Whither The Magic?
One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of my favorite novels. Which is why, when I started reading Love in the Time of Cholera, one of the things I noticed immediately was the lack of that subtle brand of magic that I had so enjoyed. I wanted it badly and went around every corner with the expectation of a cheerful reunion. But it was not to be.
As Pynchon says: the “reality” of love and the possibility of its ultimate extinction become Love’s “indispensable driving forces,” whereas magic in all its guises and forms becomes peripheralized or “at least more thoughtfully deployed in the service of an expanded vision, matured, darker than before but no less clement.”
Why this marginalization of the extraordinary? Why this deliberate move towards Realism? Why no Magic?
I kept asking myself this as I read, and beyond. Was I to understand that it is because Love in itself is Magic? That was too cheesy, even for Márquez, who never shies from telling me a cheesy sub-story if it needs to be told.
Or is it because Love in the Time of Cholera is to be seen as the product of a more experienced author, who no longer needs the resources of magic realism and hyperbole to surprise the reader?
One thing was sure: Love in the Time of Cholera is not only about Love, even when love pervades every page. Indeed, it covers, through its characters’ wide amorous and business interests an entire era and all its social classes, an era spanning over fifty years of Latin American life, from the last decades of the nineteenth century to the first two or three of the twentieth.
Love in the Time of Cholera, while on a much smaller scale than One Hundred Years of Solitude, deals with the Columbian civil wars of this period and the violence left in their wake. Márquez, however, wants these historical and political concerns to be passed largely unnoticed by the reader. While One Hundred Years of Solitude disguises the political themes through the uses of myth, fantasy, hyperbole, and magic realism, Love in the Time of Cholera disguises them through its depiction of an eternal, sometimes exasperating, almost unrealistic love affair, one which flouts the conventions of every love story the reader might have come across.
Love in the Time of Cholera is often quite bleak due to this veering towards stark Realism, to this occasional historical invasion of the narrative. Much of this realism arises from Death and Decay – the central themes of the novel. However, Márquez does not completely give up on Idealism either. In fact he is neither an Idealistic or a Realistic author – he is just a supremely eloquent voice speaking from the vantage-point of his own old age and wisdom.
To me, Love in the Time of Cholera is a magnificently gloomy novel though Márquez’s masterful sorcery, with its descriptive cascades and his narrative’s seductiveness, masks it well.
Márquez’s novels are almost invariably gloomy. They are apocalyptic. They are decadence distilled.
Then why the popularity? Why do we love them? Why are we uplifted? Is it because of Márquez’s exuberance?
I think it is because of the Quixotic Heroism of the people who populate these doomed worlds.
It is this heroism that veils the Apocalyptic forebodings that pack densely, like storm clouds, throughout the firmament of his novels.
It is this Heroism that we admire as we learn how, during the entire time he waits to talk to Fermina again (fifty-one years, nine months, and four days) Florentine Ariza is dauntless and never ever gives up even the slightest sliver of hope. Nothing could shake this man:
“And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamn coming and going?” he asked.
Florentino Ariza had kept his answer ready for fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights.
“Forever,” he said.
The Heart of Darkness: Death & Decay
The whole novel is too broad a canvas to be explored in a review. For this, I limit myself to the themes of Death, Decay & Redemption, and allow the political, ecological, societal and personal aspects of these themes to play themselves out below the current, so to speak.
The Institutions of Love: Inventing Love
He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, nor would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake.
The theme of Juvenal’s love story is about the incompatibility of love and social convention, the conflict between desire and social life. It is quite easily the crucial conundrum the novel wants to solve – the ‘other’ to the novel’s essence. Security, order, happiness – can these when added together in the right proportions provide an equation for Love?
The sort of Love that can stop the decay that seems to have beset the entire world? Apparently not. It is not enough.
Through Juvenal’s invented Love, Márquez is not as much criticizing the institution of marriage as he is criticizing the very illusion that allows it the delusion that the world and worldly goods and pleasures can produce Love.
Instead, Márquez wants to show that it is Love that can create (or recreate) the world.
Ultimately Love is love of Love itself, not merely the desire for its actual attainment or even the act of its fulfillment.
Pitted against such an impossible ideal, all convention or institutionalization obstructs Love’s ultimate goal, which is to forestall the all-pervading Death and Decay.
The ultimate goal of Love is to save the world, to create it anew.
Gerontophobia & Ecocide: Destroying Love
So why is this world so much in need of saving?
The cosmic decline in Love seems to be the cause for alarm, the cause for the pervasive decay that invades the world of the novel:
Everything in this novel, from the environment, to the city, to the rebels, to the civil wars, to the people, to the pets, is ancient – as if they were part of this earth from the very beginning. And everybody is in the throes of love. And everything ancient is also decaying, sliding slowly towards the final end of death – so is the sadness and the conventional love represented by Juvenal.
But it is not just about the human lives. Márquez writes as much about places as about people. This one is also about the death of a river, of a town, of a society… or murder, rather. Of Nature’s Old Age inflicted prematurely by youthful humanity.
This is the ecological sub-theme of the novel: It is the river, finally, the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) that highlights this for us. The abundant nature that surrounds the town is caught in a process of irreversible decay. Alligators, manatees, monkeys, and birds disappear from the jungle; toward the end, the riverboats have difficulty finding enough wood for their boilers. While the political urgency of this topic is clear, cosmic decline in Love in the Time of Cholera has a different meaning and is linked to the theme of the interruption of love discussed before.
