Monday, 23 April 2007
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Is love a sickness? Certainly, in the case of Florentino Ariza, it is: a morbid, life-long sickness. The vast sweep of this book, in both temporal and psychological terms, makes it difficult to summarise in any meaningful way. The narrative begins with what is in effect a long introduction, culminating in the death of one of the main characters. We are then taken back over the preceding fifty-year-long story of the convoluted relations between Dr. Juvenal Urbino, his wife Fermina Daza and the complex and enigmatic Florentino Ariza.
Thomas Pynchonheads his review of this book The Heart's Eternal Vow, which is as good a summation of Florentino's situation as any. (http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/pynchon_essays_cholera.html)
But his is not the only heart, or the only eternal vow, which Marquez scrutinizes.
Pynchon begins: ‘….love is strange. As we grow older it gets stranger, until at some point mortality has come well within the frame of our attention, and there we are, suddenly caught between terminal dates while still talking a game of eternity.’
Love in the Time of Cholera has been described as ‘an anatomy’ of love. Underlying the whole narrative is the unspoken question ‘What is love?’; possible answers come in a bewildering variety, but always elusive, tentative. It is this Proustian exploration of complexity, of acceptance of the impossibility of saying the last word, which makes the book so satisfying (to me, at least!) Pynchon summarises it by saying that ‘it could be argued that this is the only honest way to write about love, that without the darkness and the finitude there might be romance, erotica, social comedy, soap opera -- all genres, by the way, that are well represented in this novel -- but not the Big L.’
The whole context of the story is one of wars and pestilence, played out in the steamy climate of a post-colonial Carribbean city.
Dr. Urbino and Fermina Daza are married in an initially loveless marriage, contracted because she was of the age when it was expected that girls of her class would marry and he was ‘a good catch’; and, on his side, because he sought the stability and confirmation of social standing which marriage brought, and she was beautiful and accomplished. But mutual dependence, the need for security, grows into one of the many forms of love which are described throughout the narrative, although not without cost to Fermina; all the various limitations and frustrations of her life come pouring out one day, when she shouts at her husband: “You don’t know how unhappy I am” , to which his response is to ‘burden her with the weight of his unbearable wisdom’, saying: “Always remember the most important thing in a good marriage is not happiness, but stability.”
Many years later, when the eminently respectable and morally upright Doctor is forced to confess to her an adulterous involvement with another woman, she leaves him in a fury of rage and jealousy, until, eventually, he comes to fetch her home. Still haughty and ‘determined to make him pay with her silence for the bitter suffering that had ended her life’, she nonetheless returns because the love which has grown between them over their years of shared, everyday intimacy, the ‘stability’ of the life she has with him, has become more important than her hurt pride.
The third person in what proves, indeed, to be an ‘eternal triangle’ is the love-lorn Florentino Ariza, who remains dedicated to the idea that he is in love with Fermina for over fifty years. His is the obsessive, slightly paranoid face of love; it is Proust’s Swan and his obsessive love for Odette, Charley Summers in Henry Green’s Back, refusing to accept the fact of love’s end even faced with the objective reality of death.
An important element in Florentino’s story is the way in which, over the years he spends in waiting for her, he uses sex as an antidote, a way of assuaging the heart-ache of his unrequited love for Fermina. After his first sexual encounter, he realises that ‘At the height of pleasure he had experienced a revelation that he could not believe, that he even refused to admit, which was that his illusory love for Fermina Daza could be replaced by an earthly passion.’ Thereafter, while convincing himself that he remains viriginally untouched and faithful to his idealised love, he lives a hectic erotic life, relentlessly pursuing sexual conquests with a vast number of women in many different situations, some of whom are much more to him than uncomplicated sexual pairings. More of love's many-faceted aspects are revealed to us in these relationships.
In old age, Florentino and Fermina are finally united and although it could be said that love has conquered all - time, age, bereavement - their happiness in each other is set against a background of irreparable loss and decay, not only that of their own physical decline into decrepitude but of the world around them. The final irony is that they can only stay together by sailing the rivers under the yellow cholera flag to protect their privacy and to enable them to remain undisturbed in their mutual obsession.
Wednesday, 4 April 2007
The priest lives at The Priory, on the opposite side of the big, cobbled square from The Brown House. The garden was once tended by a priest who loved and took great pride in it. When he retired, maybe six or seven years ago, it was left to get wild and overgrown. The 'new' priest is supportive and encouraging, although not a gardener. Two years ago, Tim dig some clearing and planting but had to give it up - no time. Now, with the (occasional) help of some members of the congregation, I try to keep it at least weeded and will do some more planting this year.
But this north-facing bed against the church was a depressing sight when I began to think about getting back into the garden this week - most of what I put in last year seems not to have survived. The garden is mostly, resolutely, east-facing and very exposed to winter winds so that's not surprising. Also, the soil is poor and exhausted now as no fertisliser has been used for years - apart from the buckets of stable manure I spread about this morning! In fact, adding fertiliser is my main project this spring.
The other, east-facing, bed was planted densely with things like balotta, rosemary and hebes and looks much better. The up-side to the exposure problem is that this bed gets lots of summer sun. The best, south-facing bed is entirely overgrown with weeds and brambles which I'll try to kill before they get mature.
Tuesday, 3 April 2007
by James Hamilton-Paterson (1993)
In an un-named European city just after World War II, the distinctly odd curator of a vast municipal greenhouse garden welcomes evening guests to admire and inhale the perfumes of his tropical plants, which open only at night. In his care, the exotic species have survived the war, his life being entirely devoted to studying their habits, ministering to their needs. He lives and breaths with them, literally, inhabiting a small space within the boiler room of the vast greenhouse, maintaining himself frugally without regard to his own comfort.The narrative is illuminated throughout by the botanically precise descriptions which only a gifted amateur naturalist such as Hamilton-Paterson could provide.
This is a fable, the steamy, erotic atmosphere of the vast greenhouse evoking echoes of the sprawling, overgrown grounds of Le Paradou in La Faute de L’Abbe Mouret (Zola), and of the magical, but poisonous, garden inhabited by Beatrice in Hawthore’s story Rappaccini’s Daughter. We are given glimpses of the wretched, indeed tragic, history of the curator of this exotic world, of the griefs which lie beneath his curious and compulsive character. His created world is seen as a way of dealing with that past, at the same time clinging on to a lost world and lost love.
Running through the narrative is the tantalising suggestion of a hidden secret within the green house – his ‘dark secret love’, which is only, finally, brought into the open when the outside world casts the cold light of reality on this steamy idyll - it is peace, the end of the war, that at last destroys the carefully preserved environment, threatening both the plants and the secret world of the curator.
An article about this extraordinary book will appear in a future issue of the magazine Slightly Foxed.Bibliophiles who don't already know about Slightly Foxed are strongly recommended to visit their website. http://www.foxedquarterly.com/