Monday, February 18, 2008

Love in the Time of Cholera

At last I finished the book, which I began in September, nearly finished, then had to return to the library, and in between saw the film. I was rather relieved to find A Hundred Years of Solitude to have preceded this book. I make no secret of the fact I found Solitude to be sprawling and a bit too wild for my tastes. But now that I see that Garcia Márquez’s talents culminated in LitToC, I feel better for not having appreciated Solitude more. I appreciate LitToC, and in fact it rather gives me a warm fuzzy feeling when I think about it.

Part of that, I think, is my realization that Márquez is at the crossroads of Naturalism and Magical Realism. He records the minutiae of daily life in a way reminiscent of Dreiser and, more recently, Kundera, the unimportant facts that add up to a whole. At the same time, his worlds are fantastic and chivalrous, impossible things happen in them. This was definitely true of Solitude, but I think what solidifies better in LitToC is because its central theme is one love story. For dramatic purposes I think this works better than the chaos of Solitude.

And what a love story it is. What I think is remarkable about Márquez is his ability to capture a person’s actions and thoughts from age 18 all the way to age 70, and all the variations in between. I myself find it very difficult to write any character older than I am, so I think Márquez has time’s advantage, but at the same time, it’s definitely a talent I could never cultivate. His lovers are Colombians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, separated initially by class, then by marriage and sheer stubbornness. The exquisiteness of first love, or adolescent infatuation if you prefer, is well-captured, in a way that slightly makes fun of us at our tender age: Neither one could do anything except think about the other, dream about the other, and wait for letters with the same impatience they felt when they answered them. . . . What is unique about their case draws parallels to Dante and all the Provençal troubadours: Moreover, from the moment they saw each other for the first time until he reiterated his determination a half century later, they never had the opportunity to be alone or talk about their love. Whatever you may think of the two protagonists personally, there is a part of the reader rooting for them to get together. I dare you to read it and not root for them.

Fermina in fact shares in common with Sally Lockhart some supreme bitchiness. Obviously when her father takes her away to prevent her marriage to Florentino, she’s to be sympathized with. Even before this, however, it’s clear her love, if you want to call it that, is of a different level than Florentino’s: . . . it was also her nature that caused her letters to avoid emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating these events of her daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log. When she gets back from exile with her cousin Hildebranda, her youthful, Juliet-like qualities inspire hope in the reader—She no longer thought of him as the impossible sweetheart but as the certain husband to whom she belonged heart and soul—that Florentino’s long-standing passion will be rewarded. This isn’t the case, of course, and into Fermina’s life strolls Dr. Urbino.

Márquez takes pains, I think, to make Dr. Urbino, who Fermina marries of course, as interesting a character as the other two, which is a very good stratagem for a love triangle (think of Éponine, Cosette, and Marius or Christine, Erik, and Raoul . . . on second thought, in both of those examples there is a weaker character . . . perhaps a better analogy is Kim, Chris, and What’s-her-name in Miss Saigon). Dr. Urbino is quite interesting and “does” more than Florentino, and he certainly loves Fermina. At the same time, I never quite get over the initial impression that he’s a chump (much as I feel with Raoul, though I have gained considerable sympathy for him over the years). Nevertheless, in getting to know Dr. Urbino, Márquez often illustrates for us some of his most lyrical passages, including what is possibly my favorite in the book: In Paris, strolling arm in arm with a casual sweetheart through a late autumn, it seemed impossible to imagine a purer happiness than those golden afternoons, with the woody odor of chestnuts on the braziers, the languid accordions, the insatiable lovers kissing on the open terraces, still he had told himself with his hand on his heart that he was not prepared to exchange all that for a single instant of his Caribbean in April. He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. Márquez’s other talent, obviously, is in his beautiful descriptive passages which often contain a good deal of wisdom. The above is an excellent example of that.

Interestingly, Florentino’s seduction on a riverboat anticipates or mirrors Oscar Hopkins’ seduction—actually, rape—in Peter Carey’s wonderful Oscar and Lucinda. Men being forced to give up their virginity is so rare in fiction, it does make quite an impression, especially since in both cases the woman’s taking advantage is rather whirlwind, unromantic, and even violent. It’s interesting that both of these seductions can only be related in the nineteenth-century, and both of them on boats (well, almost). Florentino next begins his grand saga of having sex with any woman he feels like (if she feels the same, and most do) while still remaining true to Fermina in his mind at least. Whether I feel he actually is being true is something I seesaw about. He makes the very good comment, “My heart has more rooms than a whorehouse.” Does Márquez imply that consensual sex for sex’s sake (or love if you want to call it that) is fine since it makes us feel happy? Why hold back? This would seem to correspond to another good quote, He had taught her that nothing one does in bed is immoral if it helps to perpetuate love.

If so, what purpose does the long chase after Fermina serve? How can one love surmount other loves? How can there be monogamy in the midst of plurality? I’m not sure Márquez ever answers this question to my satisfaction, but he at least raises in my mind the possibility that it can be both at the same time. Not to the point I’m going to start having sex with everyone I fancy and try to remain true to one love, but it has made me think. I’m impressed with the way Márquez understands love in all its quirks and follies, much like I was with The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I have felt the way Florentino does here: Once his revenge was consummated, however, he repented of his own wickedness; and here, That idea broke his heart, but he did nothing to suppress it; on the contrary, he took pleasure in his pain; but also Fermina here, for better or for worse, [Florentino Ariza] was the only thing that had ever happened to her in her life.

