The Chastened Narrator
I have spoken at tedious length about the narrator’s voice in “Love in the Time of Cholera,” best beloved. (I’ve been wanting to write “best beloved” all along—a favorite Kipling reference). It is an authoritative voice, sure of itself—the narrator is never in doubt as to her/his grasp of the story and characters. And the narrator is not Garcia Marquez, best beloved, just as the person writing this post—who has been described by a friend as a landowner in the New Hampshire countryside—is not “Alan Bray”—the entity who is telling this story.
I believe this unnamed and undescribed narrator takes human form and is finally humbled in his efforts to dictate the story of love in the time of cholera. This human is Captain Diego Samaritano, the commander of the riverboat that Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza take to cruise the Magdalena River, and it is Florentino Ariza who humbles him.
Captain Samaritano (Samaritan—a reference to the biblical Samaritan who aids the injured traveler) appears in the last thirty pages of the story. He is described as a giant, with a stentorian voice, always dressed immaculately in the uniform of the R.C.C. establishment. He immediately senses the fragility of Fermina and Florentino, rescuing them from the awkwardness of being ageing sweethearts, nurturing their love. Initially, Fermina didn’t like him, but was touched by the story of how he cared for the manatees, going to jail for six months for marooning the gringo who killed one.
When Fermina expresses concern over a woman who is seen on the shore, the Captain explains that she is the ghost of a drowned woman, and Fermina “had no doubt that she did not exist, but her face seemed familiar.” (Interesting).
Now, best beloved, I am not saying that all along, it has been Captain Samaritano who has been narrating the story. No. I am saying at the end, the narrator assumes human form.
Florentino and Fermina consummate their love for each other physically and are reluctant to end the cruise—it is an enchanted space where they can be lovers. They want to put the other passengers ashore and continue on their own. The Captain explains (he does that a lot) that the only way to do that would be to fly the yellow cholera flag, and in the first sign of Florentino’s power, Florentino says, ‘Let’s do that, then.’
“The Captain was taken by surprise, but then, with the instinct of an old fox, he saw everything clearly. ‘I command on this ship,, but you command us,’ he said. ‘So if you are serious, give me the order in writing and we will leave right now.” Of course, in a book, things have to be given in writing.
The passengers are put ashore, the yellow cholera flag is flown. The Captain takes on board his lover, and the steamboat—existing now in a different time of cholera—cruises on with two cases of love on board.
Then, when they reach the city, the authorities tell them the ship must be placed in quarantine, and the Captain is furious—with himself—raging that he has gotten them all into a bad situation.
He must decide what to do. The Captain, Fermina thinks, ‘was their destiny.’
“Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza looked at him without speaking, as if waiting on a school bench to hear their final grades. They had not exchanged a word during the conversation with the health patrol, nor did they have the slightest idea of what would become of their lives, but they both knew that the Captain was thinking for them; they could see it in the throbbing of his temples.”
Yes, they don’t know what will become of their lives because up to this point, the narrator has had this knowledge—of their destiny. Up to this point, the narrator has remained in charge of the story.
But now the steadfast narrator is finally humbled. Florentino sees the complete circle of the quadrant on the mariner’s compass. He utters, ’Let us keep going, going, going, back to La Dorado.”
The Captain is stupefied by Florentino Ariza’s tremendous powers of inspiration. “Do you mean what you say?”
“From the moment I was born…I have never said anything I did not mean.”
The Captain was overwhelmed by the belated suspicion that it is life, more than death, that has no limits. (The story is revealed to have no limits).
‘And how long do you think we can keep up this goddamm coming and going?’
The Captain/narrator is overwhelmed and silenced; his job has ended, and the great novel itself ends on a very open note. There will be no more explanation—it is up to the reader to decide for her/himself what becomes of these characters.