Love in the Time of Cholera

One thought kept returning to me while reading Love in the Time of Cholera: Gabriel García Márquez must have been a wonderful lover. I’m not talking about sex. I am talking about the spiritual side of love. Anyone who writes about love with the depth he does must have the capacity for an abundance of love.

He could be speaking of either side of love in this passage about those who have it and those who do not:

“He distrusted those who did not: when they strayed from the straight and narrow, it was something so unusual for them that they bragged about love as if they had just invented it. Those who did it often, on the other hand, lived for that alone. They felt so good that their lips were sealed as if they were tombs, because they knew that their lives depended on their discretion. They never spoke of their exploits, they confided in no one, they feigned indifference to the point where they earned the reputation of being impotent, or frigid, or above all timid fairies, as in the case of Florentino Ariza. But they took pleasure in the error because the error protected them. They formed a secret society, whose members recognized each other all over the world without need of a common language, which is why Florentino Ariza was not surprised by the girl’s reply: she was one of them, and therefore she knew that he knew that she knew.”

Love in the Time of Cholera is the most accurate depiction I have read of the secret heart of a lover, and of what a man does with his love when the person he wants to give it to no longer wants it.

It has been my experience that people’s capacity for love is as individual as our fingerprints. Many people find love a difficult concept, one that cuts to the core of their identity in uncomfortable ways. For some, a large capacity for love manifests itself as an unrestrained love for many romantic partners, for others it is found in the ability to love one person with incredible depth. The capacity to love can expand and contract as age and circumstance inspire, or discourage, the opening of the heart.

In this passage, Márquez explores the difference in capacity between the young lovers Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza:

“Florentino Ariza wrote every night. Letter by letter, he had no mercy as he poisoned himself with the smoke from the palm oil lamps in the back room of the notions shop, and his letters became more discursive and more lunatic the more he tried to imitate his favorite poets from the Popular Library, which even at that time was approaching eighty volumes. His mother, who had urged him with so much fervor to enjoy his torment, became concerned for his health. “You are going to wear out your brains,” she shouted at him from the bedroom when she heard the first roosters crow. “No woman is worth all that.” She could not remember ever having known anyone in such a state of unbridled passion. But he paid no attention to her. Sometimes he went to the office without having slept, his hair in an uproar of love after leaving the letter in the prearranged hiding place so that Fermina Daza would find it on her way to school. She, on the other hand, under the watchful eye of her father and the vicious spying of the nuns, could barely manage to fill half a page from her notebook when she locked herself in the bathroom or pretended to take notes in class. But this was not only due to her limited time and the danger of being taken by surprise, it was also her nature that caused her letters to avoid emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating the events of her daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log. In reality they were distracted letters, intended to keep the coals alive without putting her hand in the fire, while Florentino Ariza burned himself alive in every line.”

This passage, written in the 1980s but set decades earlier, reveals the joys of anonymity that come from leisurely observation of a person, as we do everyday with film, or social media posts, in an age before such things were possible:

“One night he went to Don Sancho’s Inn, an elegant colonial restaurant, and sat in the most remote corner, as was his custom when he ate his frugal meals alone. All at once, in the large mirror on the back wall, he caught a glimpse of Fermina Daza sitting at a table with her husband and two other couples, at an angle that allowed him to see her reflected in all her splendor. She was unguarded, she engaged in conversation with grace and laughter that exploded like fireworks, and her beauty was more radiant under the enormous teardrop chandeliers: once again, Alice had gone through the looking glass.

Holding his breath, Florentino Ariza observed her at his pleasure: he saw her eat, he saw her hardly touch her wine, he saw her joke with the fourth in the line of Don Sanchos; from his solitary table he shared a moment of her life, and for more than an hour he lingered, unseen, in the forbidden precincts of her intimacy.”

The forbidden precincts of her intimacy? Who writes like that? The phrase lingers, and rattles, and leaves a hint of perfume in its wake. It is intimacy, more than anything else, that defines love and differentiates between loves. How much intimacy – physical, emotional, spiritual – do we allow ourselves to divulge? How much do we ask, or demand, from those that we love?

I expected this book to be a good one to read during a pandemic, and it is, but it is also a timely reminder that there is always a plague of some kind going on, and there is also always 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. For they had 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.”

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