His feeble mind was only good for groping memories like vague shapes in the dark. His body was a withered portrait on the wall of some long forgotten castle. The writer sat down to write a simple love letter to a book he had known in his younger years. Now in the grips of his fever he remembered more and more of them. Back when his tastes in literature had been robust, he had loved a book called “The General and His Labyrinth.” The first time, alone in his room as he grew into a stupor over the labyrinth of his disappointments and his dreams. The second time as he was gripped by a virulent pragmatism known to men twice his age. Then, he had been in his thirties. Now he was an old man close to death.
With his arthritic hand he wrote the first line of his love letter trying to recall the pride and ambition of a younger man.
“The book was a testimony to the power of an author to love his subject more than life itself.”
The sentence came out of his pen hopeful. Yet, the vagueness of his prose and its inability to reach beyond simple sentiment sent the writer into a deep malaise. He stood up from his chair with what little strength was left. His pride prevented him from asking for help and on his way to his bed he almost fell over.
When Jose Palacios came into the bedroom, he saw the writer in his bed seized by fever.
“Yes, your highness.”
Although he was a simple writer and the servant was a figment of his imagination, the servant insisted on calling him “highness.”
“Highness...highness. You mean ‘lowness.’ Debased. Fraud.”
“Are you at work on another one of your love letters?”
“The desire comes and goes. I sit down to write a simple sentence and when the thing comes out it lies limp on the page and dies, stillbirth and dead.”
In all the years of his unremarkable life, the only remarkable thing about him was how many great literary loves he had had -- a greater accomplishment than even his own literary victories.
A decade before the writer had tried to make a proper accounting of his literary loves and write letters to each of them. After countless hours of scribbling on sheets of various quality and color, the writer had finally given up, burned all the letters, and declared the task hopeless, proclaiming simply, “There are too many! They run in my memory like one long dream.” Over the years, he had climbed into his chair and tried to compose a letter here and there. Not even Jose Palacios knew what had happened to them.
Now, in the twilight of his existence, the feeble writer had fits and starts of work that were equal measures desperate and ineffective. The rest of his time was spent fighting the debasements of time.
If Jose Palacios had been a writer himself he would have thought the writer’s constant constipation symbolic. He ameliorated the writer’s congenial constipation with enemas of immediate but devastating effect. Each time, like a church chime at noon, the writer would exclaim, “Just like my first novel. One big disgusting explosive mess.”
After Jose Palacios had administered the enema, changed his clothes, and cleaned the bedsores on his emaciated body, he placed the writer in his chair, in front of his paper and pencil.
“One more try,” Jose Palacios said. “It’s good for the soul. Good or bad, you will write for love of your literary works.”
There had been so many: X-Men comics in the flower of his youth; science fiction novels about Star Trek and Star Wars in the crude days of his adolescence; the mature yet neglected pages of such books as “The Grapes of Wrath,” in his rebellious years; the more mature loves of young adulthood...
He continued writing for several hours, as if he were in a clairvoyant trance, hardly stopping for the attacks of coughing. When his arthritic hand finally stopped moving he dictated for several more hours in weak hums that barely registered as words to Jose Palacios. When Jose Palacios finally ran out of paper, he had to take to writing on the walls. The walls turned black with ink. Finally, when the old writer’s voice was about to give out, he finished his letter in the only way he felt appropriate. The writer stood up with what little strength he had left, walked to Jose Palacios, and found the place on the wall where the writing had stopped, he curled up into ball next to it, and entered a deep sleep.
Jose Palacios took a blanket from the closet and covered the writer, not knowing whether he would wake. He retired into his quarters to resume his count of the writer’s literary loves and conquests.
Some months later, after the writer had died for the final time. The government ordered that all accounts of the writer’s literary conquests, love of words, or even his existence be destroyed. Thus, the letter and the house with walls tainted with literary scandal were destroyed.
Only in a small village where Jose Palacios lived under an assumed name did the tale of the writer’s many conquests resurface. And like the good servant he had been, Jose Palacios made sure that each literary love, including the “General and his Labyrinth” was accounted for.
When I found this book in the library, I noticed it was surrounded by other books whose purpose was to analyze and explain it. I wondered if I would need to check one of those out, too, but I decided to venture understanding this modern classic on my own first. I didn’t succeed, and if I want to, I’ll need to go back and read one of those expert’s insights.
I found the language and imagery powerful, the story intriguing at times and tiresome at others. It’s circular as well as strange, full of repetitions, with various errors and obsessions cycling around and around through individual lives and through generations. Names are repeated over the generations, making it challenging to keep track of characters. I’m sure all of this is intentional and has a meaning. None of this is because of poor writing. The author clearly knew what he was doing, even if this particular reader failed to comprehend his purpose.
