Saturday, December 11, 2010

Love in the Time of Cholera

I searched for reviews on Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, 'Love in the Time of Cholera' last evening. Why I did that I do not specifically know. Over the last few years, I have become more interested than ever in love, soul mates and the like plus I love reviews and op-eds of any kind.
I usually try to avoid reading other people's reviews before I post mine because I do not want their perspectives to color mine. However, curiosity got the better of me so I decided to just give it a try. This book has both riled me and intrigued me, I have alternately hated and pitied the protagonists but that is the hallmark of a great work of art. Somehow, the truly great classics do not give you all the answers. You can come out with different interpretations. Human beings are complex beings and often have shades of gray in their character. Great works sometimes take you back to a different era and we are forced to look at the characters' actions within the context of the world in which they lived. After all, can any of us claim to be completely out of the bounds of social convention?

The story begins when a teenager, Florentino Ariza falls madly in love at first sight with a 14 year old girl, Fermina Daza. He writes love letters to her and succeeds in wooing her, at least briefly. Encouraged by her aunt, the girl writes back to him, too. Her father later finds out and tries to make his daughter forget all about her lover by sending her off on a year long trip.

Fermina Daza in now on the cusp of womanhood and more mature. She surprisingly rejects him on returning, saying that their love was just an illusion. She goes on to marry a well off, distinguished doctor whom she initially turns down and repels but is encouraged to court by everyone around her.
Florentino Ariza, though heartbroken, bounces back and determines to win her back after waiting it out for her husband to die. The moment finally comes after 51 years.

Various people have called the male protagonist, Florentino Ariza, a stalker, delusional, an obsessed lover, a pedophile and a sicko. Well, he was a pedophile as, near the end of the novel, he seduces and sleeps with a 14 year old innocent girl who is entrusted in his care (he sponsors her education and is sort of a legal guardian).
I did not find it distressing when he slept with hundreds of women - prostitutes, widows and other lonely souls. In those relationships, both parties knew that it should be a casual fling, to be enjoyed while it lasted. He even had a few real love affairs which died their natural death due to fights and growing apart, just like many relationships and even marriages do.
He seems to have treated the women well and given them pleasure.
So far so good.
But then, he chases and beds a married woman and scrawls tell-tale proof of their dalliance on her body in the most indiscreet and brazen manner. Her husband finds out and kills her. There is a brief anecdote of how he pounced upon another woman and impregnated her. The crowning despicable act is his seduction of an innocent 14 year old who reminds him of the love of his life - Fermina Daza when he first saw her and fell irrevocably and madly in love with her.
The 14 year old falls madly for him and is left desolate when he runs back to the newly widowed Fermina after half a century. He played with and caused destruction in her life. I read this novel many months ago or maybe it was more than a year ago so the names of the characters are sketchy and come to mind when I read other reviews.

However, despite all this, I would not classify Florentino Ariza as a stalker. He never interfered in Fermina Daza's life after she rejected him and married another man. He did not plot revenge against her or her husband and family. He did not try to sabotage her marriage or lure her into an extra marital affair. What he did was keep the flame of adoration and longing alive in his heart, without proclaiming it from the rooftops. In fact, on his side, except his mother and one of his perceptive lovers, no one else knew his secret. He was a determined lover with a strange but unshakable faith that someday, he would win her back after her husband died. He was gambling with death and fate. What if he died much earlier than they did? What if Fermina herself was snatched away by the grim reaper before both men?

In a way, Florentino is what we would call a romantic idealist, in a way. He had his emotional and sexual longings just like anyone else but what is appalling is the way he sometimes used other women with little care for the way he was messing up their minds and lives. On the other hand, to some and perhaps most women, he was a fun lover. What if there was one or maybe a few of them who loved him just as passionately and lastingly as he had loved Fermina? I wonder what would his life had been like had he opened his heart to that possibility.
In waiting for Fermina, he lost the opportunity to be a father (at least one recognized by law and society), to have a family of his own, to be a grandpa. That could be a great regret when you cross over into your sixties. But he seemed unfazed by all those dreary possibilities and in that way, he was a great risk taker, a courageous soul. He did not do what most people do - settle.

Another point to consider would be that 19th-20th century Colombian society may have had different attitudes about extra marital sex and even sex with young teenagers. On one hand was the conservative church that prohibited any relations outside of wedlock and on the other hand, was the society that still had relaxed norms culturally. At least, that is what I gathered from reading both 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' and 'Love in the Time of Cholera'. I am not from Colombia so I do not know for sure. It does seem from these novels that the society had dual attitudes, one of them surprisingly relaxed and even cavalier. Was it the conflict between the mores of the Spanish Catholic conquistadors and the natives?
Had Florentino Ariza lived in today's times, he would have definitely been led away in handcuffs.

Now coming to the marriage of Fermina Daza with Dr.Urbino. Many people say that this was true love, the lasting, stable love between a husband and wife who created a family, complete with ups and downs, children and the accompanying issues.
Some, on the other hand, have referred to it as unhappy or even loveless.
I always got the feeling that Dr. Urbino saw winning Fermina's heart as a challenge initially (I think that this was mentioned somewhere in the novel) and later loved her more than she loved him. In fact, Fermina does wonder after all those years whether it was love or not.
It was a stable marriage that withstood Fermina's frigidity, Dr. Urbino's affair and their subsequent separation for a little while. There could have been emotional attachment and caring for each other. But there did seem to be the lack of mutual passion and true intimacy. Again, the success of such a relationship is highly subjective. In my humble opinion, it was so-so, a stable one but not the one that could be called the love of one's life.

Fermina rejects Florentino because she is disillusioned by love itself, not because she was dragged out of the affair kicking and screaming by her father and that could be the root of many of her problems later in life. She was a little cold, too logical and shut her heart in at least some ways. There is a line, I think, that says something to this effect during her year away from home when her father hopes to cure her of her love for Florentino and hopefully forget him - She knew that she could live without love.

The bigger question is not just about love - is life about the final destination or about the journey itself? I wanted to shake Florentino and ask him, "Was she really worth it?" Yet, I was happy for these two sad souls at the end. There is such a thing called love, the love that stands the test of time. Believing in it is like believing in angels or heaven. You have to suspend a certain amount of reason and listen with your intuition and something deep inside.