Here’s that first line again—"It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.” The reader opens “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and the first page presents her/him with a charming puzzle—who is speaking? Whose is the voice that tells the story—the storyteller’s voice?
Let’s consider the suspects.
Is it one of the main characters—Dr. Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza, or Florentino Ariza? Nope—because the narrator is able to report on the actions of all the characters, as well as their thoughts and feeling, and do this over a period of seventy plus years.
For the same reason, it can’t be one of the minor characters.
Is it the author of the book, Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Some might say—duh, of course, he wrote the book, so he must be the narrator. Yeah, I always assume the author is the one telling the story—who else could it be?
Last week, the detective figured out that the present-time of the story is in 1913. We know Garcia Marquez wrote the novel in the early 1980’s. The narrator speaks of “we,” and “us,” and seems to be referring to events that have recently occurred, so it appears the narrator is a different entity than Marquez, an entity who is aware of the events of the lives of Dr. Urbino, Fermina Daza, and Florentino Ariza, over a nearly seventy-year period, and can also see inside them to report on their thoughts and feelings. The narrator can also do this with most of the other characters. An entity that Marquez created, someone who is apparently a resident of “our” city and has access to people’s inner lives.
What? How could that be? Does the story tell itself? No the narrator tells it. Really? But the narrator is a fictional character in the story. My head hurts.
True art conceals art.
Last time, I wrote that the reader is seduced into believing that Garcia Marquez is not telling the story, that it’s an unnamed narrator who, by the way, is never mistaken—more on that below, my friends.
So, the narrator of “Love in the Time of Cholera” is an entity in the story, unnamed, who tells the story of the named characters, getting inside their skins. What effect does this narrative style have?
Let’s try to answer this by considering alternatives—taking the first two sentences as an example. If the story were written in first person: “It was inevitable, I thought: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded me of the fate of unrequited love. I noticed it as soon as I entered the still darkened house…” This might actually work, the rest of the prose is so magnificent. But problems would arise quickly—how could a first-person narrator “know” the hearts and minds of the other characters? How could such a narrator “know” about situations in which they were not physically present? Well, there are ways—more illusion—but another time. Actually, the narrator in “Cholera” writes in first person—or second. “…Jeremiah de Saint-Amour could become what he was among us.”
Or if it were written in third person: “It was inevitable, he thought: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love. He noticed it as soon as he entered the still darkened house…” Okay, again, this could work for parts of the story, but still, a character described in this way would not know the hearts and minds of the other characters.
No, an omniscient narrator entity works well, especially when the story gets to the long description of the city and of Dr. Urbino’s house. If the story were told from say, Dr. Urbino’s first- or third-person point of view, he would have to enter a long reverie to describe things. “I was riding in my carriage and thought about the suffocating gases of the marshes, how the old slave quarters were built from weathered boards and zinc roofs.” No! Why would he notice such things, things he would probably take for granted and not notice. It would make Dr. Urbino a different character. Awkward.
The chosen narrative style allows the real author to present a great number of stories—episodes—about different characters that, taken together, weave the whole story together. The reader gets to know Fermina, Dr. Urbino, and Florentino, in depth. In fact, the structure of the story, having two characters essentially separated for their adult lives, needs a narrator who can tell about both. An alternative would be to present the story in first or third person sections—say, first, a Fermina section, then, page break, a Florentino section. Actually the narrator would still be there but tucked further away.
Another effect—style. I alluded to this last time, but today, let’s consider it in a new context. The narrative style of “apparently omniscient narrator” refers to an older style, when stories always had a narrator character, a story teller. Think of “Don Quixote,” or Stendhal. And “Cholera” is a tale from the past—isn’t it? (More seduction here). Using this narrative style gives the story a feel of having been written in the past when it really wasn’t.
I say “apparently omniscient narrator” because it’s worth considering—does the narrator really know everything? Could it be that the characters trick the narrator, that they don’t reveal everything? Florentino, for instance, is a pretty slippery guy.
I guess we’ll never know.