Love, Cholera and Madness
Love in the Time of Cholera begins with Dr. Juvenal Urbino’s death and proceeds to recount the other characters’ histories. Before marrying, his wife Fermina had a brief, innocent relationship with Florentino Ariza. She inexplicably dumped him and married the doctor. While Fermina and Juvenal led a marriage of convenience, Florentino Ariza embarked on 622 affairs to distract the love burning in his heart. On the night of the doctor’s funeral, the now 70-something Florentino says to Fermina:
“I have waited for this opportunity for more than half a century, to repeat to you once again my vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
It was 51 years, nine months, and four days after first professing his love to her as a teen. They live happily ever after.
The "Latin lover" mystique is the common stereotype: the macho Latin man with long hair and a guitar who is unapologetically aggressive and romantic. Or the sensual Latina who showers her man with affection and attention. Give the novel a simple read and you can conclude it is a testament to the power of true love. That is how they made a movie of it.
But the literary scholars have shot down that theory. García Márquez himself is quoted as warning readers "not to fall into [his] trap." For everything that can be admired about the romanticism of Latin America, there is another side to the coin. A darker side. Morbid love, a sickness. García Márquez likens love to cholera, a disease that wreaked frequent havoc on the countries of Latin America. At the book's end, Florentino and Fermina sail the Magdalena River under a flag warning of cholera on board.
García Márquez's story is about the madness of love. It is bloody. One character’s lover allows him to commit suicide because she loved him too much to stop him. One of Florentino's lovers was murdered by her husband when he learned of her affair. His last affair as an old man was with a 14-year-old second-cousin he was charged with taking care of. When he broke off the affair she committed suicide. One girl was raped by a stranger, to whom she subsequently owes her heart forever.
At the time of this writing, a current and heinous practice in Colombia are the acid attacks on women by shunned suitors. Love-obsessed men, so insulted by rejection, permanently disfigure these women by hurling acid in their faces. There are about 50 such attacks every year in Colombia alone.
My Peruvian wife and I spent three years apart before reuniting. Since marrying, she has said "Ya no puedo vivir sin tí," (I can't live without you again). It sounds sweet on paper but it is always said in a sad, almost suicidal way. She sometimes talks about how she is going to take care of me when I am old and gross. I wonder if she looks forward to changing my bedpan. In her mind, that would show her dedication. In our gringo societies, this lends too much dependence on a significant other. We are taught to be independent, to protect our hearts. There is some of that in the more affluent sections of Latin society, the more traveled and more liberal. But this morbid love still carries the day with the general population.
My wife had this t-shirt that always bothered me. It featured two Nightmare-Before-Christmas-style figures, presumably a couple. The man had ripped his heart out of his own chest and was offering it to the girl. A text bubble in Spanish said something to the effect of "Take it, it's yours anyway." A puddle of blood sat under where the heart was held out, with maybe a droplet mid-fall. I was present when my wife's brother gave her this shirt, and they both thought it was brilliant. They giggled over it, amazed at how cute it was. I was horrified.
But a significant section of Latin Americans buy into the media naranja ideal, the soul mate. There is only one person who is destined to be your lover for life, and it is that person or nothing at all. This idea turns a significant number of men into bona fide stalkers. My wife has one. While the harassment has largely disappeared since I came into the picture, we have to be aware of him when spending time in her hometown. They broke up over six years ago. In our gringo cultures, this is seen as pathetic. But in Latin culture, some men see it as noble. They are holding out for their true love, as Florentino waited for Fermina's husband to die.
You see it as soon as you arrive. You see men crying for a girl they have been dating for just a few months. In the music, from vallenato to boleros to reggaeton, love weighs more than in any other culture. Public displays of affection are controversial to nobody. You will see physical violence on account of jealousy, you may even suffer it.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino is the perfect contrast to the romantic Florentino Ariza. The European-educated doctor is quoted as saying:
"The most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability."
He transforms the town’s health services and dedicates his life to battling cholera (the metaphor for love). Florentino, on the other hand, waited 51 years to reclaim Fermina on the night of Juvenal's funeral. You may conclude García Márquez's true hero was Juvenal, the force for scientific progress and order.
Regardless, the morbid love is irresistible. I have thought if I could do it all over again, would I choose a different kind of wife? A woman who gave me space and did not delete female friends from my Facebook account? I don't think I would. Because that woman would not adore me in the uniquely Latin way my wife does. While it is morbid, while it is a sickness, something about it feels good. It is like the alcoholic who knows his addiction is killing him. Yet he cannot imagine life without a drink.
Colin Post is the author of “Mad Outta Me Head: Addiction and Underworld from Ireland to Colombia” and “Lima Travel Guide: Insider Advice from Expats in Peru.” He also publishes Peru Reports, an English-language news service from Peru, and Expat Chronicles, a blog about life in Latin America. He has lived between Lima, Arequipa, and Bogotá since 2008.
Colin studied international business at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His herbal supplements business, Peruvian Naturals, distributes Maca and Chanca Piedra to the United States and Europe. He lives with his wife and son in Lima.