A modern day Cervantes passed away in April of 2014. Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s death was a significant event in Latin America, although merely a footnote on United States television news. Many US print and online news sources did show proper respect to “Gabo’s” work, almost unanimously referencing One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) as Garcia-Marquez’s defining opus. Upon closer examination, Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) is an equally powerful book, a second pillar to a literary legacy. Here, Garcia-Marquez is at the apex of his skill, writing with full command of the “magical realism” elements that make his stories joyous and expansive: exaggerated symbolism, inflated irony and unraveled time.
Love in the Time of Cholera begins with an event close to the
end of the chronological story: Juvenal Urbino’s death on Pentecost Sunday,
“the most important holiday in a city consecrated by the holy spirit.” The
elderly doctor falls off a ladder while trying to get his wife’s pet parrot
back into its cage. This act is loaded with symbolism that is just past the
threshold of absurd, one element of what literary scholars have termed “magical
Purchased from Caribbean black market depths and then meticulously groomed to speak French, the parrot is considered polished and sophisticated in the eyes of early 20th Century Colombian society. Yet the parrot doubles as a symbol of Urbino’s wife, Fermina Daza—born of a rough and mysterious background, refined, and then housed by her husband in a gilded estate of a parochial Colombian town. Add the symbolism of Pentecost (the time when the holy spirit returns to the followers of Jesus) and Urbino’s last words to the parrot “ca y est” (French for “that’s it,” “we’re here,” “I finally understand”) and the layers of symbolism overflow to absurdity.
At the wake of Urbino’s death, Florentino Ariza, the main character of the story, declares his love for Fermina Daza, even though they are both in the twilight of their lives. “Fermina, I have waited for this moment for over a half a century, to repeat to you my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.” Fermina responds coldly, “Get out of here. And don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you.” Here, layers of exaggerated irony tickle the reader. The reader does not expect a fervent romance between two old people, or a pickup line upon a fresh widow, or a courtship initiated with such vicious rejection to end so well. It is all inflated irony, yet Garcia-Marquez delivers it with a straight-faced tone that makes it seems completely plausible and normal. This is the essence of “magical realism.”
A third element of “magical realism” is time, namely circles of time woven by Garcia-Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera is not told as a chronology. Instead the story begins near the end, returns to the beginning (when Urbino, Daza and Ariza are teenagers), and then passes beyond the point where it started (Urbino’s death). Garcia-Marquez’s style of dismantling chronology destroys the notion of human “progress,” pointing to the fact that history repeats itself, never in the exact same way. This creates mysticism within the story and warns the reader to pay attention to what happens, because it will surely happen again—a hypnotist’s circle.
Again and again, Garcia-Marquez’s “magical realism” tickles the reader. Look at this absurdity! Garcia-Marquez teases toward a universe of profound wisdom about human nature. Select readers don’t enjoy Garcia-Marquez’s tickling… his shifting center, the big hooks, the Faulkneresque complexity of form (minus Faulkner’s incoherence), the solitude, the fateful mistakes, the love and destruction, the loyalty and betrayal, such life and death—all grand and exaggerated. Yet for most, the author brings an elite pleasure, a grand understanding of self and the world, along with laughter, lightheartedness, and a special wavelength of joy. Through “magical realism,” Garcia-Marquez expands the visible spectrum of humanity. This is why the world loves Gabo and salutes his death.
Lee Miller is the author of the historical novel, Kali Sunset (www.clovercreekpress.com), the story of a traditional Bengali mother, Sona Choudhury, raising a family amidst 20th Century India’s great challenges. Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.