies floating in the murky waters of the river: ‘At night they were awakened not by the siren songs of manatees on the sandy banks but by the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea. For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies still floated by. The Captain, for once, was solemn: “We have orders to tell the passengers that they were accidental drowning victims.” Instead of the screeching of the parrots and the riotous noise of invisible monkeys, which at one time had intensified the stifling midday heat, all that was left was the vast silence of the ravaged land.’ The sinister way in which the epidemic is denied by the authorities foreshadows the increasingly shrill denials of Jair Bolsonaro — nicknamed the ‘Tropical Trump’ — that COVID is a hoax, and that he personally, would have no qualms about contracting the disease: ‘In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus. I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.’ Since he now has the virus, he will be able to put his theory to the test.
Back on the river boat, Florentino and Fermina have become intimate, though Fermina takes the precaution of imbibing regular drafts of anisette to prepare the way. Kissing her, Florentino recognises ‘the sour smell of old age’ but ‘consoled himself with the thought that he must give off the same odor, except that he was four years older, and she must have detected it in him, with the same emotion.’
Still reeling from that fervent and malodorous kiss, they take the leap, and become lovers. This is achieved with admirable directness on Fermina’s part, who, a glass of anisette in one hand and a cigarette in the other, allows Florentino ‘to explore her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armoured in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, her thighs with their raging veins.’ No doubt bored by the half-century’s dead weight of his anticipation, she tells him: ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it . . . but let’s do it like grownups.’ The description of their lovemaking is not pretty, as Florentino surveys the woman he has waited for all this time: ‘Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog’s.’ He tells her he has remained a virgin for her. She doesn’t believe him, but likes the spirited way in which he says it. This is all very well, but consider that he then remembers the way ‘he had often taken care of América Vicuña, whose diaper smell awakened maternal instincts in him, but he was disturbed at the idea that she disliked his odor: the smell of a dirty old man. But all that belonged in the past.’
I find it significant that it is only after the news of América’s death comes through that the couple finally attempt to make love; significant, again, that after his well-documented sexual adventures with six hundred and twenty-two women, and after half a century of anticipating this precise moment, Florentino cannot get it up. ‘She searched for him where he was not, she searched again without hope, and she found him, unarmed. “It’s dead,” he said.’
After all the waiting, Florentino’s impotence — temporary though it is — comes almost as a relief. The paradox is not lost on the attentive reader, especially in the light of his last seduction by the sixteen-year-old América, in which he was forced to play the passive role.
And at the end of the book, the themes of love and cholera are reunited once more, as the river boat flies the yellow flag of contagion, and the lovers ply up and down the Magdalena. ‘How long,’ the captain asks Florentino Ariza — who is in fact the general manager of the river boat company, and therefore his boss — ‘can we keep up this goddamn coming and going.’ ‘Forever,’ he replies.
I would suggest that three related themes permeate this novel: love as contagion, as exemplified by Florentino Ariza’s lifelong affliction; the corruption of innocence, as boatloads of Europeans bring the plague of cholera to the once virgin lands of America, just as América Vicuña is plundered and then abandoned; and cholera as rage: rage at the exploitation and neglect of the native population, when the fatalities caused by war and disease are made invisible, and the statistics of death merged. Elsewhere in García Márquez’s work, most famously at the massacre of workers at the banana plantation in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the statistics of death are foregrounded. The incident is based on actual events, when, in December 1928, under threats from the US government to ‘send in the marines’ in support of the United Fruit Company, who owned the plantation there, the Colombian army murdered an unknown number of workers in the town of Ciénaga. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a total of 5,000 dead is mentioned. The Wikipedia entry on the massacre suggests fewer, but no one knows the real number of deaths.
Now, does that sound familiar?