• Alan Bray


Last week, I wrote about narration in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” specifically about the role and function of the narrator, who is an entity probably distinct from the real author of the story, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. This week, let’s look at a further feature of the structure of the narration, the way long narrative statements are interspersed with utterances, usually in quotes.

A typical example occurs on page 163 of the Modern Library edition. Fermina Daza and her cousin Hildebranda Sanchez have emerged from the “Belgian’s” photography studio to find themselves cornered by a derisive crowd. Suddenly a carriage forces its way through the mob to where the women are—it is Dr. Urbino offering rescue! The passage that describes this sequence is three-quarters of a page in length. Then a new paragraph appears in quotation marks.

‘Please get in,’ said Dr. Juvenal Urbino. ‘I will take you wherever you want to go.’

Then the narrator resumes his description of the scene. There is no quoted speech again for two long paragraphs.

What is going on here? This structure appears again and again. The narrator’s voice—the storyteller’s voice—tells the reader the story, in an authoritative way, about what has happened. And then one of the characters makes a comment which furthers things along but may contain innuendo and the unexpected. In the above example, the Doctor is—to put it politely—courting Fermina Daza. (Trying to pick her up?) And his utterance—that he will take her wherever she wants to go is a statement not just about the carriage ride but about life itself in the vehicle of marriage.

By the way, what is the difference between a statement and an utterance? A statement is a definite expression of something in speech or writing. An utterance is a spoken word, a vocal sound. Which of these two modes are “truer”—the narrator’s version, beautiful and longwinded, or the character’s uttering things? The narrator decides when to report these utterances but they don’t seem to be in the narrator’s voice. The utterances often use the pronoun “I,” whereas the storyteller usually does not, sometimes making use of “we” or “our.” The narrator is quite self-assured, and the voices express their own assurance..

Fermina Daza says, ‘What do you expect, Doctor? This is the first time I have slept with a stranger.’

Huh, are those single quotation marks? Why? It could be a matter of style, standard British style tends to use single quotation marks for quoted speech. American style tends to use doubles—when single quotation marks are used, they refer to a quotation within a quotation. And, the Modern Library edition is printed in New York and translated by Edith Grossman, who is…American.

But “Love in the Time of Cholera” was written in Spanish. The detective finds that in the original, Garcia Marquez used this punctuation for quoted speech— -Pendejo -le dijo-. Ya lo peor había pasado. (This is the first time this structure appears—Ms. Grossman translates it a little differently, and adds the single quotation marks instead of using Garcia Marquez’s original dashes).

Wait…wait—does this indicate that the whole story is quoted speech? Is the storyteller supposed to be speaking, so that when she/he quotes one of the characters, it’s appropriately in single quotes? There’s no indication of this in the original Spanish.

Help! I just fell down the rabbit hole again.

Steady—it could be that this just means the storyteller is quoting real utterances she/he has heard. Uh—no, if that’s what it means, double quotes should be used. Well, Ms. Grossman knows far more than I do about translation—she had something in mind here in the way she punctuated the story in English.

All we can do is consider what effect it has for the reader. It adds to the sense that—by reading—the reader is being “told” a story. Is it meant to express derision on the narrator’s part? Poking fun at the characters by putting their utterances in single quotes the way one might make air quotes in a conversation? It would be like telling a story about someone and saying, “Did you hear what he said? Unbelievable.” (please note double quotes).

Maybe, but I think “Cholera” could be compared more to a big family dinner where everyone is sitting at the table and Uncle Gabriel is telling one of his stories and it’s wonderful. Then, at certain points, the people that the story is about actually appear and say things. You can’t speak to them or get their attention; you can’t question what they say. And they say whatever is on their minds. It’s as if they exist in a different time period and are appearing for a moment in three dimensions. Holograms, ghosts. I believe we are encountering two different narrative modes here, each dependent on the other to tell the tale. Both are true; both are necessary. The effect is that of the narrator telling the story and gracefully making occasional space for the characters to comment on what she/he is telling. The narrator doesn’t comment on their comments; she/he allows them room and goes on. And the characters “allow” the narrator to do this.