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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Love in the Time of Cholera

At the heart of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel is the provocative idea that love is not an ennobling or redemptive aspect of the human condition, but rather that is a cause of our dreadful state. Marquez is nothing short of cruel as he spends a hundred pages or more building a love story so enchanting that it might belong with the great romances of all time, only to pinprick it to death with stunning revelations about the integrity of his characters and the loathsome capabilities of the human soul.

The novel centers around a love triangle of sorts. As a young man Florentino Ariza falls in love with Fermina Daza, a beautiful girl from a middle-class family. Fermina's father manages to arrange things so that his daughter marries the aristocratic Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and Florentino sinks into despair, waiting for the chance to declare his love for Fermina again.

If that makes you go "Awww" it is understandable, and at the end of 100 pages, even permissible, but not so at page 348. Over the course of the novel we see that the pairing of Love and Cholera in the novel's title is no mere curiosity. It is a deliberate evocation of the similarity of love to a corrupting and lethal pox on the human condition. For love Florentino Ariza mistreats hundreds of women in the fifty-one years he waits for Fermina. For love he leads several others to disaster through his recklessness. And for love he is blind to the despicable state into which he has fallen.

Mr. Marquez is so talented a writer, he describes our own notions of romantic love so prettily, that it is many pages indeed before one catches on to his actual point. A passage where Florentino spies his love across a crowded marketplace speaks our universal idea of attraction in words better than we could ever hope for ourselves: "To him she seemed so beautiful, so seductive, so different from ordinary people, that he could not understand why no one was as disturbed as he by the clicking of her heels on the paving stones, why no one else's heart was wild with the breeze stirred by the sighs of her veils, why everyone did not go mad with the movements of her braid, the flight of her hands, the gold of her laughter. He had not missed a single one of her gestures, not one of the indications of her character, but he did not dare approach her for fear of destroying the spell."

That is a beautiful thought wonderfully expressed. That Marquez is capable of writing like that but chooses instead to focus on the hopelessness of the very love he so convincingly creates makes him a writer with uncommon fortitude and daring. That he does so and still manages to captivate the reader, who may almost rightfully feel tricked and abused, is a testament to his genius.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a book that will have you cursing the power of narrative as you sing the praises of its creator. For that it gets a 9.5 out of 10.

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