While Fermina has her difficulties with a long, volatile marriage and an unfaithful husband, Florentino continues his conquests, whom Márquez describes in loving detail (one suspects with a grain of personal knowledge!). Two who made an impression on my mind were Leona Cassini and América Vicuña. The former reminds me a bit of the woman in My Girl Friday, tough, practical, at work in an office, sort of a best-friend-with-benefits to Florentino who he calls his “lion lady.” One thing I didn’t appreciate much about her background was that she apparently very much enjoyed being raped. Um, no. América was also a bit shocking, being school-age with Florentino as her elderly sugar daddy. I’m sorry, but I can’t regard this as anything but pedophilia, even if they loved each other. I get the sense throughout the book that Márquez does not wish to make judgments on love between anyone, young, old, or a combination of the two. I thought América’s story interesting, but I had to be a Puritanical schoolmarm and tut about it.

The real joy of this book is at the end, when Florentino is finally able to renew his suit to Fermina. I have to say I’m a sucker unrequited for love and feel vastly for men who are on the unrequited end, ie, Erik the Phantom, so analyzing myself, I can see the truth in this statement, of why so many women fawned over Florentino: No man was better company because no other man in the world was so in need of love. One really lovely scene was at an outdoor film—ironically, the setting for an important scene in The English Patient—where Florentino is sitting near the distant object of his affections, can hear her speak, and is just flooded with love and happiness. I melted. On the other hand, I was a bit skeptical when Dr. Urbino comes in a vision to Fermina to say, “But when a woman decides to sleep with a man, there is no wall she will not scale, no fortress she will not destroy, no moral consideration she will to ignore at its very root.” Thinking about it again, however, I think it is true for many women, if not all.

Again, Márquez is adept at capturing love even in the evening of life, and I love this commentary on the contrary nature of all of us, on our being shy and wanting the other person to be bolder: Fermina Daza had spent the entire afternoon wondering what stratagems Florentino Ariza would use to see her without knocking at her cabin door, and by eight o’clock she could no longer bear the longing to be with him. The end couldn’t be more romantic and life-affirming, much more so than the end to The Unbearable Lightness of Being. For they had lived together long enough to know love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

I know the prevailing attitude is don’t judge a book by its film, but I thought quite highly of Mike Newell’s film for a book many said couldn’t be filmed. The opening sequence quite caught my eye, it was sort of a chalk drawing of a Colombian jungle, very stylized—the Magical Realism bit, I think. What the film did that the book did not, I felt, was really show the beauty of Colombia in eye-popping grandeur. (Also it made it look dirty, dusty, humid, and full of cholera. :-P ) Shakira on the soundtrack helped a lot in this regard. I was hoping the film would show us some of Paris and a ride in a hot air balloon; alas it didn’t, but the scenes in Hildebranda’s home and on the river were spectacular.

I was impressed that the film opened the way the book did, with Dr. Urbino’s death, then tell the story in a sort of circle from near-end to beginning, middle, and end—I love when films do that. Casting has been an issue for the film in reviews. Benjamin Bratt, I think, was cast as Dr. Urbino mostly because of his good looks and the fact he’s a popular actor who happens to be Hispanic (I’m being cynical but I think it’s the truth; he was on the talk shows, not the other two stars). But he did as much as I think he could with the role. I didn’t find [the Italian actress] to look anything like I saw Fermina, and I wasn’t quite convinced on her acting, though I felt she did the “old” Fermina quite well. Both [one] and [two] were outstanding as Florentino, just a joy to watch, completely as I saw him in the book.

Florentino’s conquests are understandably condensed for the purposes of the film and become a point of much-needed humor. I think the funniest moment was on the boat after he had been seduced by the lady in the Mompox sleeves. Having stood in front of her cabin door the night before and having been seduced, he shuffles in front of the door once, twice, three times, walking off not a little disappointed! Leona Cassini is completely left out, fairly understandable, but everything about América Vicuña remains, aside from one important detail. In general I was quite impressed at how faithful to the book the script stayed; there was the Widow Nazaret and the outrageous lady poet who sucks on a pacifier. There was the wonderful moment when Fermina and Hildebranda get their photos taken in antique costume (so visual; it was crying out to be filmed), revived in a beautiful flashback later when Florentino discovers the fading photo in a junk shop.

I think there’s a valid reason that films condense the time between Scrooge’s waking from his ghostly visitation and buying Christmas goose and stuff from one year to a few hours: it’s dramatically more involving. In the case of the film of Love in the Time of Cholera, I am glad the decision was made to condense the period between Florentino’s renewed proposal and Fermina’s accepting of him as a companion. Of course it’s truer to her character in the book, but so much more satisfying as it is on screen. I was also impressed at the way the film did not shirk from showing love between two 70+ people, a taboo subject in our world, which even Fermina’s daughter considers “revolting”—the film’s bold enough to show Florentino and Fermina’s well-deserved consummation after fifty years in fairly graphic detail. What made me honest-to-God cry was when Florentino and Fermina finally kiss on their riverboat.

If the amount I’ve had to say about this is any indication, I enjoyed the book and film. I do have to wonder, as I always do when I read books in translation, about how well it translated. In general I think it is pretty flowing and succinct, but occasionally the translation feels awkward. I wish my Spanish was good enough to read it in the original!

No comments: