Despite annoying people on a fairly regular basis throughout my degree [and beyond!] the only time I was concerned about getting into bother was during the Feminism module. We were studying a lady whose name I can’t recall but I do remember the gist of her theory which was that all copulation between a man and a woman involves subjugation. She maintained that regardless of consent, position, and even if the woman in question is calling all the shots and being the aggressor, purely by virtue of being penetrated by a man she is being demeaned. She claimed this is the case because the man is actively giving his penis and the woman is passively receiving it. Well, my jaw hit the floor and my eyebrows shot to the roof. I was shocked, and disgusted, by how ready people were to accept this idea, to not want to challenge it. Now, if you’ve read a chunk of my reviews you’ll know I’m no sexist pig, that I don’t advocate the subjugation of women, and that, in fact, I feel like society still has a long long way to go before women are given the respect they deserve. I hate all violence, but particularly that towards women, especially sexually motivated violence, so much so that I refuse to watch or read anything with rape in it, and had my girlfriend turn off The Killer Inside Me because I had absolutely no desire to watch a woman being beaten half to death. So, I say from a standpoint of the greatest empathy that this woman is/was [I’ve no idea whether she’s still alive] absolutely bats and her theory utter bullshit.
First of all, she appeared to completely misunderstand, or conveniently disregard, human biology. What I mean by this is that when any couple has sex, regardless of the dynamic of their relationship, it is necessary that there will be giving and receiving; it’s just the way our bodies are made. That’s not a lifestyle choice, it’s a fact. If you want to focus specifically on penetration, as she did, then how on earth is a man meant to have penetrative sex with a woman without actually, er, putting his penis in her? Ludicrous. She was basically saying that women should forsake sex, or, and this is where we get to the meat of the matter, all heterosexual sex. But, even though the woman herself is/was a lesbian, her own theory, when applied to lesbian sex, is still problematic-slash-ridiculous. In lesbian sex there is still giving and receiving, passive and active; there’s simply no other way of doing the business. Furthermore, I have known/know plenty of lesbians, and none of them, in my understanding, have forsaken all forms of penetration; and, well, to be penetrated by anyone and with anything – be that a penis, fingers or a can of coke – a woman [or a man!] is receiving that thing into themselves.
Secondly, it’s a strange form of feminism [for me] that wants to say I know you might enjoy this, and I know you’ve consented to it, and no one is being hurt, but actually you’re being abused without knowing it. Whatever happened to a woman knowing her own mind, making her own choices, and having autonomy over her own body? In my opinion, this lady’s theory is the opposite of feminism, because it is the opposite of empowering. Anyway, I raised these points and I wrote an essay accusing the feminist in question [whose conclusion was, indeed, that the only non-abusive sex is between two women] of lesbian propaganda [not that there’s anything wrong with lesbianism. Or lesbian propaganda. Just don’t try and dress it up as feminism].
You’re wondering, I’m sure, what any of this has to do with Love in the Time of Cholera. Well, in preparation for writing this I had a look at a big bunch of reviews all over the web. And a lot of them, written by women, objected to the central male character, finding him immoral and sexist, with particular reference to his amorous exploits. He sleeps with over 600 women, and, apparently, this makes him a bad man and Garcia Marquez’s book somewhat dubious and disgusting and, well, offensive to women. I can’t help but believe that the same kind of wrong-headed thinking is going on with this as I found with the feminist theory I spoke about earlier, by which I mean that it’s a kind of inverse-feminism masquerading as genuine feminism. Florentino does not abuse*, or force any of these women. In fact, the women are shown to be sexually liberated; if they are objectified by him, it is because they want to be; likewise, they are not having sex in order to snare a man, or because they want attention or because they have been tricked or cajoled. They are doing it because they enjoy it, because they want to. I really cannot fathom how that is objectionable. It seems to me that some people’s perceptions of sex are so skewed, so messed up, that they think that women are incapable of truly wanting sex only for its own sake, that sex as fun, or in some cases simply sex itself, is purely a male province. Thing is, some women just like cock, want cock [not all the time, I’m not saying that]; these reviewers [and our feminist friend] appear to be incapable of understanding that, or are unwilling to. So, yeah, Florentino has sex with a lot of women in this book. If that bothers you, you’re probably better off not reading it.
Of course, sex is only part of the narrative. Love, ageing, and death are Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s other main themes. The author explores how all four of these things ‘play off’ each other, how they are connected to each other, and does so in such a fascinating and, ultimately, moving way. Love in the Time of Cholera is essentially the story of three people; it is, I guess, a kind of love triangle, although not a traditional one. The story begins with an old married couple, Juvenal and Fermina. Juvenal is a doctor and he has been called to preside over the body of his friend, who has committed suicide. This friend took his life because he didn’t want to get old; indeed, we’re told that it was always his aim to die at sixty. Juvenal is even older, and is deteriorating significantly. He can’t dress himself, his memory is impaired, and so on. Fermina is in better shape, and she has become a kind of surrogate mother to her husband. I found all this incredibly moving. Even more moving is how the couple are, yes, able to annoy and irritate each other, how they no longer possess anything like a passionate love, but instead enjoy a kind of comfortable affection for each other.
