October 19, 2021
Educational Portal of the Americas
 Printer Friendly Version  E-mail this Page  Rate this Page  Add this Page to My Favorites  Home Page 
New User? - Forgot your Password? - Registered User:     

Site Search

Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 64
Year: 1998
Author: Isabel Rodríguez Vergara
Title: Haunting Demons: Critical Essays on the Works of Gabriel García Márquez


Even though Love in the Time of Cholera (1989) appears to follow the tradition of the so-called “realistic novel,” it shows a metafictional impulse that lies at the heart of most nontraditional fiction and popular culture of the last fifteen years.1 García Márquez’s work cannot be studied in isolation but always in dialogue with vanguard art. The metafictional tendencies deriving from a tradition well established in art (painting, music, etc.) are combined in masterly fashion in this novel with Latin American intertexts, such as history, religion, music, and cultural values. In this essay I shall offer an interpretation that emphasizes its postmodern quality. I shall focus my attention on one very interesting character who appears only in the first part of the novel, as a dead body, and then immediately disappears.

The presence of this character, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, invites the curious reader to play detective and follow the clues in the text and identify him as a sacred parody of the biblical prophet Jeremiah.2  The justification for his presence is dual: on one hand, his life becomes the body on which the novel is constructed; on the other, his dead body becomes a metaphor for the text in need of deciphering.

Formally divided into six parts of almost the same length, Love in the Time of Cholera has a spiral structure in which beginning and end touch just as some events in the text allude to others. The text polemicizes not only on literary creation, but on one of the most basic human needs: love. Solitude, violence, and political power had already been represented by way of language in other novels of García Márquez. Love in the Time of Cholera dramatizes love in several possible dimensions: fraternal, pederastic, conjugal, prostituted. These different concepts of love remain hidden under the hyperbolic description of the relationship between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, whose secret love is not consummated until half a century after they meet. This story of a love postponed for more than fifty years permits the narrator to paint the social and cultural life of a small city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, creating an illusion of reality.3

As the author has said, Cartagena combines the characteristics of the side-by-side cities of Barranquilla and Santa Marta at the beginning of the twentieth century.4  The events of the novel take place in a climate of decadence created by war and worsened by an epidemic of cholera. The reader has to deduce the chronology from cultural events, the publication of a new book or the announcement of an invention.

The first part of the novel includes the end by summarizing schematically “what is going to happen” from the episodic point of view. In Love in the Time of Cholera this first part implies the whole novel like a microtext that captures images of “characters” and “events” reflected in mirrors, thus parodying the technique of the so-called “realistic novel.”  The narrator opens the story by introducing Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, who has just committed suicide. This character opens the fiction metaphorically by showing himself as an open book (dead body) that needs to be deciphered. I shall pursue this point later in this essay; here I shall pause to define some terms implicit in my interpretation.

In Love in the Time of Cholera, hidden under an apparent linearity and illusion of realism, lies a masterpiece that summarizes multiple voices (texts) in constant polemic; these voices can only be read through intertextuality, where the text is the absorption and transformation of other texts.5  Like García Márquez’s previous novels, the text represents a theater of symbols and signs with multiple allusions to Christian symbology, references to Colombian history, comments on other Latin American or European works, or quotations from his own preceding novels. As a metafictional and postmodern novel, it places an explicit emphasis on the process of creating a fictitious story and developing all the formal possibilities of the genre to reinforce the argument on the subjectivity of all systems.6  This novel puts itself forward as a self-conscious invention and stresses that every form of art is just another imaginative creation. Fiction cannot reflect “reality” or “truth” because these are themselves fictional abstractions whose validity has become very suspicious in this century.7

Love in the Time of Cholera is a form of self-reflective art in which parody is implicit. Parody repeats, but it is a repetition that includes difference; it is a repetition with a critical distance in which the reader serves as a decoder in activating the intertexts.8  There are at least two kinds of parody in this novel: self-parody, concerning events in García Márquez’s autobiography, and textual parody, which plays with the Bible and works of history and literature. In the first kind of parody, the relationship between the “author,” the work of art, and their own identities are questioned. The second is defined as a means of creating form by questioning the act of aesthetic production.

