Book Report I: Indiscriminate, Empty Sex in the Time of Cholera

Spoilers abound y’all, both for Love in the Time of Cholera and Romeo and Juliet…although the latter is a four hundred year old play written by the most famous author of all time and whose main characters are synonymous for love itself.  Despite that, I did try to hold back on the endings for both.  Impossible to do entirely, of course, and do my argument justice, but I tried.

Love in the Time of Cholera is a very, very misunderstood novel.  Now despite the prominence of the ‘misanthropy’ tag in the word cloud to the right, I don’t want to condescend to anyone whose interpretations differ from mine; far from it.  People misunderstand Romeo and Juliet too, thinking it an epic and moving love story despite it’s being ridden with pathological obsession, willful ignorance, youthful recklessness and a love affair whose bloodiness is rendered even more remarkable by its incredibly short duration.  This misunderstanding of both stories is primarily a problem of convention in storytelling in that love stories are maybe THE basic story in the entire history of fiction, and thus readers have been somewhat trained, myself included, to not question its legitimacy.  Real life might play a role in this too, though.  Love is a very confusing thing, and its full scope defies easy definition.  People confuse infatuation, obsession, lust and a million other things with it every day, all day.  Thus, you get two characters, they declare that they love one another, and why shouldn’t we believe them?

Well, why should we?  I’m not saying the characters are willfully lying, but even if they’re telling the truth, it doesn’t mean they’re right.  Consider Romeo, who crashes a masquerade thrown by the Capulet family, who all want him dead, to see some girl he’s lovesick for as the play starts.  Previous to this, Romeo insisted to his friend that none of the other girls at this party would ever get his mind off of Rosaline, and yet Juliet, after about ten seconds, does so.  They only meet briefly, both of them are masked, and all they really say to each other is pretty much goddamn but I would really like to make out with you.  It’s love.  Then comes the famous balcony scene, where there’s already talk of marriageand Romeo expresses mild disappointment that Juliet will offer him no “satisfaction”.  It might be appropriate now to mention that after this, it’s revealed that Rosaline took a vow of chastity, contrasting with Juliet’s immediate desire to make out with a guy whose face she hasn’t even seen yet (it was a masquerade, remember), and suddenly we realize that when it comes to love, Romeo leads with his, you know, head, not his heart.

Then there’s the fact that Romeo is just a very selfish person.  After the above, he gets his buddy Mercutio killed in a duel when he refuses to fight, murders his would-be opponent Tybalt to avenge Mercutio, gets himself exiled, drags his confidante Friar Laurence into this mess by asking him to help Juliet escape town and an impending arranged marriage so she can marry Romeo instead, and murders for no real reason at all his rival suitor Count Paris after the clusterfuck of misunderstanding and suicide that ensues.  Oh, and in the original source that Shakespeare used for the play, Friar Laurence is hanged, what with the hiding of Romeo’s defiance of his exile and plotting to steal away a daughter of the powerful Capulet family and all.  Yes, that Romeo’s a peach.

And on the re-read of the play that I’m currently doing, I’m finding the evidence for my interpretation to be even more obvious than I’d remembered:  the play is full of what must have been incredibly dirty puns for its time (and hell, ours too), and Romeo’s intentions are directly questioned by more than one of the characters, including Juliet herself.  In fact, upon Friar Laurence learning of his affection for Juliet, he tells Romeo:

Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.

You don’t bullshit a bullshitter, Romeo.  And the good Friar was a supreme bullshitter; he tricked Romeo into suicide.  Accidentally.

So, it’s easy to summarize the mistaking of lust for love in Romeo and Juliet, and it’s fairly easy too to explain how lust gets mistaken for love in the first place:  lust is “bad”, while love is good, and the line between the two is far finer than most people will admit.  The difference, to me, can be summed up in another of Shakespeare’s lines: love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.  By Shakespeare’s own definition, Romeo never loved Rosaline, because he altered right damn quick when meeting Juliet, which I can’t help but think had to do with that vow of chastity business.  Also, the characters are teenagers.  For them, lust is an autocrat, and it rules with an iron and oft lubricated fist.  Mistaking it for love, thereby applying extreme devotion to such a capricious and already overwhelming urge, is very volatile.  But don’t take my word for it.  Recall how often and with what fervor you took care of yourself at that age.  Now imagine swearing undying fidelity and devotion to your own hand…the lack of conversation, the two wedding rings, always wondering if the sex is just to humor you.  Hey, at least you wouldn’t be getting anyone killed.