After the opening chapter we are transported back in time in order to follow the lives, and loves, of the major players. Here we are shown how Fermina, as a young girl, is courted by Florentino and then Juvenal. For a while I was reminded of Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, in that it seems that she will have to chose between domesticity and affection [Juvenal] and a grand relentless intense passionate love [Florentino]. I’m not sure that is the case, however, because Fermina doesn’t overlook one for the other [there is no real overlap], she is simply a woman living her life, exercising her will, and making her choices on their own merits. In this way, her behaviour is much more like what you would expect from a male character in these kind of stories. Indeed, one of the most interesting things about the book is the subverting of what you may consider the traditional roles in love. Fermina is the steadfast one, the one who is more practical, more level-headed and down to earth; it is she who rejects Florentino [quite on a whim, it seems] and it is her choice to take up with Juvenal [his wooing has absolutely no effect]. While Fermina is strong and almost calculating, Florentino is giddy, romantic, and emotional. Is is the man who cannot get over the end of the affair, who pines and flings himself into encounters with other people in an effort to find there some consolation [it is especially interesting that it is the man who is, in this scenario, often used by the women he sleeps with. They, in most cases, want fun and good times, he is the one bringing an emotional neediness to the event].
Throughout the novel Garcia Marquez seems to be exploring the question of what is love? Is Florentino in love with Fermina? Possibly. Yet, they hardly spoke a word to each other during the courtship, and shared no physical encounters, so it would seem a superficial sort of love if that is what it is. Bearing this in mind, one could claim, and many do, that in reality Florentino is obsessed with Fermina, or infatuated. In my arrogance I believe one cannot love someone who doesn’t love you, so I am sympathetic to that idea. For those skeptical of Florentino’s feelings, it is interesting to note that Garcia Marquez presents him as someone with a predilection for crappy sentimental romantic poetry; so one could perhaps see him almost as a Don Quixote figure i.e. someone influenced by his reading to such an extent that he is more in love with the idea of an elaborate, all-consuming love than the actual woman herself. However, it is also true to say that Florentino’s love for Fermina is no more ridiculous, no more superficial than what one often encounters in novels.
In any case, I do not think, as some claim, that his seeking solace, or pure enjoyment even, in the arms of other women following Fermina’s rejection means that he can’t love her. Not only is that absurd, because it suggests that one should never have sex again after a loving relationship, but it shows that one has totally misunderstood not only Florentino [who hasn’t simply forgotten about his sweetheart but is said to be having all these affairs in an effort to fill the gap left by her, and to pass the time until she is available again] but humanity in general. Christ, I’ve been there myself; I’ve, in fact, had sex with someone hours after breaking up with a girl I loved. Why? Well, for lots of reasons, not limited to, but including: still having a penis and testicles that draw me to attractive women, being able to compartmentalise my feelings, and so on. But maybe I am a bad man too? You certainly wouldn’t be the first to say that.
One can also ask the question, do Juvenal and Fermina love each other? Their marriage was perhaps one of convenience, in the beginning at least. Certainly Juvenal admits to himself during the honeymoon that he doesn’t, at that stage, love his wife. Do they grow to love each other? It’s debatable. Juvenal cheats on Fermina and Fermina forgets her husband not long after his death. And yet both say they do/did love each other, and I’d be inclined to believe them, because love isn’t a straightforward feeling that adheres to strict criteria [I often need to remind myself of this too]. Indeed, I think the writer’s main point is that love is a messy, complex, maybe wholly subjective phenomena. That is what is so funny about all the reviewers trying to make definitive statements about the feelings and relationships of the main characters in the book. X does not love Y and here’s the evidence these reviewers say. And Garcia Marquez would maybe respond: how do you know? How can you possibly make that judgement? These reviewers are trying to force love to move along logical lines, and it doesn’t.
Garcia Marquez’s writing is, I’d like to point out before concluding this overly long review, entirely wonderful. He admitted, I think, to being influenced by the great Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, and you can see that influence most clearly in Cholera. Carpentier wrote in a baroque style, a sensual style engorged with colour and teeming with life. Cholera is like that too; it’s heady and breathtaking. Garcia Marquez also writes with affection and insight and has a fine sense of humour; Juvenal’s and Fermina’s argument over the soap being a good example of his wit [There was soap is the funniest line in the book. You’ll know what I mean by this when you read it]. Yet, perhaps his greatest gift is to be able to compose memorable, utterly charming, scenes, like Florentino writing love letters for the locals and, when approached by a boy and a girl, finding himself writing to and from himself! Then there is the parrot death scene. And Florentino’s search for sunken treasure. Make no mistake, Love in the time of Cholera is a beautiful, intelligent book. Oprah called it the finest love story ever told, and for challenging our ideas about what love is, for giving us love in so many of its forms, and for showing us love in all its incomprehensibility, its mind and soul fuckery, I’d say that’s about right.
* Florentino does at one point have sex with a 14 year old girl. That’s certainly not something I want to defend or justify. You could say that the point of this affair is to showcase just how sad and desperate, how out of touch with reality, Florentino has become in his long and lustful wait for Fermina, but it isn’t presented in the text that way at all, although it does take place towards the end. You could, also, perhaps argue, and this is mentioned in the text, that the girl, much like with Humbert and Lolita, reminds him not only of his childhood sweetheart, but also of his own youth. Maybe, maybe. This paragraph isn’t included in my review as I don’t think this affair with the girl is the basis for most reviewer’s objections; of course some mention it, and deride it [rightly], but it is all of Florentino’s behaviour that is labelled immoral and evidence of Garcia Marquez’s unappealing attitudes towards women. And I don’t agree with that.
NB: It is worth pointing out that the two passages in the book that I did have a problem with are so seldom mentioned in reviews. One is the author’s attitude towards other races, particularly in a section when a Chinese boy wins a poetry competition. His description of Chinese people, and their behaviour, is pretty rum, pretty offensive. Fuck you for that, Gabito. The second passage I disliked [disliked being an understatement] involves a woman who was once raped. It is explained how she is in love with her attacker, even though she doesn’t know who he is or what he looks like. Is Garcia Marquez trying to make a point about how blind, how impossibly stupid love can be? Who knows. But I will say this: fuck off with that shit; fuck right off.