Where and When
Last week, I was writing about how a story instructs the reader as to how it should be read, looking in detail at the first line of “Love in the Time of Cholera.” Today, I want to examine how Garcia Marquez does this, specifically related to cues regarding where and when the story takes place. And offer some thoughts on how this affects the reading.
As far as I can tell, Garcia Marquez doesn’t specify till the reader is well into things when “Love In the Time of Cholera” takes place, or for that matter where, although the local references may be completely obvious to people from Columbia. (I think it’s in Cartagena). But nothing heavy-handed. No title in the first section, saying—CARTAGENA 1913. CARTAGENA IS A CITY IN COLUMBIA. COLUMBIA IS A COUNTRY IN CENTRAL AMERICA.
The first mention of a place occurs in paragraph one—Dr. Urbino attends the corpse of the “Antillean refugee” Jeremiah de Saint-Amour. The Antilles are a group of Caribbean islands, which include Barbados, Cuba, and Haiti–but this really doesn’t tell the reader much. A refugee could go anywhere.
Dr. Urbino’s appearance is described on the third page, and this gives a strong cue that the story is set in the past. A “silver-handled cane, a “linen suit, with a gold watch chain across his vest.” “His Pasteur beard.” (This last reference presumes the reader has some knowledge of Pasteur’s beard and of Pasteur himself—otherwise it makes no sense). In any case, this is not a contemporary appearance, even for an old man.
Other particular words and expressions are more subtle cues that one is reading a story set in the past. In Jeremiah’s “parlor,” there is a “huge camera on wheels like the ones used in public parks.” Dr. Urbino’s “bookseller in Paris” mails him books to read—so the reader knows the Doctor is not in Paris, and a bookseller mailing books to someone is a rare contemporary event. In general, the language and style of the writing refers to an earlier time—more on this below.
Then on page fourteen of the edition I’m reading (Modern Library) we find, “at eighty-one years of age” the Doctor is still much as he was when he returned from Paris “soon after the great cholera epidemic,…” And on the next page, there is a description of the types of horse-drawn carriages Dr. Urbino favored, and that he continued to use one “…when carriages had already begun to disappear from the world.”
If you are curious, you can “google” “great Paris cholera epidemic” and discover that it occurred in 1832 and claimed 7,000 lives. So, Dr. Urbino was in Paris around 1832 and is—in the book’s present—eighty-one. Thus, the year is roughly 1913.
Finally on page eighteen, mention is made of the “city of the Viceroys,”—by inference, I believe, the city where the story has been taking place. Again, “google” this, and you learn that the city is…fictional, but very similar to Cartagena, Columbia.
I hope this pleasant exercise demonstrates that Garcia Marquez was in no hurry to identify where and when his story occurs.
Wait—wait! Of course the reader brings some knowledge to her/his reading. Many people reading “Cholera” have heard things about it—that it’s set in a Latin American country, that it was originally written in Spanish, and that it’s laid in the past. (funny expression). The title itself—“Love in the Time of Cholera”—communicates very basically that the story is a tale of love set during a particular cholera epidemic—THE Time of Cholera, not A Time of Cholera. Maybe Garcia Marquez assumed this readerly knowledge and figured he didn’t have to spell it out.
I believe he delayed explicit cues regarding time and place on purpose because he wanted the reader to be more deeply involved in the reading; the story seduces the reader into participation in itself. Because everything isn’t accounted for and closed, the reader’s Imagination is more intensely engaged, freer to make her/his own meanings. The story is not a direct communication of existing knowledge—a history, nor a story about real people. What is it then? What’s its point? I’ll have to get into that later.
One of the things I feel as I read “Cholera” is that I’m being told a story by a storyteller who lived close in time to the characters and events—rather than being aware of reading a novel written in nineteen-eighty-three by someone named Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
It is an illusion I want to believe. I have been seduced.
When I was a lad, there was a genre of comic books that presented “classic” stories—"The Three Musketeers,” “Tom Sawyer,” etc. My mother found these acceptable for me to read—in contrast to the forbidden Marvel superhero opus.
“Cholera” would not be a successful comic book. It is too open. Maybe a graphic novel.