My mostly-virtual, socially distanced world these days finds me surrounded by books and words on screens. Few phrases have rolled off more typing-fingers than variations on the title of Love in the Time of Cholera, the Columbian Nobelista Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s great novel, published in Spanish in 1985. I pulled my 1988 Knopf hardback off my shelf last night to read and think about the phrase that’s been sloshing through my mind and my email inbox. What does cholera have to do with love? What does time have to do with either?
This lush, gorgeous, sentimental novel is also one of very few that I can remember rushing out to buy after reading a newspaper review. As a junior English major at the time, I remember picking up the New York Times on April 10, 1988, where I saw my literary hero Thomas Pynchon, who I’d worshipped since high school, gushing about the latest novel by the Latin American master I’d encountered more recently. Returning to that review now, I remember two passages in particular. In one quotation, Pynchon and Gabo together perhaps anticipated all my decades-later scholarship in the blue humanities about humans and bodies of water. When the hero protests that he cannot do his job as river navigator because he only thinks about love, his wise uncle replies, “The problem is, without river navigation, there is no love.” Love and Navigation — have I found a title for my next book?
And, at the review’s end, Pynchon rhapsodizes the novel’s final chapter:
There is nothing I have read quite like this astonishing final chapter, symphonic, sure in its dynamics and tempo, moving like a riverboat too, its author and pilot, with a lifetime’s experience steering us unerringly among hazards of skepticism and mercy, on this river we all know, without whose navigation there is no love and against whose flow the effort to return is never worth a less honorable name than remembrance -at the very best it results in works that can even return our worn souls to us, among which most certainly belongs ”Love in the Time of Cholera,” this shining and heartbreaking novel.
The rhythms of that final chapter, re-read in our plague-y present, feel like a re-imagining of time, as if the true subject of Gabo’s late masterwork is not just love and cholera, whose symptoms the novel draws together, but time, itself, “this river we all know,” as Pynchon calls it. Time’s a strange place now, under semi-quarantine, cut off from other people. It’s worth asking this novel about it.
So — a few ideas about time, the river, infectious diseases, and love, as these things call to me from the young man who was first transfixed by this novel in the spring of 1988, and whose heart still moves with it in these dark spring months of 2020. It’s a story of love against time, and also, to my surprise, a story about environmental devastation, and about the physical labor of writing.
Love against time: Throughout the novel, the hero-lover Florentino keeps track of the exact time elapsed since his love Fermina Daza rejected him when they were young. The final tally, on the book’s last page, is “fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights” (348). Some kinds of time crave measurement. There’s something mad about Florentino’s precision.
The broken river: When Florentino and Fermina in the final chapter at last cruise up the river together on one of Florentino’s steamers, the riverboat operator is shocked to witness the destruction his boats, foraging ashore for wood, has visited on the environment: “Captain Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees” (331). I didn’t know what the environmental humanities were when I read this book in 1988 — but I now see love’s manic cost, and the bitter price of modernity, in those denuded riverbanks.
The power of quarantine: When Florentino and Fermina, illicit lovers at an embarrassingly old age, seek to conceal their affair from passengers who want to board the steamer, they hide themselves under the yellow flag of cholera. “The ship would be quarantined,” they conspire with the Captain, “it would hoist the yellow flag and sail in a state of emergency” (342). The novel plays throughout with the interchangeable symptoms of love and cholera: fever, isolation, misery. In the end love hides itself under fever’s flag.
Having arrived downriver, trying to conceal his false yellow flag from the harbormaster, the Captain snipes at Florentino: “And how long do you think we can keep up this goddam coming and going?” He describes a time of iteration, “coming and going,” step by step, moment to moment. It reminds me of today’s inside-time. What is our steamship’s destination?
The lover has his answer ready: “Forever” (348).
I can still dimly remember what it felt like to be 20-ish years old and reading for the first time that dazzling declaration. I remember shutting the book and rushing to stare out my window at that twentieth-century spring day. (I think I remember finishing the novel for the first time during a sunny afternoon, looking out my dorm room window at flowering trees. But maybe I’m imagining that?) The novel wears its lovesickness on its sleeve, and states outright on the last page that “it is life, more than death, that has no limits” (348). I feel that power still today.
But today, in the shadow of a new infection, with three more decades behind me and in unsettled times, I think also about the connection between Florentino’s ruthless love and the desecration of the riverbanks. I think about how counting the days, months, weeks might mean missing something about time’s river, and about other rivers. I think about Shakespeare, with whose works I was (briefly) bored as an undergrad: “Love’s not time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks / Within his bending sickle’s compass come” (Sonnet 116). I think about multiple times crossing and mingling: Florentino’s calendar, the river’s downstream flow, the Captain’s “goddam coming and going,” today’s confined hours of corona-quarantine, the wayward and love-filled years that have passed beneath the keel of my own boat from then-student to now-professor. I think about times of cholera, of anger and fragility, about invisible forces in the air.
When I re-opened this novel after many years that it sat closed on bookshelves in different apartments and houses, I remembered the boat trip, and the incandescent final lines. What I’d forgotten about the close of the novel was the epistolary exchange. To re-start his courtship, after Fermina Daza’s judge-husband dies during an extraordinary scene involving a tree and a parrot (which really you might want to read for yourself), Florentino teaches himself to type so that he can correspond with Fermina without the evidence of handwriting. He builds or rebuilds love through one-finger typing, the mechanical muse of the modern writer.
I am thinking now about how we are writing today in covid isolation, as I read about Florentino’s old man’s love letters, laboriously typed on a machine he was just learning to use. I think about Thomas Pynchon, who was more or less in hiding from literary fame when he wrote that review in 1988, and who remains mostly hidden today, somewhere in virus-filled Manhattan, after having published a few more brilliant novels of his own. I am thinking about my students, separated in their homes and their disrupted lives, communicating with me through fingers-on-keyboard language and glitchy video-chat, making sense of poetry and catastrophe and Othello and literary theory though the awkward, hard to use, ungainly tools of language and time.
Writing opens the heart and the mind, in times of cholera and in this time of COVID-19.
Be well, everyone!