June 30, 2020
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “digression” as, “in discourse or writing, a departure or deviation from the subject.”
Fair enough. Clear as day.
My favorite digression in all literature is the entirety, from first word to last, of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel El amor en los tiempos del cólera…Love in The Time of Cholera. (If you don’t have Spanish, Edith Grossman’s translation to English of this book is one of the best from one language to another I’ve ever read. It is lyrical, kind-hearted, accurate, literate, humorous, and imbued with the many pleasureful oddities of García Márquez’s unique Spanish-language style.)
In this novel, Florentino Ariza is introduced as an enclosed, shy boy attempting manhood in a small late-nineteenth century city in Colombia. He is in love with a local beauty, Fermina Daza. The novel begins as a boy-meets-girl story, progresses through the boy-loses-girl phase, and ends with the boy-wins-girl denouement.
The simplest story ever.
But this series of events takes fifty years, nine months, and four days to unfold and arrive at its successful end. Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza are by the last pages, of course, elderly. But their love is consummated…finally. During the half century of Florentino’s pursuit of Fermina (during which time he has six hundred and twenty-two affairs with other women) the reader learns about every kind of historical, political, social, and religious event in the Colombia through which the great Magdalena River flows. Cholera is always a factor in the background, and García Márquez uses the disease as a metaphor for love itself…the heat, the heart’s affliction, the very choleric intensity of love’s involvements.
Florentino bides his time for that half-century. After the failure of his youthful efforts at romancing her, Fermina marries a local doctor, Juvenal Urbino, who is one of the most celebrated citizens of their city, an urbane, Europeanized sophisticate. Their marriage is a rich one, with many problems. In the meantime, Florentino begins work as a telegraph operator and is eventually employed by a local riverboat company (freight and passengers, up and down the Magdalena.) In time, he becomes its president, all the while pursuing the many very remarkable women he encounters during the half-century of his bachelorhood.
It is the period of time between the breakdown of Florentino and Fermina’s dalliance as youths and the death of Juvenal Urbino a half century later that the great majority of the digression I mention here takes place. The reader waits, and waits some more, only to wait even more, through hundreds of pages, as Florentino sometimes wanders, sometimes surges through his varied fascinating affairs personal and public. Fermina’s marriage is described in equally specific, breathtaking detail: her fervid happiness and unhappy disappointments, her mistaken rage-filled jealousies, the arrival of her children and their ascension to adulthood, her involvement in the church and her social standing as the important Doctor Urbino’s wife.
Here and there, infrequently, Florentino and Fermina encounter one another by chance. Little happens on those occasions. Little can happen. But Florentino’s fervor for Fermina only increases as the years pass.
The great Magdalena River, which runs south to north through the entirety of Colombia, figures importantly twice in this narrative. Although his entire professional life revolves around the riverboat company, Florentino Ariza makes only two trips up the Magdalena and back (one on his own as a younger man, the second with Fermina Daza, both now geriatrics.)
Both voyages are beyond memorable.
García Márquez uses the changing descriptions of the Magdalena during these two trips as rich backdrop to the emotions, triumphs, and disappointments through which Florentino Ariza passes during his entire life. In the first trip, the river is a life-filled treasure of forested, flood-filled flora and fauna in which a younger Florentino is overwhelmed time and again by lustful carnal pleasure. In the second voyage, decades later, the river has become a half-hearted sorry flow, de-forested and ruined. But it is on a riverboat going up this magnificently sad failure that Florentino receives, finally, the considerable deep love of which Fermina Daza is capable. The detailed sensuous transition in descriptions of the river is one of the novels many strengths. Novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote this: “There is nothing I have read quite like [the] astonishing final chapter (on the Magdalena), symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too….”
Pynchon went on to write, “This novel is revolutionary in daring to suggest that vows of love made under a presumption of immortality—youthful idiocy, to some—may yet be honored much later in life when we ought to know better, in the face of the undeniable…. Love in the Time of Cholera [is a] shining and heartbreaking novel.”
Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times wrote that, “Instead of using myths and dreams to illuminate the imaginative life of a people as he’s done so often in the past, Mr. García Márquez has revealed how the extraordinary is contained in the ordinary…. The result is a rich, commodious novel, a novel whose narrative power is matched only by its generosity of vision.”
Both these reviews, written when the book was published in 1985, are understatements. Love in the Time of Cholera may not be everybody’s cup of tea. The digression does go on for more than three hundred pages. You may be inclined to tell García Márquez to get on with it. But, while the pursuit of each other by the two characters is important and masterfully done, the digression itself is the novel, epitomized by its very last word, which is “forever.”
This is my favorite novel.
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel,The Splendid City, by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer, will be published later this year.