Ultimately, you need only ask the question:  What about Juliet caused Romeo to fall in love with her?  You can’t answer it.

Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, the protagonists of Love in the Time of Cholera, are harder to sniff out.  Take the basic gist of Romeo and Juliet, make it epic in a literary sense, and you have everything in place to make women the world over swoon over a nerdy, homely, philandering pedophilic piece of shit, as well as to make men not really understand Florentino’s whole deal with Fermina.  But while the virulence of their “love” is far more subtle, it runs much deeper:  the lies span decades, the chaos aroused reaches much further, and the flimsy basis upon which their eventual elderly dalliance is predicated makes it seem downright pathetic.

Florentino’s first sighting of Fermina was textbook love at first sight.  Now I have no doubt that when Florentino first saw Fermina, he felt the earth quake beneath his feet, the blood rushed to his head – we know which one – and angels of the Lord sang their inevitable love to all the world, their heavenly faces far eclipsed by Fermina’s beauty.  He surely did.  It happens sometimes.  It’s not love, though.  The important thing to note here is that at first sight, for Florentino and for all of us, only one reaction is logically possible:  attraction.  Love of the sort Florentino professes for Fermina throughout the rest of the novel cannot have taken root at a glance, much less bloomed.

Not that I can absolutely rule out that there can’t be a higher form of connection, an automatic knowing that can enable true and full love at first sight.  I can’t rule it out entirely because there’s a certain someone in my life who fell for me in such a manner.  She looked at me, and she just knew somehow that I was for her.  Me being my normal thick-headed self, it took a little more time for me to realize why I was spending all day thinking about her, looking forward to talking to her, being so affected by her joys and sorrows that they became my own joys and sorrows, and quickly finding nobody else to be nearly as attractive as I found and still find her to be.  I’d just been left by another girl, and I swear I was so thick that I would even walk around asking myself why I couldn’t be in love with her instead of the ex, and of course I was.  For almost fifteen years I’ve seen everything she felt in that first moment pan out, so it’s hard to believe there isn’t some kind of mojo involved.  Yes, mojo.  Still, after the parallel paths of pain, betrayal and blood left in the wakes of Romeo and Florentino, I don’t think that’s what was being portrayed.  I also think it’s a testament to the skill of Shakespeare and Garcia Marquez that their tales bear up two such diametrically opposed interpretations.

Just a brief caveat there.  Onward.

What follows is a protracted flurry of letter exchanges, violin serenades and borderline stalking that is further definable by the near-entire lack of anything that would help them actually know one another, as emphasized in the book by the narration outright stating that Florentino ascribed all manner of improbable and lofty attributes onto Fermina, who served as a pretty blank slate that he was enamored with.  The content of the letters is never quoted directly, but it’s insinuated that Florentino plagiarized the purple sea of love poetry he read constantly, while Fermina reciprocated with mundane daily itineraries.  There was next to no actual contact between them:  in fact, when there is substantial contact between the two after a long absence (Fermina’s father Lorenzo discovers the pen pal affair, threatens to kill Florentino, and packs his daughter away to live with faraway relatives for a while), Fermina sees that he doesn’t resemble the ideal she loves, and brusquely ends it with a wave of her hand.  When it happens, you feel sorry for him, but not later.  Oh, not later.

It’s not even the lack of face-t0-face contact that makes me skeptical; if I’d gotten the impression that the letters were written and read by two people baring their souls to one another to any extent at all, so that when they did meet it might feel like they knew each other, I’d feel differently, but as is it feels like Garcia Marquez specifically wanted them to seem pretty yet vapid on the one hand, and utterly banal on the other.

Up to this point it’s subtle; you get everything from Florentino’s desperately skewed perspective, though he’s not the actual narrator.  Once Fermina marries the improbably accomplished Dr. Urbino, whose parrot can recite the Latin Mass, and once Florentino gets wind of it, all subtlety goes out the window as Florentino Ariza embarks upon a decades long fuck spree, the likes of which would scandalize even Don Draper.  He chases widows, married women, random girls encountered in the street, the mistresses of his friends, anyone – anyone.  Those who view the novel as a true love story would no doubt argue that his pain at losing Fermina drove him to desperately flee his heartbreak via sex, but I’d argue that’s not the case at all.

