On Gabriel García Márquez’s Love In The Time of Cholera

I had heard about this book forever, but the first time I really noticed it was at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Shibuya. There the title was available not only in its original language (Spanish) but the also local language (Japanese) as well as the one I’m actually fluent enough in to read without having to consult a dictionary several times a page. Which is really pretty impressive, given that the whole of Japan is smaller than California and there isn’t a lot of space or market for books in foreign languages there, even in cities that see significant tourist traffic like Tokyo.

Without going into an incredible amount of detail, I’d like to say that having read the book I can now see why it earned its place in several languages on Kinokuniya bookshelves.

For starters, format. This book is unlike any other I have ever read. A word to the wise: Love in the Time of Cholera is NOT for the impatient. Flip through it and you will see very little white space. That’s because Márquez likes his prose. He likes it a lot. If lengthy paragraphs were foodstuffs, Márquez would probably butter his toast with them morning, noon, and night and have seven or eight cups throughout the day besides. There is spoken dialogue, but it is very limited, and rarely more than a single line at a time.

And yet, unlike Robinson Crusoe (the only other book I have read that is comparable in this sense), which was dry and hard to read, Love in the Time of Cholera is romantic. It WOOS you. There is poetry in that prose and it is divine. You warm up to it and it serenades you, not unlike Florentino Ariza’s Waltz of the Crowned Goddess played at a distance from Fermina Daza’s window in the evening darkness. That said,

The story’s direction is also unusual: gradual and roundabout rather than linear. It is organic: like a story told by a grandparent.

Subtlety. This is a work that is subtle in every sense. Its drama is subtle, its humor is subtle, is victories are subtle. There is a scene near the beginning that is at once hilarious and painful and mundanely relatable in which Dr. Juvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza stop talking to one another and almost destroy their marriage over a bar of soap. True story.

Humanity. Love. Vulnerability. Passion and dreams, disappointment and shortcomings. And yet– beauty through the pain. These are the things found in Love in the Time of Cholera, and the makings of a not only historical but profoundly human experience. Consider Florentino Ariza’s attempts to recover purportedly sunken treasure off the Colombian coast via diving and rowboat. His purpose is noble: the treasure will enable him to marry Fermina Daza. But when Florentino shows his mother the pearls and jewels his hired diver has recovered, she tests them and reveals that they are fake: he has been duped. And what about the Doctor who is successful but socially awkward, and uses the magical, generic question “Do you like music?” to formulaically propose friendship?

The novel is poignant: both cutting and beautiful.

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30 Stories, Day 7: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings

On day 7 of my 30 day short story challenge I get into magical realism. *Rubs hands together* Eeeeexcellent…

“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez

The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. He had to go very close to see that it was an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.

Synopsis:

The story begins with a man, Pelayo, throwing crabs out of the house after three nights of lashing rain have turned the beach into stew. It is then that he discovers a wingèd old man face down in the mud.

Pelayo and his wife Elisenda first tell their wise old neighbor of the creature, seeking her advice: she tells them that the angel was probably coming for their child, who was sick with fever, but was knocked down by the rain en route. She advises that they club the celestial being to death.

Pelayo and Elisenda, of course, haven’t the heart to do so. They lock him up in the chicken coop instead. The baby’s fever falls and its appetite returns; grateful, the happy couple decide they will set the angel out to sea with several days’ provisions.

But the husband and wife have second thoughts when the crowds begin to flock. Onlookers from far and wide treat the angel like a circus attraction, throwing scraps of food at it and provoking it to action. The priest visits and declares that his superiors must be consulted for instruction. The ill arrive en masse, diseased seeking miracles and cripples pulling the angel’s feathers and touching themselves with them so they might be healed, but the angel is an ancient, decrepit being and largely listless; even his miracles are sad and unsatisfactory. A leper’s sores do not heal but grow sunflowers, and a blind man does not regain sight but grows three new teeth.

Eventually people lose interest in the angel. But by such time as this Pelayo and Elisenda, who began charging admission, have earned a small fortune. With their savings they build a two story mansion, a rabbit warren, and Elisenda dresses in only the finest silks. The coop, in contrast, is left derelict: treated only with incense when the chicken dung becomes too putrid. The angel is ever their captive.

As time goes on (and the coop collapses with more bad weather) the infant grows into a child; the angel is adopted into the household: a blind, elderly creature, constantly stumbling into people and being in everyone’s way. He begins to run a fever at night; his wings are balding, in a state of miserable disrepair; he seems to be dying.

Then, when the worst of winter passes, the angel’s heath unexpectedly recovers and new feathers begin coming in. He tries to fly again and, though ungainly at first, eventually recovers and wings out to sea.

Favorite line

“He was lying in the corner drying his open wings in the sunlight among the fruit peels and breakfast leftovers that the early risers had thrown him. Alien to the impertinences of the world, he only lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin.” I just love this image.

Observations

Gabriel García Márquez is the king of magical realism. Crabs fill the house when it rains too much, a casual aside in this story is a young woman whom divinity turned to a spider, and everything about the angel is so real and tangible: his struggling in the mud. His molting, parasite-ridden wings. His unearthly patience and endurance for all the provoking—even a cattle brand (although he rises and gusts and shouts in foreign tongue at this). The “consolation” miracles (see: leper, blind man, and paralytic) are perhaps my favorite: twisted and broken, not unlike the majestic, aged creature which cast them.

I’m a little surprised that this tale is not more didactic: that it leaves the reader with no clear moral or instructive takeaway at the end. It’s just sort of an unusual, magical episode. That’s it. There are no consequences as the wise old neighbor or priest seemed to warn of: the child’s life is not taken, and none are bedeviled or tricked into something wicked. The angel is not vengeful toward his captors; he simply takes his freedom and leaves.

 Vocab

ragpicker: a person who collects and sells rags

ingenuous: innocent and unsuspecting

sidereal: of/related to the stars

befuddled: unable to think clearly

sacramental: related to religious ceremony; a sign of divine grace

penitent: a person who repents of sin/wrongdoings

hermetic: airtight; protected from outside influences

repose: temporary rest

tribulation: a cause or state of great suffering/trouble

deign: to do something that one considers to be beneath one’s dignity

standoffish: distant and cold; unfriendly