Love, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the Times

February 17, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

In another career, I taught 11th-grade students a novel called Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This was not for a standard high school class. It was part of the challenging and admirable International Baccalaureate program. True to the first word in its name, IB required schools to teach four or five literary works that were not written in the students' native language, but could be read in translation. This meant that I taught Kafka's Metamorphosis, Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Camus' The Stranger. (If you notice that all of these three are very short, you've got a valuable insight into how to teach high school English.)

I picked Love in the Time of Cholera for several reasons.  I thought it appropriate to have a Spanish-language writer in the course, even more so a Nobel laureate. The fact that Garcia Marquez was Latin American made him still more attractive, because some of my students were Latinos. I knew that Garcia Marquez' work was full of symbolism and magical realism, the sort of literary elements my students needed to be able to identify and analyze.  But the biggest reason was that after spending the first couple of months of the year with Kafka's cockroach and Solzhenitsyn's Gulag, I needed a break, and I thought my students did, too. It seemed time for a little romance.

I had read the novel, many years before I taught it, and I had a fuzzy memory of the plot. In an unnamed Colombian city around the turn of the last century, a hopeless romantic, a teenage boy named Florentino Ariza, falls madly in love with a girl named Fermina Daza. They never date; they barely meet. Their affair is conducted through letters. He spends hours in the Park of the Evangels across the street from her house, just waiting to glimpse her through a window. Her father doesn't consider Florentino an appropriate match for his daughter and when he finds out about their romance, he sends her away from the city for two years to live with relatives. When she returns, in a moment of cold clarity, she tells him she doesn't love him and won't marry him. Shortly afterwards, she meets and marries a more socially appropriate suitor, Dr. Juvenal Urbino.

But Florentino Ariza does not give up. He waits for her for more than fifty years. By waiting, I don't mean Florentino is inactive. In fact, he has more than 600 dalliances with various women. Many of them are widows. But one of them is a 14-year-old schoolgirl whose family has asked him to look after her while she goes to a Catholic girls' school in the city. When Juvenal Urbino finally dies, and Florentino resumes his courtship of Fermina Daza, he tells her he is still a virgin. And he appears to believe it because, despite all of these women, he has reserved his heart for her. He emotionally ghosts the teenager, who commits suicide. Despite that, Florentino and Fermina finally consummate their love and sail off into the sunset.

Well.

In its time, the book was widely praised.  The New York Times, in a 1988 review by Thomas Pynchon, dismissed Florentino's sexual adventures during his half-century wait for Fermina as the "folly, imprecision and lapses in taste" that characterize passionate love. "We find ourselves...cheering him [Florentino] on," Pynchon wrote.

And I don't remember any of my students objecting to the content of the book, though that may well have been because they weren't paying attention. I recall having the sense that they were vaguely appalled at the notion of people over the age of thirty having romantic lives, to say nothing of sex. But no one said Florentino was a monster.

Nor did I think he was, to be honest. I thought he was a character who fully embodied human virtues and sins, including those occasioned by lust and love.

As I planned to go to Cartagena this winter, I decided to re-read the novel. I knew that its fictional settings were based on places in Cartagena, as well as the nearby port city of Baranquilla. Both were towns in which the young Garcia Marquez worked as a journalist. I thought it would be fun to seek out the Cartagena sites that were the models for settings in Love in the Time of Cholera. I checked on the Internet and, sure enough, there were guided tours of Cartagena and its places associated with Garcia Marquez. I booked one.

But as I re-read the novel, I was disturbed. Had I really required minors to read this? Less than ten years had passed since I last  taught it, but it seemed that the cultural ground had not just shifted, but had been turned upside down.  I doubt that the Times would publish a glowing review if Love in the Time of Cholera were somehow to be published now, when the word "masculinity" seems joined at the hip to "toxic."    I'm pretty confident that today's Times reviewer would not be rooting Florentino on, but instead be rooting for Florentino to be prosecuted for statutory rape.

Nevertheless I took my tour, and found plenty of Gabo sites around Cartagena. To begin with, he's buried here, in the courtyard of an old convent, now owned by the University of Cartagena. I was told this will someday be a full-fledged Garcia Marquez Museum, although those plans may have been crimped a bit when the University of Texas bought Garcia Marquez' papers from his widow, Mercedes. (That's the grave, above left.)

I saw Gabo murals. The one at the top of this post is on the wall of a small hotel called the Makondo, which is the name of the fictional town in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The caption, if I translate it correctly, says that no place in life is as sad as an empty bed. This, like much of Garcia Marquez, could be read a couple of ways. One is a man's lament for lack of a woman. Another could be a hotelier's sadness at an unsold room. A second mural, which I saw one night walking in Cartagena's Gethsemane neighborhood, features two things Garcia Marquez was known to love, butterflies and an accordion. It's also got a little seat, so people can comfortably spend time with Gabo, perhaps reading.

Then there are sites that are not quite documented. There are houses down the street from an empty building that, I was told, once housed the offices in El Universal, the writer's first newspaper. In the houses, I was told, he frequently rented rooms, then skipped out at the end of the month because he didn't have enough money to pay the rent. 

I was also shown buildings and places that were purportedly part of the story. This building, now owned by Colombia's Ministry of Foreign Relations, was the building Gabo had in mind for Dr. Juvenal Urbino's house. This old place was the model for the house of Florentino Ariza and his mother. And this park, named for Fernandez de Madrid, is in fact the novel's Park of the Evangels, where Florentino spent so many lonely, lovesick hours keeping vigil outside the house of Fermina Daza's father. 

There's no way of knowing about these sites, I guess. l didn't see any lovesick suitors in Fernandez de Madrid Park. I did see a young couple who seemed shyly happy with each other, so I took their picture and it's posted above left. Maybe they're in the Park of the Evangels. Maybe that's just magical realism.

And I don't know if there will ever be a museum in the old convent building and if Gabriel Garcia Marquez's reputation, once so exalted, will survive the scrutiny of modern times. Maybe it will. Or maybe he'll be like Mark Twain, not read as much anymore and a little too risky for a high school curriculum because of terms and ideas that strike the modern ear as too offensive. 

The one thing I know for certain is that were I again a high school teacher, I wouldn't ask my students to read Love in the Time of Cholera. Too risky in too many ways. 


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