Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is his second most famous and acclaimed novel. The first is, of course, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, which, when I travelled throughout India and Europe in the eighties, it seemed every backpacker was reading. For that reason I read it too, and despite all the florid invention and clever political take-down, I was surprised to find myself pushing to reach the end. The same effort a few years later with ‘Love’. Again, wonderfully colourful and imaginative but finally facile and even dull. I dared not admit it to myself at the time, these famous books, sensational magical realism. What was I not seeing, not feeling?
Coming back to ‘Love’ some decades later, my answer is: not very much. Although Marquez has written fine shorter works and tales, the stand-out being ‘Chronicle of a Death Foretold’, I feel the various story-telling techniques he employs cannot be so well sustained for the longer efforts. Through too much indulgence in his box-of-tricks or hall-of-mirrors, or however you like to describe it, we end up with a sacrifice of psychological depth and development for endless imaginative spin.
These days, magic realism is out of favour for political reasons, seen as offering a falsely hyped-up version of a marginal culture to slake an urbane reader’s thirst for exoticism, just another version of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’. This is as silly a reason for not liking the ‘technique’ as the previous wild enthusiasm for its apparent innovations. Your standard reader loves a story, that’s why they pick up a book―entertainment, escapism―but story or no story, it is characters that really drive a novel, human engagement, and unless the plot takes over, ingenious in its own right, the longer the novel extends, the greater complexity those characters need to have.
In one explanation or defence of his approach, Marquez has claimed that the supernatural is in fact the ‘natural’ way the people he writes about see their world. The magic is ‘real’, the world wider and stranger and more various than we cosmopolitan rationalists suppose. Maybe so, on the other hand this sounds to me like a disingenuous agenda for working both sides of the street. Either the world of a novel is consistently fantastic and credible within itself, or it is not. It may be my blinkered vision, but I have difficulty seeing how something can be both magical and real, satire notwithstanding, and this has always been a problem for me with this kind of literature (Salman Rushdie in ‘The Satanic Verses’ actually exploits this by presenting dual opposed existing worlds).
Marquez’ invention is prodigious, he is like a brilliant composer who given a nursery theme, can extrapolate endlessly upon it. But after a while, the brilliance is not enough, because the theme is, after all, the same set progression of aural experiences, there is no sustained development. The composer needs to know at what point the audience will have had enough, and stop well before. ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’, a straightforward story of the wooing of a widow by her former rejected lover, partly based on Marquez’s parents’ and his own ‘courtship’ histories, could have efficiently been told in forty pages as opposed to four hundred. The back of my Penguin edition compares ‘Love’ to Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’ but Proust’s profound explication of the psychology of his actors, not to mention the many superbly dramatic scenarios he presents are a world away from Marquez’ one-note protagonists and their simple tale.
There is not so much ‘magic’ in this book as in many others of Marquez and I could readily take it on board if not for the major problem described above. A few other problems should also be noted, particularly some forms of ‘love’ described rather breathlessly which have not dated well; if ‘love’ is another feverish illness, varieties here are overdue for inoculation. There is a rape, a number of near-rapes, later in the novel our hero Florentino grooms and seduces an adolescent, all this cast in a positive light, and also it’s difficult to credit Florentino holding a candle for Fermina throughout such a long life of non-stop frantic sexual activity. This might be just a ‘Latin’ thing, but still. In this light the mitigating ‘excuse’ is, I suppose, the excess of passion which infects Florentino as opposed to Fermina’s husband, Urbino, a moderate rational man of science and eradicator of disease (passion?), but morally this all just doesn’t hold up, whatever the culture.
One aspect I did enjoy was the very complete picture Marquez paints of early twentieth century coastal Colombia, both the landscape and the society. He really brings that lost world fully to life, all the differing occupations and activities, the politics and class structure. Perhaps not so removed from the Cartagena/Barranquilla of his youth; here he is returning to his homeland in 1982 after an extended exile abroad to conjure up this nostalgic literary extravagance, while increasingly around him is a mire of drugs, violence, terrorism and corruption.
Nevertheless, a brilliant setting on its own is never enough. Finally, ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ is a novel of seemingly endless dead ends and elaborate diversions attempting to maintain our interest in two flat characters performing a repetitive dance we soon grow tired of watching.