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Gabriel García Márquez


Love in the Time of Cholera coverGabriel García Márquez died three days ago. I hardly knew him. For years, it seems, his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude has waited near the top of my reading list. It is still there. Earlier this year, I read his Love in the Time of Cholera. I chose the popular but less acclaimed novel for two reasons: I frequently choose not to introduce myself to an author by reading the one book generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece. Additionally, I was able to obtain an digital copy of Cholera before One Hundred Years.

      Spoilers below!

I am not generally a big fan of the “magic realism” genre for which García Márquez is well-known. I’ve struggled to enjoy the novels of Salman Rushdie and find the short stories of Annie Proulx that employ this style to be my least favorite of hers. What might be called “absurdist realism”–the farcical novels of Gary Shteyngart[1] come to mind–is more to my taste. When a man-eating tree occurs amidst a collection of dusty, hard-edged and grimly realistic tales by Proulx, I am thrown.

But I approached Cholera with an open mind and a spirit of hopefulness. It turned out that while there are certainly some fantastical elements in it, they are muted for the most part. Muted except for the prodigious cryptic sexual achievements of its hero Florentino Ariza. No one in his life sees this energy except the unbelievable numbers and variety of his (mostly illicit) lovers. Men see him as a sexless and effeminate cipher while he cuckolds half of them. This he accomplishes while maintaining what we are to believe is a spiritually pure fifty-year commitment to the one unobtainable love of his life.

Fermina Daza, Florentino’s once and future love, is the book’s most impressive character. Strong and willful, she overshadows the important and successful doctor who wins as much of her heart as she is willing to bestow. At the time of his death, she is reconciled to their long, successful if not always passionate marriage. I found her to be a memorable, admirable, flesh-and-blood character.

Florentino, of course, is waiting for the widow. But it was about at this point that what had been only a vague dissatisfaction with the character became for me an active loathing. The sexual exploitation by this preternaturally young septuagenarian of his 12-year-old niece and charge ends in tragedy for the girl. But not for Florentino. Unmoved by her suicide, fearful only briefly that his responsibility for it might be discovered, he moves seamlessly into the destiny he was so sure was his own: circumstances have at last come together to provide him the opportunity to win Fermina’s love.[2]

As a storyteller and as a prose stylist (read in translation), García Márquez was clearly gifted. And as I have come to learn, in reading various encomiums these two days, he had a penchant for writing of the sexual abuse of very young girls by very old men. The novella Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) was his last published work. It begins with the sentence

The year of my ninetieth birthday I wanted to give myself a night of mad love with an adolescent virgin.

The narrator buys a 14-year-old virgin but in the end does not have sex with her. He lays with her night after night while she, drugged, sleeps. Meanwhile he narrates the history of his sexual “conquests”: encounters, not often tender, with more than 500 prostitutes. And thus occupied, the 90-year-old finds in his attraction to the undefiled body of this child the love he had never known. Beautiful story of redemption? I don’t know. I haven’t read it, nor am I likely to.[3]

I know that One Hundred Years of Solitude features an old man’s encounter with a young prostitute.[4] Perhaps this motif in García Márquez’s writings is meaningful in ways I do not understand. Perhaps I yet will. I will have the opportunity. The novel is, after all, on my self-assigned reading list, and presumably a wide critical consensus can’t be wholly wrong. Can it?

García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude is listed at #14 on
Bachblog’s 113 Great Novels of the 20th Century. It was first published in 1967.

Notes

  1. Shteyngart’s The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and especially Absurdistan. I doubt “absurdist realism” exists as a genre and I’m too lazy to Google it. [^]
  2. Perhaps my visceral reaction to Florentino lacks sophistication. We must be meant to condemn certain excesses of his character and to see that García Márquez is drawing us in against our will as Nabakov does with Humbert Humbert. But the hero tale of Florentino and his ultimate victory never seem ironic to me. [^]
  3. It demonstrates some chutzpah, no doubt, for me to pan this Nobel Prize-winning author’s novella sight unseen and after having only read two reviews–both favorable. But there you have it. [^]
  4. From what I can gather, the exploited girls of García Márquez’s stay right around the same age throughout his career. As the author aged, though, the abusive men of his fiction aged with him. [^]

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