It’s all about conquest for Florentino, that much is very clear.  He refers to his “lovers” as little birds, and himself as a falconer.  There’s little consideration for anything about them beyond sex, and cheap sex devoid of any emotional infrastructure at that, which he bafflingly confuses with love.  Tellingly, there’s also little consideration for Fermina herself throughout this part, which comprises the bulk of the novel, and when he does think about her, it’s most often in a she-can-never-know-I-am-such-a-fucking-manwhore context.  When he does deign to talk to any of them, rather than simply leave after the act, they basically talk about sex.  And lest you think this is a matter of interpretation, the simple fact is that with the sheer number of fuck-buddies he had during this period essentially makes it impossible chronologically for him to do anything more than fuck them and run.

Worse, he takes a very imperial mentality into his carnality.  As I said, he sees the mistress of his friend, causing said friend to have his crew steal everything in her house.  Florentino not only regards this with breathtaking insouciance, but afterward decides not to see her anymore.  That’s bad, but this is even worse: with one of his many married women, he takes some red paint and a brush and paints the words This pussy is mine on her belly.  At no point does he even begin to consider the ramifications of this with her husband, who of course finds Florentino’s frat boy masterwork and proceeds to slit his wife’s throat.  Naturally, Florentino’s first thought isn’t remorse – and it never was either – but merely that his throat would be slit next.  He does plant roses on her grave, but it’s just a pretty gesture that comes off empty as hell.  At best, he does it more for the romance of it than any sincere atonement.  At worst, it’s a way to brag about his conquest right out in public without having to expose himself.  To people other than his little birds, I mean.  Tellingly, again, the roses grow unchecked over the years, slowly taking over the cemetery, until its eventual caretaker has them ripped out.  This is not subtle symbolism.

The last affair, however, is truly repugnant even by his own standards:  Florentino by now is a prominent member of the city, running a riverboat freight business, and in this capacity he gains the trust of the parents of a 14 year old girl who is sent to the city to attend school, serving as the girl’s official guardian.  You don’t want to see where this is going, but you can’t really help it by this point.  Yes, he not only abuses the trust of the parents as well as the trust of the girl whose care was entrusted to him, but as she begins to realize she’s a sex toy to him despite his creepy, fatherly method of talking dirty to her, her grades fall victim to depression and she eventually commits suicide when news of Dr. Urbino’s death reaches Florentino, giving him his big second chance at Fermina.  He does at least cry over it – which is a first – but then he won’t even give Fermina time to reconcile herself to the loss of her husband before he shows up to declare his “love” again, so his tears are worth very little.

And this is really the crux of my argument:  decades later, when he does actually maneuver himself into a relationship with Fermina Daza, it feels more like a fuck buddy arrangement than love.  There is a legitimate fondness between them, as they do enjoy each others’ company even when they aren’t naked, but the fireworks that romance novel fans no doubt expected when they first made love must have been duds.  He goes after her like an overeager teenager and runs out of juice quick, while she just sort of takes it all, and the whole thing comes off very limp.  Still, after being pumped full of love for so long, their will stayed hard and firm, and they thrust themselves right back into it.  It’s typical of Florentino; they finally get around to knowing each other, and it’s only in the Biblical sense.

Florentino was a hollow creature, and he stuffed his empty chest with plagiarized love poetry and passed it off as a heart to both Fermina and himself.  At one point he even divides humanity into two types,  paraphrasing: “those who screw, and those who do not”, and then insists that those “who do not” can’t be trusted, thereby projecting and legitimizing his own abject promiscuity by telling himself that everyone wants to do what he does, but are all in denial.  So you see, it’s not that he’s simply a cock with a man attached who puts on a front of romanticism so that he doesn’t have to even attempt to control his urges and can justify ignoring and not caring about the extensive damage his rampant fucking causes; it’s everyone else who are wrong!  In addition to keeping it from himself, he keeps from her the one thing that has defined him in the time that she’s been unavailable, the thing that drove him to use and discard a vulnerable young girl, to speak to her as a father while he was undressing her, to abuse the trust placed in him by both her and her parents, which was so reprehensible that even such a depraved, amoral creature as him was struck – though not near hard enough – by the sheer evil of it.  He was so dedicated to keeping it from her that he practiced the strictest secrecy with literally every other sexual liaison he ever had throughout his entire life with anyone but Fermina, and not for the sake and safety of either his “little birds” or himself, but so that Fermina would never know.  He spent decades plotting to lie to her.

