Writing and the Holy Spirit
The Christian idea of the Holy Spirit is symbolic of the inspiration to write or speak of divine matters. Florentino uses all the resources of romantic tradition to court women: serenades, poems, roses, and above all, love letters. Writing is one of his main strategies, and it ranges from the telegraphic network he controls, to the letters he writes, both personal love letters and letters for illiterate lovers in the Arcade of the Scribes. He also participates as a creative writer in the poetry competition, keeps a secret journal in twenty-five volumes of all his lovers, called Women and writes the Lovers’ Companion in three volumes, full of sample love letters which he has composed, thinking of Fermina. He is described many times as touched by the Holy Spirit when he speaks or writes. When he proposes to Fermina at her husband’s funeral, she thinks perhaps he is mad except she has reason “to believe that at that moment Florentino Ariza was inspired by the grace of the Holy Spirit” (I. 50).
Pentecost, which is “the most important holiday in a city consecrated to the cult of the Holy Spirit” (I. 15) is the day of Dr. Urbino’s death, the day of the entire first section of the book, located in his city (Cartagena, Colombia). Pentecost, meaning the fiftieth day after Easter, commemorates the day when the Holy Spirit descended as “tongues of fire” on the disciples of Christ after his resurrection. Their speech was inspired, and they were urged to go out and spread his message of love. Florentino has a quality of divine madness, a wild excess of love, which often seems inspired to other people. He is charismatic despite his homeliness. When he writes to Fermina after her husband’s death, his letters help her over her grief and give her a reason to go on living.
The Paramaribo parrot in the Urbino household who talks the old man into climbing a ladder and falling to his death on Pentecost, is perhaps a parody, as the Holy Spirit is usually depicted as a bird above the head. Florentino’s verbal inspirations sometimes go astray, such his compulsion to inscribe “this pussy is mine” on Olimpia Zuleta’s stomach, leading to the murder by her husband. Similarly, AmÈrica VicuÒa’s discovery of the love letters of Florentino and Fermina lead her to kill herself. Thus, the word has both its sacred and diabolic consequences.
Love and Cholera
Love and cholera are humorously associated in the book, giving love a life-and-death aspect.
When Florentino Ariza is first courting Fermina Daza, he becomes ill, and his mother is worried. He has the symptoms of diarrhea, green vomit, fainting and disorientation. “His mother was terrified because his condition did not resemble the turmoil of love so much as the devastation of cholera” (II. 61). Even though his pulse is weak and breathing hoarse, he has no fever or pain, only the desire to die. Once Tr·nsito Ariza knows it is love, she encourages him to enjoy the suffering. “She had confused cholera with love” (III. 218).
For Dr. Urbino, cholera symbolizes the weakness of his society that can only be remedied by science. As a boy he had seen the “waterworms” at the bottom of the earthen jars that collect water from the underground cisterns (II. 109). These waterworms were supposedly animes, or supernatural beings, who courted young maidens and inflicted them with the suffering of love. They are in fact, as he learns later, the larvae of mosquitoes that can pass through stone filters, bringing not the vengeance of love but of cholera to the population. The same water causes scrotal hernia in men. He sees men with huge ruptured testicles proud of their masculinity, while what the water needs is mineral enrichment. The bad water of the city that causes disease, is thus connected to superstitions about love.
When Florentino and Fermina take their honeymoon journey in their seventies on the steamship, the only way they can enjoy privacy is to fly the yellow cholera flag from the ship. The flag of plague is transformed into the flag of love and the lovers are left alone to enjoy themselves.
Journeys are used in the novel as metaphors for transformation. The person leaves the boundaries of the normal or everyday setting of the city for more wild territory, or for the more civilized world of Europe, coming back to Cartagena transformed. There is the early journey Fermina is forced to take with her father, so that she will forget about Florentino. It is a dangerous mule trip taking her eastwards across the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta as far as the town of Valledupar, and then on to Riohacha, staying in Indian settlements, open air public dormitories with the Aruac Indians. They arrive at the country villages of her mother’s people who live in a non-civilized chaos, where every day is a fiesta and every house is open. She becomes her spontaneous self on this journey, returning to the city knowing she does not want to marry Florentino.
There is the similar journey on which Florentino is sent by his mother, so that he should forget about Fermina. He is sent to work as a telegraph operator in the old colonial town of Villa de Leiva, more than twenty days journey in the mountains, but he loses his virginity on the way, and then returns, because he cannot bear to be parted from the city of Fermina. He is ever after a hunter of women to erase the pain of his parting from Fermina.
For the Urbinos, Paris is the escape they take to renew themselves. Fermina and Juvenal can only seem to find love and harmony there. They fall in love in Paris on their honeymoon. Both children are conceived there. At home, the Urbinos become divided and stagnated.
Later, there is Fermina’s flight and absence of two years as a result of Urbino’s affair with Barbara Lynch. She passes through her hometown of San Juan de la CiÈnaga, and finds the town transformed by the invasion of the banana company. She returns to her marriage without hope transformed into an old woman.
The final journey up and down the river with Florentino and Fermina reunited combines the ideas of renewal and transformation with death and desolation as the lovers witness the destruction of the river and the land. Florentino wants to remain forever in this borderland, enjoying their love in the time of cholera.
Mirrors, Paintings, Photos, Dreams
Mirrors, photos, paintings and dreams record the visual perceptions or memories of a moment, but are often illusory, distorted, or record what is absent. These images nevertheless yield a surrealistic or subconscious truth to the story. When Urbino goes to the old slave quarter the day of his death he sees the filth it contains and knows the grand old colonial city “was an illusion of memory” (I. 17). The difference between reality and the distorted picture in his mind can be measured. In the same vein, Urbino suggests the city should buy Saint-Amour’s childrens’ photographs “to preserve the images of a generation who might never again be happy outside their portraits” (I. 38). People become miserable when they cannot preserve the images they carry, as when Fermina cannot uphold her nostalgia. The photograph of Fermina and Hildebranda as teenagers dressed in mid-century costumes records their youthful and careless joy. As the photo is seen by many characters over the years, it less and less resembles the joyless Fermina and the fat Hildebranda of later days.
Urbino’s memorial painting after his death as a city father whose memory should be preserved does not really capture him but the absurd moment of his death, falling from a ladder. The portrait is exhibited in many public places and finally burned by a later generation of rebellious students who do not accept that history or aesthetic.
The young Florentino goes out in the boat to find the sunken treasure in the bay, and the water is so calm he “felt as if he were his own reflection in the water” (II. 91). He is full of hope at this moment and lines up with his own conception of himself. At the same time Fermina is on a boat trying return to Florentino, but the wind blows the ship back to its dock, so that she lives a day of hallucination, saying good-by again to her cousins, as though living through the same day twice. She dreams of Florentino who takes off the face he wore because it was a mask, but underneath the real face is the same as the false one. This incident reveals her rejection of him and his sentimentality.
In their seventies, however, she is relieved to find Florentino “old and lame, but real” (VI. 330). He on the contrary, looks in the mirror when he ages and panics to see the baldness, trying to recapture his youthful look by plastering the remaining strands of hair on top of his head. When Florentino goes to a restaurant in middle age, he sees Fermina and her reflection in the restaurant mirror, looking young again. He purchases that mirror as though he can get her and her youth back and preserve the image he sees.
Urbino courts Fermina, getting drunk on anisette with her father and begins hallucinating. Getting into the carriage, he sees his face in the carriage mirror, and even his image “was still thinking of Fermina Daza” (II. 121). Love is shown as a state of drunkenness that distorts reality.