Macondo, the town where events take place, is to some extent the “lead character.” But it has no will, no goals. The Buendia family could also be seen as a collective protagonist, but its members don’t share the same drives and hopes. The story isn’t driven by any one person’s arc of desire, ambition or discovery, and at times events seem to float into it like things blown on a breeze. The omniscient narrator tells the tale with little dialog and little in the way of conventional dramatic scenes, sometimes in a single paragraph that runs on for two pages. It’s a bit like listening to a poetic and slightly dotty elder tell you the history of his town, without any concern for differentiating fact from fable, mingling them together with equal conviction. I was not troubled by the magical realism, but by the feeling that these remarkable events must be symbols in a code I couldn’t decipher
Characters, for the most part, are defined by obsessions rather than the depth and complexity of whole personalities. The exception is the long-lived matriarch Ursula. She and the Italian Pietro Crespi are among the few sympathetic characters, the few who felt like real people rather than symbolic personifications of various societal ills or aspects of the human condition. (Perhaps, though Ursula is the personification of Female Strength or The All-Enduring Mother, and Crespi the personification of The Arts, especially Music and Dance.)
War, in the form of an endless rebellion, is shown as both cruel and absurd. Romantic love often seems equally cruel and absurd, equally obsessive, and often unwholesome. I can’t say I regret reading this book, but I can’t say I entirely enjoyed it either. I probably should have read one of the books that explained it in advance.
A couple weeks ago, I watched "Love in the Time of Cholera" because I recently read the book. I gave the movie 3 stars, and the book 2.5. So, I wasn't a fan of the book, and my husband makes fun of me for watching movies for books I didn't like. But what can I say? I'm just a completist. (Also, if you didn't like the book you don't have to worry about the movie "ruining" it. In fact, sometimes it even improves the experience.)
If you liked the book, you should definitely check out the movie. The acting is good, the costumes and setting are beautiful, and overall it is a very lush and well-done film. It's also surprisingly faithful to the book -- and I say surprisingly just because it seems so many Hollywood adaptations of books resemble their source material in title and character names only.
There was one thread in the book that they left out of the movie, to its detriment, I think. In the book, Florentino has a friendship with a woman who has risen through the ranks in his place of work. At one point, the book has him wishing she were a prostitute so that he could sleep with her, even if he would have to pay her to do so. This is because, when he does get around to propositioning her, she turns him down. Never in their long friendship does she allow it to become sexual.
This relationship was completely eliminated from the movie, which gives the viewer the impression that every woman in the world that Ariza ever wanted, he got. Except, of course, Fermina Daza. Which really just cements my interpretation that "Love in the Time of Cholera" is mostly a horny-man's fantasy, and the fact that it is written well and portrayed on film skillfully and beautifully allows it to be considered "high art" instead. But Florentino comes across as just as skeezy in the movie, and I was just as repulsed by him as in the book.
The book also made a second concession: it aged Florentino's 14-year-old lover (who was also his ward) into a college student. This makes a HUGE difference, because while a 71-year-old who sleeps with a college student is still pretty much a dirty old man, he is no longer a pedophile or a child abuser. Although the movie directors wisely surmised that probably nothing could bring the viewer back to sympathy with Florentino after seeing him in bed with a youngster, in some ways I think the movie does the viewer a disservice in glossing over what a skeeze Florentino really was.
So, similarly to the book, a beautiful execution was not enough to save a truly puerile and sickening protagonist.
Well, now that I've read this book, I have to wonder what all the fuss is about.
I prefer character-driven to plot-driven books, and beautiful writing can make up for a lot, but none of that was enough to shake me from my boredom with this book while Marquez showed off his stunning literary skills and powers of perception of the human heart while I just waited for something to HAPPEN. Because this book is not all that long but is somewhat "epic" in scope, following its primary characters from youth into old age, the whole thing reads a bit like a glorified summary, without nearly enough dialog and wholly lacking in momentum.
I think this is supposed to be made up for in how "endearing" Florentino Ariza is, but I did not find his lifelong devotion to Fernina Daza to be romantic -- to me, it wavered between being creepy/stalkerish and pathetic. He had no idea of who she really was throughout the majority of her life -- instead, he built her up into whatever he wanted her to be based on his projections of who she was when she was fifteen. Perhaps if the book had addressed the falseness of this kind of love or served as some sort of cautionary tale I would have accepted it, but it mostly turns out all right in the end, rewarding the romantics and making the realists feel squeamish and a little nauseated.
Also, for all of Marquez's delving into the intimate details of his female characters, like what kind of orgasms they had or what they thought of when they heard their husbands pissing, so much of this book reads like an indulgent male fantasy. Marquez portrays not one, not two, but THREE instances of rape as "love," with the victim longing for his or her rapist forever more after it happens. While we're on the subject, he throws around the word love far too much in this novel, so that it can stand in for practically any emotion or act at all -- rape, obsession, lust, fantasies, etc. etc.
For me, the book's redeeming quality was in its portrayal of the marriage between Fernina Daza and Dr. Urbino, particularly in its examination of the world-shifting discovery of infidelity. Still, the emotional impact of that was somewhat corrupted by Marquez's implication/belief that pretty much all husbands will cheat, even the "good" ones.
All in all, the book excused far too much horrible behavior from not great characters all in the name of "love." [Would Fernina Daza have been capable of "loving" Florentino if she ever learned that, just before her husband's death, he had been having sex (statutory rape) with the 14-year-old ward in his charge, while he was in his seventies? I know I wouldn't.]
I've been told One Hundred Years of Solitude is much better, but I'm not sure I've got the stomach or the patience to return to Marquez in this lifetime.