García Márquez has restored the idea of literature as a dialogue with a past that can be double or parodic; in this novel, he has transconceptualized characters, thematic details, and quotations from the Bible and other texts. The reader becomes a detective working on a textual interpretation.

The autobiographical parody has been recognized by the author himself, who told Pete Hamill that one of the sources of the novel was his own parents’ love story: Fermina Daza represents Luisa, the writer’s ninety-two-year-old mother, and Florentino Ariza is the telegraphist Gabriel Eligio García, his father, who died at eighty-four.9  By including autobiographical facts, García Márquez establishes a dialogue with his past, converting it into fiction while questioning the relationship between himself as an artist and the fictional actor. In the second class of parody, the “author” addresses one of the most significant texts not only of Latin American culture, but of all Western culture: the Bible. The parodic re-creation of biblical texts serves a double function: first, as a code for developing his fiction and a tone for sanctifying the novel; secondly, as a questioning of the original text (the Bible) in the cultural context of the twentieth century.

The self-reflective quality of the novel reveals itself through various aspects of the text, such as the presence of a mirror (an illusion of reality) in which Florentino Ariza sees the reflection of Fermina Daza, his eternal love, beautifully narrated in the novel:

All at once, in the large mirror on the back wall, he caught a glimpse of Fermina Daza sitting at a table with her husband and two other couples, at an angle that allowed him to see her reflected in all her splendor. . . . Holding his breath, Florentino Ariza observed her at his pleasure. . . . From that night on, and for almost a year afterward, he laid unrelenting siege to the owner of the inn, offering him whatever he wanted, money or favors, or whatever he desired most in life if he would sell him the mirror. . . Florentino Ariza hung the mirror in his house, not for the exquisite frame but because of the place inside that for two hours had been occupied by her beloved reflection. (228)

Ariza keeps the mirror as a substitute for reality. Besides the mirror as an illusory duplicator of reality, we find several “characters” who also duplicate it: Saint-Amour a photographer, who reproduces images; Florentino Ariza a writer of love letters to Fermina Daza, which she does not always interpret correctly; and finally, García Márquez himself, parodied in the character of Florentino Ariza. As a writer and lover, the narrator delineates him in his painful task of writing:

Florentino Ariza wrote every night. Letter by letter, he had no mercy as he poisoned himself with the smoke from the palm oil lamps in the back room of the notions shop, and his letters became more discursive and more lunatic the more he tried to imitate his favorite poets from the Popular Library, which even at that time was approaching eighty volumes. (69)10

This quotation comments on the relationship between the writer and his fiction: writing (for Ariza and for García Márquez) is a painful process: poisonous and masochistic. It is preceded by Daza’s mother’s expressing her concern over his health, urging him “with so much fervor to enjoy his torment.”  After a meticulous description of the style in a letter of Ariza’s, the narrator carries on the idea of writing as imitation and of the pain caused by the act of writing by comparing it on the same page to Fermina Daza’s distracted letters, which “avoid emotional pitfalls and confine themselves to relating the events of her daily life in the utilitarian style of a ship’s log,” whereas he “burned himself alive in every line” (my emphasis). Here the narrator openly unmasks the parody implicit in his writing by declaring it imitative of previous writers, in this case, the poets of the Colombian Popular Library.

The self-consciousness of the novel is not reflected only in the description of the process of writing it; the reader is also alerted to the very process of reading it. Fermina Daza “re-read the letter, attempting to discover a secret code, a magic formula hidden in one of the three hundred fourteen letters of its fifty-eight words, in the hope they would tell more than they said” (67). Ironically, this process is immediately demythicized when the narrator says that, “all she found was what she had understood on first reading.”

Love in the Time of Cholera thus appears as a metafictional and self-reflective text, very characteristic of postmodern art. It consciously alludes to the process of reading and writing, giving clues to its own interpretation, transgressing the possibility of representing “reality” and “truth.”

