“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
That is the famous first paragraph of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” The book fills 430 pages, with very little dialogue.
“Love in the Time of Cholera,” at 348 pages, is mostly narrative.
It’s one thing to read a book, start to finish, when it’s short and packed with dialogue.
And yet I started “Solitude” on a rainy morning, read through the day and evening, slept for a few hours while the book infiltrated my dreams, and finished as the sun rose.
And yet I started “Cholera” on a summer afternoon at the beach, skipped dinner, and finished at three in the morning, when only the stillness of the night stopped me from jumping and shouting.
Marquez is, for me, in the pantheon, right at the top. The greatest stylist. The greatest innovator. But even more, the greatest storyteller — the creator of the most interesting characters, the most addictive plots, the best endings. He’s this great: When I turned the last page of “Solitude,” I wrote to Marquez’s agent to ask about the film rights. A letter arrived the next week: $1,000,000. In 1970. I actually tried to raise the money. [To buy the paperback of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” from Amazon, click here.]
And, like the best of his work, it has its origins in his life.
Marquez’s parents were an unlikely pair. His father worked in the banana trade in Colombia — not a prestigious occupation. And he was said to have fathered four illegitimate children. He fell in love with a Colonel’s daughter, courting her with his violin, his poetry and endless letters. Her family tried everything to drive him away. He couldn’t be discouraged. Eventually the Colonel gave in.
Jump forward a generation. Marquez met Mercedes Barcha Pardo when she was 13. Before he left for college, he;proposed to her. She agreed, but said she wanted to finish school. In fact, much more kept them apart — they wouldn’t be married for fourteen years.
The story of “Cholera” takes the idea of postponed romance to an astonishing extreme. As the novel begins, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, now 81, has been married to Fermina Daza, 72, for more than half a century. “If they had learned anything together,” Marquez writes, “it is that wisdom comes to us when it can no longer do any good.” But what they had learned suddenly doesn’t matter — Urbino tries to rescue a bird in a tree, falls and dies. His wife feels “an irresistible longing to begin life with him all over again so they could say what they had left unsaid and do everything right that they had done badly.”
Among the mourners is Florentino Ariza. He is the last to leave. And he has a shocking announcement — an announcement he has waited half a century to make: “a vow of eternal fidelity and everlasting love.”
Fermina rejects him completely: “Get out of here…And don’t show your face again for the years of life that are left to you….and I hope there are very few of them.”
That night, sobbing, she realizes she has been thinking more about Florentino Ariza than about her dead husband.
Which is only fair, because Ariza “had not stopped thinking of her for a single moment since Fermina Daza had rejected him out of hand after a long and troubled love affair fifty-one years, nine months and four days ago.”
With that, Marquez returns to their youth, retracing the love affair, the marriage to Urbino, the parallel lives — and, finally, the resumption of the romance. Ariza has had 622 lovers; Fermina has had none. Yet, in his heart, he has been totally faithful to her. And when she grasps that…
“They had lived long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.”
This is, you understand, not one of those sappy love stories that populate the best seller lists and become movies destined for a quick sale to TV — this is about grand passion and the wisdom it conveys.
And what wisdom! “It is life, more than death, that has no limits,” Marquez writes.
If you’ve ever loved deeply, “Love in the Time of Cholera” will be a familiar map of the human heart. If that kind of love has passed you by, this novel is a magical text that opens the curtain on domestic intimacy; you’ll read it with pen in hand, the better to mark great passages.
Whatever your situation, few books bring this much joy.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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