Brown Baggers book club met on Thursday, May 19 to discuss Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez, a story very loosely based on the tragic, comic love story of García Márquez’s parents. This book generated some of the most animated discussions I have witnessed from the group since joining back in 2020. The premise is simple: Florentino and Fermina fall in love in their youth, but it is a forbidden love, and Fermina marries someone else. As time drags on, Florentino continues to watch Fermina from afar, debatably never fully moving on with his life, even as he embarks on dozens of love affairs. He’s a man who can’t write a business letter, but crafts exquisite love letters for other people who can’t express their own feelings.
This book has a very strong sense of place and time: rich colors, mountains you can feel, steamy streets, telegraphs, steam ships, old cars. It’s as if García Márquez sampled conditions of various places in South America, and combined the details to create one “mythical” place – a place it’s clear García Márquez has a love-hate relationship with (although, readers noted this book has about ⅓ the amount of “magical realism” compared to García Márquez’s other book, One Hundred Years of Solitude).
The writing and translating was described as beautiful. One reader loved the “parade” of mores and social conventions through the years; we were really able to put ourselves in that place in time and understand why people behaved the way they did. We did have trouble stomaching Florentino’s love with the very young girl, just on the brink of her teenage years, but whereas now, girls that age are called little girls, back then, in traditional Latin America, they were seen as “young women.”
In addition to an enveloping atmosphere of time and place, the book’s theme is alluring: the later love presented here is electric and rejuvenating. Childhood sweethearts, finally reunited; at the end, a revelation – maybe everything is not as sweet as we all thought it would be – and yet readers loved that, too.
The book is epic in its study of love. One reader called it an exploration of “every different kind of love in the world.” Not only does the book detail the experiences of love, but also how a person’s outlook on love affects them, as well as how people respond to the love from another. Some read the story as a mystery – would Florentino be caught loving other women? So many choices were made based on a need for secrecy, the book certainly had mysterious airs.
Fermina is the paragon woman, but Florentino loved the others with tenderness and endurance throughout life. If he loved the others, what does he feel for Fermina? Can it be love, if what he felt for others was love, but what he feels for her is “more”? What is greater than love? Or then, is his feeling not greater, but different?
And then, the title! Plagues feature prominently, and the symptoms of love and cholera were discussed – how they mirror one another and what they mean. In Spanish, cólera refers to the disease of cholera, and an intense feeling of anger (although the two meanings are gendered differently – the disease is masculine and the feeling is feminine – and it is the woman who is angry throughout the novel). The word comes from Greek χολή which means bile. We also have choler in English, which means anger or irritability, and it stems from the four humors theory where choler (yellow bile) meant people were bitter, short tempered, and daring. The word choler comes from French colere, which comes from Latin cholera. Florentino is plagued by love, physically and mentally, but it is also the cholera that facilitates his isolation on the riverboat with his beloved…. Cholera is everywhere, in the people, and in the land. Circling back to our discussion on the setting, we realized Colombia is a character at play here, and the country itself is dying of cholera. When we see what has become of the flora and fauna at the end of the book, we are dumbstruck by the devastation.
Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, June 16th at noon to discuss Passing by Nella Larsen. It’s not too late to read the book and join us, because it’s very short!
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Living to Tell the Tale by Gabriel García Márquez
Same Time, Next Year by Bernard Slade
One Day by David Nicholls
Martin Rivas by Blest Gana