As I noted at the start, it is by means of the character of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour that the novel reaches its parodic and interpretative peak. An attentive reader cannot accept that this character serves no function in the fiction after having such a privileged position in the text: he opens the novel. His unusual name and various traits of his personality and events of his life suggest a parody of the biblical prophet Jeremiah. Names have always been an important clue to interpreting García Márquez.11  He has said, “When I have the story and the structure completely worked out, I can start but only on condition that I find the right name for each character. If I don’t have the name that exactly suits the character, it doesn’t come alive. I don’t see it.”12  The poetic name Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was carefully chosen; the combination of Jeremiah as first name with Saint-Amour as the last name undoubtedly gives the character a halo. Jeremiah is not only a biblical prophet, but has already been parodied by two outstanding figures of Spanish American literature before García Márquez: Rubén Darío and Francisco de Quevedo. In El salmo de la pluma, Darío parodies the modulations of the prophet’s “Lamentations” while preaching the redemption of humanity through the pen; similarly, Quevedo rewrote the “Lamentations” in his Lágrimas de Jeremías castellanas.13 Thus Jeremiah has a double value in Hispanic culture: as a biblical prophet and as a source of parody in literature. García Márquez fictionally synthesizes both the biblical and the literary values in this novel.

If we compare the novel and the Bible, we find a number of characteristics of the biblical Jeremiah fictionally duplicated in the novel. One of them, for example, lies in his being described as an “Antillean refugee” in the first paragraph. “The Antillean refugee Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, disabled war veteran, photographer of children, and his most sympathetic opponent in chess, had escaped the torments of memory with the aromatic fumes of gold cyanide.”  Besides being a refugee, he has other qualities that allude to the Biblical text: his condition as an exile, his incarceration, the appearance of his corpse, his cannibalism, his permanent silence, his burial place, and his intimate relationship with a mulatto woman. And his having been mistaken for the Redeemer and having committed suicide on Pentecost.

Saint-Amour was one of many refugees living in the city; it is said that the other refugees will be notified in case they want to pay their respects to: “the man who has conducted himself as if he were the most respectable of them all, the most active and the most radical, even after it had become all too clear that he had been overwhelmed by the burden of disillusion” (8). Similarly, in the Biblical text, Jeremiah is also a “refugee” who gives advice to the exiled (Jeremiah 10:1-25). The biblical Jeremiah is seen as a double: as a prophet and as a Redeemer whose mission is to prophesy and witness the total ruin of Judea.14  Saint-Amour’s cadaver is described as like that of the biblical Redeemer, after having carried the cross, in place of which the novel substitutes crutches. Urbino:

grasped the hem of the blanket with the tips of his index finger and his thumb, and slowly uncovered the body with sacramental circumspection. Jeremiah de Saint-Amour was completely naked, stiff and twisted, eyes open, body blue, looking fifty years older than the night before. He had luminous pupils, yellowish beard and hair, and an old scar sewn with baling knots across his stomach. The use of crutches had made his torso and arms as broad as a galley slave, but his defenseless legs looked like an orphan’s. (4, my emphasis)

The allusion to a galley slave (galeote, as Christ was called), the scar, and the color of the hair clearly refers to Christ. His death is represented as a sacred act; his holy body should remain untouched, undesecrated after death, or, as Urbino declares, “there was no need for an autopsy” (5). Completing the parody, the narrator discusses the possibility of burying him in consecrated ground: “The only thing he [Urbino] was not willing to do was speak to the Archbishop so that Jeremiah de Saint-Amour could be buried in holy ground. The inspector, astonished at his own impertinence, attempted to make excuses for him. ‘I understood this man was a saint,’ he said” (6, my emphasis). Several allusions to Saint-Amour’s sanctity (already implicit in his very name) are found throughout the discourse of the novel. Urbino describes him as “an atheistic saint” and adds, “But those are matters for God to decide” (6); Urbino is said to be, “glad that the instrument used by Divine Providence for that overwhelming revelation had been Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, whom he had always considered a saint unaware of his own state of grace” (31, my emphasis). References to the unbefittingness of his death are also frequent: “Dr. Urbino had often thought, with no premonitory intention, that this would not be a propitious place for dying in a state of grace. But in time he came to suppose that perhaps its disorder obeyed an obscure determination of Divine Providence” (4). This quotation, besides sacralizing Saint-Amour, alludes to the fictional, coded nature of the novel, showing the self-consciousness of the writer-codemaker-God.