Paralleling the old age of his characters with the decay envisioned by this ecological wasteland (of their own making), Márquez is pointing out to us the true nature of Decay – of Humans and their self inflicted sufferings bringing the decay of old age upon themselves and upon the whole of nature.
This is the central tenet of the novel – Love in the Time of Decay.
However, there is more. And Márquez is not afraid to set this counter theme out in the very opening scene itself:
The Smell of Bitter Almonds
Counter to the dark theme of Decay that is to be developed for the rest of the plot, early in the novel, an act of brave revolt against this inevitability establishes the counter-current against the steady march of decay.
Jérémiah de Saint-Amour (soon forgotten and never again mentioned) takes this revolutionary step by choosing to die before decay sets in. This act initiates the long debate that runs throughout the novel about Love and its objective – are we to preserve Love at the expense of Life or to preserve Life through Love? By raising this question so early, by calculating his suicide long beforehand, by choosing to end the world than to let it go to rot, to see it rot, Saint-Amour stays alive through the rest of the novel, haunting it
Being a witness to the decay of love was the most unbearable to Saint-Amour, the Saint of Love?
What we see dramatized at the end of the book, however, is the possibility of genuine passion and romance in old age. There is a clear contrast between Saint-Amour’s suicide and the protracted love life of Florentino Ariza, but it is a contrast that conceals a profound affinity. Saint-Amour kills himself to preserve his body from decay, to fix its image, as it were, through death.
Love and Decay, then, constitute the double focus of this novel, the former being present in countless ways throughout.
Love in The Time of Cholera: The Post-Apocalyptic Paradise
… his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera.
Every page of this novel is rammed full of love, beyond the capacity of any reader to fully comprehend. Love is in the air like Malaria; and in the water, like Cholera – its infections are inescapable!
All aspects of love are covered in exquisite detail – from teenage love to old age; from sexual to rapine to platonic; from formal courtship to marital to unconsummated; to unrequited love to the excesses of suicide and adultery; from the mundane normalcy of love to the incestuous abnormalities.
But the novel’s great affirmation of romance is in the face not just of a hostile or prosaic world, but of the darker side of romance itself.
It is Operatic, Quixotic & Dionysian Love that is celebrated. It is Love as the Second Coming!
Sailing The River of Love: The Voyage of Re-Birth
Youth, Love, Old Age & Death – The Four Unknowns. This should have been the order of Life.
However, in this world of Márquez, the only ages that can hope to be able to love seem to be the Young and the Old. In between lies the desert – the only time we are allowed to live – when not capable of love. It is a paradox on which the very survival of this fictional universe seems to depend on.
Love and Life cannot coexist then – The solution is to give up the life they know for Love. To take the ultimate leap of faith.
So hoist a yellow flag on the Ship of your Life (Second Fidelity) and sail on the Great Magdalena (in Spanish, the “river of life”) in a State of Emergency! Let Love in the Time of Cholera be the entirety of the River of Life. Love should now destroy that earlier Life instead, just as Cholera can squeeze it out. And then be reborn, afresh.
The novel ends with the central characters challenging their entire social world and the very conditions of their existence by their grand romantic gesture, by their final, and what seems like eternal, trip on the Magdalena river. This is the necessary reaction to the decay that is fast on the route to complete extinction, to death.
Love and Cholera will both go extinct otherwise, rooted out by Life.
Love is shown as the redeeming force that saves both humanity, nature, culture and history. It appears as a divine force that defies everything. As if in biblical terms, the novel seems to assert that it is not yet too late to stop the end of humanity and to reach out for grace.
Most importantly, never allow the Yellow Flag to be questioned. Sustain the ardor. Maintain the symptoms of Cholera/Love. The pestilence is to be maintained at all costs! Only then will the world let you sail on.
Of course, the novel ends with the reader wondering if Fermina and Florentino will ever be able to come ashore and exercise their second chance.
We are left to question this act for ourselves: How do we save the world? By escape into an unrealistic fantasy. Or is love more real? The answer, at least inside Márquez’s world is quite clear.
This final triumph is exquisitely multi-layered. Fermina and Florentino will remain isolated from the real contagion of their earlier Life by allowing their Love to be disguised as Cholera.
They are not rejecting the world, they are allowing the world to reject them instead.
The quarantine is really against love, the sickness that society will not, can not tolerate, the sickness that society fears as much as a deadly epidemic, the sickness that the society fears will wipe it out.
Instead it is that very sickness, which is recognized by conventional society as its biggest scourge, that saves the characters from extinction, along with the manatees, the alligators, and the monkeys.
It is Love that saves all in the end – at least we are left to imagine that possibility. Now, in this post-apocalyptic paradise, age is of no consequence; Life has been transmuted and preserved by Love, like Saint-Amour’s Love by death.
Life has been reborn in the second coming of Love!
Love, in short, will always be in the time of cholera, under the Yellow Flag’s protection.
THE INFINITE CAPACITY FOR ILLUSION: The Will to Lyricism
So, now we can come back to the question we started with – of the Absence of Magic.
In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the apocalypse came in spite of Magic, in Love in the Time of Cholera, redemption comes despite its absence!
Unlike the death that starts off One Hundred Years of Solitude, here that death, the suicide, is ultimately sublimated into love – and decay is arrested in its unreality!
In fact reality has instead been reinvented in its own terms, where previous reality was rejected outright.
The capacity for illusion is magic enough to save the world, and our souls. This Infinite Capacity for Illusion can bring on the required apocalypse and we can live as if the Kingdom of Heaven/Cholera was already here on earth, under that banner of protection!
Only then can the Magic return.