On Love in the Time of Cholera and the Politics of Love
Note: Much on sexual assault and spoilers ahead.
"Now go and forget all about it," she said. "This never happened."
No matter how one reads Love in the Time of Cholera, Florentino Ariza loses his virginity at the hands of assault. Yet, the newly-heartbroken lover immediately discovers, instead of trauma, that “his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion.”1 There is not much else to say about Ariza’s behavior in the rest of the novel: he begins to take women in whatever way he pleases, emotionally and physically, with very little consideration of the consequences his actions have on them. The women take him in because of his pathetic disposition; because he always lies to them that he is a virgin; because he picks out mainly those who are vulnerable or hungry for any type of love, from widows to maids to fourteen-year-old girls. Garcia Marquez does not write any of them very differently, despite each woman having her surface “quirks”—Florentino Ariza treats them the same way: a place to hide and escape from an illusory love that, at its marrow, never existed in the first place outside of his grand gestures of violin, poetry, and letter-writing. In his mind (and the minds of similar men who are tragically common in the world), one might acknowledge their humanity without acting in their interest, as if the story of the maid who was raped and whose life and honor were ruined could be a passing story of Ariza’s virility; as if a school girl who is tricked into sex by a guardian half a century older can eventually commit suicide from heartbreak and only illustrate, above anything else, that guardian’s compassion.
Is the reader supposed to forgive him because once, for love, Florentino Ariza drank an entire bottle of Fermina Daza’s cologne; that he followed her every day after school, watched her from a bench in a park close to her house; that he wrote her feverish, unending letters despite knowing nothing about her? What is actually happening when a man, to survive himself, forges a woman like a weapon, an arrow in his bow, a stone in his sling? A woman read like a book is treated like a story, a mere moment in the trajectory of a man’s history veiled, in here, as a love story.
Garcia Marquez is never clear with his tone towards Florentino Ariza: does he intend the reader to sympathize with him completely, do we feel skeptical of him only until the very end, or does one entertain him as this preposterously flawed and romantic hero whose solitude and intransigence for a single illusion are enough to excuse any casualties or moral slippage along the way?
For Florentino Ariza, no truth deserves fidelity more than achieving the love that he imagined “fifty-three years, seven months, and eleven days and nights ago.”2 Its dominance and the ensuing quest for possession, even at the cost of distorting reality, is disturbing at best. Love skims on the boundaries of love where instead of a metaphor, a cliché gives birth to love; where instead of conversation, a book of poems unearths new methods for loving. Let one not forget that Lorenzo Daza calls his daughter a mule for her stubbornness; that the two great loves in her life with a man she initially despised and a man who would never stop following her. The plot transformed is just another romanticization of “when a woman says no, she means yes.” Though Garcia Marquez calls Florentino Ariza’s later letters to her as “ground in reality,”3 his declaration that he stayed a virgin for her is not; his denial of having ever entered her poetry contest is not. From a single missing navel, the whole of reality may be unraveled.
It is comfortable to argue that Love in the Time of Cholera is a satire in the shape of a deeply flawed love, but Garcia Marquez fails to make this clear. The long-suffering Florentino Ariza, who stalks and obsesses over a teenage Fermina Daza and who uses his sadness to seduce the most vulnerable women in his city, receives his fairytale ending of getting the girl. The last fifty pages particularly describe how easily Florentino Ariza can overcome Fermina Daza’s rejection by not only learning to speak the burgeoning technologies of typewriters and steamboats, but by mastering the business language and methods through which they operate in the world.
From the very beginning he attempted a new method of seduction, without any reference to past loves or even the past itself: a clean slate. Instead, he wrote an extensive meditation based on his ideas about, and experience of, relations between men and women, which at one time he had intended to write as a complement to the Lover’s Companion. Only now he disguised it in the patriarchal style of an old man’s memories so that it would not be too obvious that it was really a document of love. […] And so he planned everything down to the last detail, as if it were the final battle: new intrigues, new hopes in a woman who had already lived a full and complete life. It had to be a mad dream. […] It had to teach her to think of love as a state of grace: not the means to anything but the alpha and omega, an end in itself.
Fermina Daza is so dazzled by the disinterested stoicism of her “new” suitor that she doesn’t recognize the hurried and frantic love of his youth, now metamorphosed through another language of men: treatises, technologies, and river laws. At his first pass at her, Florentino Ariza was rejected by her father as a poor boy who didn’t measure up to the racial, social, and economic classes her father craved; at his second pass, he still asks another man for her fate, only this time from inside the dinner club from which he had so vehemently been rejected. The conversation of love between man and woman, in the time of cholera, seems suspiciously to remain a conversation between men, whether with himself or others, and yet again ennobles taking a woman’s affection without the honesty in true consent.
Postscript towards a politics of love
This book has been making me think about love. I have been reading a good amount of Pablo Neruda mostly by coincidence, despite how women never speak in his poems. It has been two years, perhaps, since I’ve seriously looked at him, but a firm part of me believes that to write about anything, one must see through what has already been written.
I should explain why I consider this the beginning of a politics and not, say, a philosophy. First, it occurred to me that love, being a relationship between people, also harbors systems of power. As supported by Love in the Time of Cholera, one’s actions towards another human being support or engender larger narratives of dominance.
Second, the system of power most evident in love is that of emotional dominance. My greatest worry in loving some person is to discover that I’m really loving what that person reminds me of myself, yet to deem myself worthy of love seems prerequisite for a relationship free of dominance. In order to love someone, I must extricate my fate from that presence; that the greatest respect I may have for someone is a whole recognition of our respective autonomies; that there is no such thing as one hand but always two hands as we fall asleep.
Third, the personal is political. Rejecting a tradition of love engenders the proliferation of many loves. Where will they go? What will they exemplify? How can we give love a second opportunity on earth?
Perhaps, next, Calvino.
 Garcia Marquez, Gabriel. Love in the Time of Cholera. Page 143. New York: Vintage International, 2003.
 Love, p. 348.
 Love, p. 330.