Saint-Amour’s silence, agony, loving relationship with a mulatto woman, his cannibalism, and even the letter he wrote before committing suicide are all to be found in the biblical Jeremiah.15  The secret relationship between Saint-Amour and his lover can be explained by God’s order to the prophet: “You shall not marry a wife; you should have neither son nor daughter in this place” (Jeremiah 16:1-3). Referring to Saint-Amour’s anthropophagy, Urbino says, “But he was nothing more than a fugitive from Cayenne, condemned to life imprisonment for an atrocious crime. . . . Imagine, he had even eaten human flesh” (32). In the Bible, according to the predictions of the prophet, one should obey God’s orders: “These are the words of Host of the God of Israel: Add whole-offerings to sacrifices and eat the flesh if you will” (Jeremiah 7:21-22). The reference to a letter left by Saint-Amour and read only by Urbino coincides with the letter the biblical Jeremiah sent to the exiles (deported from Jerusalem to Babylon) from Jerusalem (Jeremiah 29:1-23).

Not only events in the life of the prophet Jeremiah but his prophecies of the destruction of cities by war are duplicated in the novel; Love in the Time of Cholera predicts that Colombian civil wars, the cholera epidemic, and cultural antagonisms could destroy the country like Jerusalem in the Bible. The word “cholera” in the very title has a double meaning in Spanish: as an epidemic disease and as violent and uncontrolled anger. This double meaning creates multiple possibilities in reading both texts; the “divine cholera” appears in the Bible several times pronounced by Jeremiah with reference to divine injustice, “Will he be angry for ever?  Will he rage eternally?” (Jeremiah 3: 5-6); “The earth quakes under his wrath, nations cannot endure his fury” (Jeremiah 10: 10); “Correct us, O Lord, but with justice, not in anger, lest thou bring us almost to nothing. Pour out thy fury on nations” (Jeremiah 10: 24-25). In the novel, cholera suggest divine rage, an epidemic disease, love and war at the same time. Love is identified with cholera when Florentino Ariza falls ill with diarrhea and green vomit: “he became disoriented and suffered from sudden fainting spells, and his mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of the cholera” (61). Fermina Daza’s intestinal infection—aggravated by anonymous love letters—is similarly confused with cholera. War and cholera, with all their degrading and destructive capacity, are fused in a single image. On a single day as Florentino Ariza is taking a boat trip along the river with the intention of forgetting Fermina Daza: “he saw three bloated, green, human corpses float past, with buzzards sitting on them. First the bodies of two men went by, one of them without a head, and then a very young girl, whose Medusa locks undulated in the boat’s wake. He never knew, because no one ever knew, if they were victims of the cholera or the war, but the nauseating stench contaminated his memory of Fermina Daza” (142, my emphasis). Fermina Daza and Urbino also identify the ravages of war with the cholera epidemic when they first go up in a hot-air balloon. Upon learning of the ravages in Ciénaga Grande Urbino replies,  “Well, it must be a very special form of cholera because every single corpse has received the coup de grace through the back of the neck” (226, 227).

Through the character of Jeremiah de Saint-Amour, García Márquez sends us back to another time and another text: the biblical.16  But what is the meaning of this return?  On one hand, we can say that the author is re-creating the environment of Christian spirituality and Platonic idealism with which Western poetic literature is impregnated as a means of identifying Latin American culture within this context. On the other, he is stressing the reinterpretation of that “original” world and the fictional one, making the reader meditate upon the multiple possible readings of a literary text, including the biblical. If what the prophets herald is a Christian culture whose principle tells us that the truth is well established, it is legitimate for us to read them through our own prejudices, reversing that truth if necessary. García Márquez’s text dramatizes the impossibility of being original (parody is evidence of this) and of possessing the truth, since not even the prophet himself can recover the “original word” (pronounced by God) in answer to the divine word.

Jeremiah de Saint-Amour’s corpse can be seen as a metaphor of the written text (writing as a dead body) in need of being deciphered (interpreted). The parody of his biography constitutes the body of the novel, with the description of wars, prophecies, love, and destruction. The ironic questioning of the two texts destroys the possibility of a single truth.