Fermina, in turn, was an aloof, haughty creature who showed no warmth until she was reeling both from the loss of her long-held husband and the fact that he’d had an affair in the latter years of their marriage.  So while she’d late realized that she never truly had the eminent Dr. Juvenal Urbino, that nothing more than an exotic face coinciding with opportunity was able to lure him away, here was Florentino, returned from her childhood, her first love, who had never married, had opted to wait for her for decades, who loved her so that he didn’t want anyone if he couldn’t have her.  With the memory of her husband’s infidelity fresh in her mind, as well as his death, it’s no wonder that she, finally, would see Florentino to be exactly the thing to heal her, not realizing that he is infidelity incarnate.  She was the ultimate conquest for Florentino, nothing more to him, and by the time he wins her in the latter pages of the book, it turned my stomach.

Interpret it however you like, but one thing, I believe, is inarguable:  there was never any truth between the two, and without that, love as we conventionally idealize it and as Florentino and Fermina believed they had could not have been between them.  Less inarguable but to me just as convincing are the constant parallels between love and cholera itself, present even in the title.  Urbino “fights” Florentino’s “love” of Fermina for decades just as he fights to modernize the measures taken against cholera outbreak and prevention.  Just as Florentino mistakes his lust for love to the point of becoming lovesick, other maladies – including one of Florentino’s – are misdiagnosed as cholera. The ending, too, revolves entirely around it, with our two lovers trapped on the riverboat because of the yellow flag it flies, warning of a cholera outbreak on the boat.  No one will let them disembark to protect the public from it; if only Florentino’s little birds – and Fermina too – had taken similar measures, much misery would have been avoided.  Of course, there was no cholera aboard, just as there wasn’t any love; it was a lie concocted by Florentino to get himself alone with Fermina.  It’s really the only way it could have ended, all things considered.

Finally, consider the very beginning, in which Dr. Urbino, who for decades thwarted Florentino’s ADD riddled cock, tends to the suicide of a man named Jeremiah Saint-Amour.  That’s Saint, and then Amour.  Love dies – takes its own life, even – before we even meet either Ariza or Daza, and is laid to rest by the novel’s embodiment of rationality and logic, Dr. Urbino.  Further, in the course of seeing to the arrangements, he comes across Jeremiah’s secret lover, and finds to be unsavory both her complicity in Jeremiah’s suicide and her refusal to enter the mausoleum of formal widowhood.  Urbino saw it as evidence that their romance was cheap, while she, better understanding the true nature of love better than anyone else besides our dead Saint of Love, implicitly understood that because Jeremiah loved her, he wouldn’t want that for her.  Couple this with Garcia Marquez’ own warning to “not fall into my trap”, and really this whole post could have been much shorter.

So why do we all want to read this as a swoony epic love story?  Well, because it’s nice to believe in that kind of love, that outlasts most human lifespans, much less typical relationships; that drives its celebrants to any ends, to endure any heartache or suffer any interval of loneliness in the hope, however faint, of getting to be with us again.  Garcia Marquez is simply pointing out that there’s a fine line between that and obsession, and that it’s dangerous:  Fermina’s rejection of Florentino in their youth drove Florentino to walk a long, dark road paved with blood and semen in order to replace his flimsy self-respect with facile sexual conquest, and its awful cost was entirely paid by other people.  Garcia Marquez is pointing out that it takes a loving and selfless heart to love so absolutely as Florentino imagined he loved Fermina, yet for all his grandiloquent posturing, for all the poems, for all the violin serenades, he saw fit to only put forth the illusion of selflessness while he carnally, prolifically, selfishly indulged, committing the same wrong a thousandfold that had so grievously wounded Fermina when her husband once lost his struggle to avoid committing that same wrong.

In short:  Florentino was a motherfucker.  The end.

 

After-the-fact edit:  I hope it’s clear that I don’t attack Florentino from a prudish perspective; it’s not the sex that’s wrong, it’s the hypocrisy of it.  It’s not that he prefers multiple partners, it’s the addict-like abject desperateness with which he seeks them out.  It’s not that he doesn’t seek a deeper commitment with them, it’s that he manipulates and discards them, sometimes to bloody effect, all while claiming to be true to Fermina.  If Romeo was a capricious prick, then Florentino is, like, the cosmic essence of prickness distilled into a human shape.  Not everyone’s cut out for monogamy and being married with children, but nobody gets a pass on being dishonest, whatever their predilections may be, and particularly when their dishonesty is so damaging.