I think I may have finally burned out on the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
I know, crazy, isn’t it? That I, of all people, the nerd of the surreal, could possibly have read too much of him who is the Bob Dylan of magic realists, the eternal classic, the tentpole of his genre? Stranger still that it would be Love in the Time of Cholera—what I perceive to be one of his best-loved works—that did it.
I got my wife a copy of Cholera for Christmas, knowing that since it was undoubtedly a lush and evocative romance, and that a movie version had recently come out starring the oh-so-hot-right-now Javier Bardem, she would have to read it. And then I could read it, and we would have a fiction book to talk about—a rare pleasure. Sadly, now I am wishing it could have been One Hundred Years of Solitude or even something by another magic realist author with whom I am less intimately familiar. Isabel Allende maybe. Love in the Time of Cholera keeps reminding me of House of the Spirits, her first novel and the only one I’ve read, the publication of which predates Cholera by three years. Not that I think Marquez is cribbing—it also evokes much of his own stuff. He does star-crossed love in Solitude as well as Of Love and Other Demons, both of which I loved. So I’m not quite sure what the deal is, whether I have just read too much of Marquez, seen all the tricks he has to show me, or whether I am finding Cholera to be objectively sub-par.
Part of the trouble may be that Cholera is set in a period more demonstrably modern than his usual conflations of the mythic with the real, that for vehicles of magicality he relies on the technological wonders of the car and the telegraph. But I have seen technology wielded to astonishing magical effect many times before: the fatal Trueba family car in House of the Spirits, the monumental block of ice that opens One Hundred Years of Solitude, the cursed Coca-Cola bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy, the vampiric television set in Lucius Shepard’s “The Jaguar Hunter”.
Maybe it has more to do with the fact that there just isn’t that much of the magical in this story at all? Intentionally or not, with Cholera, Marquez has turned out his closest thing to a mainstream, mimetic novel I’ve encountered, and I’m disappointed. But no, that can’t be right either: I loved The General in His Labyrinth, and its only fantastic element is the general’s stubborn unwillingness to die in spite of the fact that the whole of the world has arrayed itself for his funeral. The collection Strange Pilgrims, Marquez’s nod to European surrealism—I don’t think there’s a single story in there that includes an explicitly magical element, yet many of those stories reassert their influence on my unconscious on a regular basis.
So I don’t know. It seems to me, certainly, as if there’s something lacking in the prose, an absent transcendence I expect to rediscover on every page, which could easily be a result of my having learned all his tricks to the degree that they no longer work on me. Maybe it’s that the translator, Edith Grossman, just can’t muster the fluidity of language I’ve come to expect from Gregory Rabassa, with whose translations I am more familiar. Or maybe it really is just that Marquez is phoning it in.
Here’s part of an uncharacteristically decadent passage (for this novel anyway) that raised my hackles in an oddly unsettling way:
Fermina Daza shared with her schoolmates the singular idea that the Arcade of the Scribes was a place of perdition that was forbidden, of course, to decent young ladies. It was an arcaded gallery across from a little plaza where carriages and freight cars drawn by donkeys were for hire, where popular commerce became noisier and more dense. The name dated from colonial times, when the taciturn scribes in their vests and false cuffs first began to sit there, waiting for a poor man’s fee to write all kinds of documents: memoranda of complaints or petition, legal testimony, cards of congratulation or condolence, love letters appropriate to any stage in an affair. They, of course, were not the ones who had given that thundering market its bad reputation, but more recent peddlers who made illegal sales of all kinds of questionable merchandise smuggled in on European ships, from obscene postcards and aphrodisiac ointments to the famous Catalonian condoms with iguana crests that fluttered when circumstances required or with flowers at the tip that would open their petals at the will of the user. Fermina Daza, somewhat unskilled in the customs of the street, went through the Arcade without knowing where she was going as she searched for a shady refuge from the fierce eleven o’clock sun.
There’s the bizarre-yet-endearing image of those exotic and borderline-magical condoms, the intriguing notion of an antique time when skill with the pen was both rarer and more abased than in the era of Marquez himself, but also that weird repetition of the both-times-unnecessary “of course”—and the element which is perhaps most shocking to me, the fact that the things we’re shown and the character through whom we experience them move on entirely separate tracks, each seeming to bear no influence on the other. Compare this (perhaps unfairly, but what the hell) with an early passage from One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“It’s all right,” Jose Arcadio Buendia would say. “The main thing is not to lose our bearings.” Always following his compass, he kept on guiding his men toward the invisible north so that they would be able to get out of that enchanted region. It was a thick night, starless, but the darkness was becoming impregnated with a fresh and clear air. Exhausted by the long crossing, they hung up their hammocks and slept deeply for the first time in two weeks. When they woke up, with the sun already high in the sky, they were speechless with fascination. Before them, surrounded by ferns and palm trees, white and powdery in the silent morning light, was an enormous Spanish galleon. Tilted slightly to the starboard, it had hanging from its intact masts the dirty rags of its sails in the midst of its rigging, which was adorned with orchids. The hull, covered with an armor of petrified barnacles and soft moss, was firmly fastened into a surface of stones. The whole structure seemed to occupy its own space, one of solitude and oblivion, protected from the vices of time and the habits of the birds. Inside, where the expeditionaries explored with careful intent, there was nothing but a thick forest of flowers.
The discovery of the galleon, an indication of the proximity of the sea, broke Jose Arcadio Buendia’s drive.
See what I mean about the involvement of the character with the setting? The patriarch Jose Arcadio is a stubborn, driven man, but when faced with an insurmountable truth, he succumbs. Fermina Daza, on the other hand, is an almost entirely reactive figure who manages somehow to remain unaffected by everything that is shaping her life.
And maybe that’s the bottom line: that Love in the Time of Cholera just doesn’t give its characters or their conflicts the depth and weight they need in order to compete with and justify the setting. They seem rote to me, in a way. They’re in love, and hampered in that goal by the personal hang-ups of their parents, and by certain hang-ups of their own, inherited or developed in reaction to their parents. What I don’t see is how these lovers are influenced or changed by each other, by the supporting characters or any of the events of the story. In the passage above, Fermina Daza is about to come to a pivotal realization, that her star-crossed fiance, with whom she has been finally reunited, is not, after all, the man for her. And I get nothing out of it, no thrill, not even any real understanding of how or why she comes to this decision, except that (as was revealed very early on) this was an inevitable occurrence, ordained by a Fate far too diverted by what strikes me as a very ordinary pathos.
Which I guess means that it is Marquez, and not just me after all.
I’m curious to see how the movie will deal with all this, it being a rather convoluted storyline, and movies being far more dependent than novels (decadent period romances anyway) on the clarity of character transitions to keep the audience wrapped up in the story.