Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

In any event, it was difficult for him to comprehend that two free adults without a past and living on the fringes of a closed society’s prejudices had chosen the hazards of illicit love. She explained: ‘It was his wish.’ Moreover, a clandestine life shared with sa man who was never completely hers, and in which they often knew the sudden explosion of happiness, did not seem to her a condition to be despised. On the contrary: life had shown her that perhaps it was exemplary.

It was this or One Hundred Years of Solitude. Still re-reading my  library while I continue to debate whether I jump to a kindle, I decided to follow the cerebral dry wit of Jose Saramago with the warm sumptuous pleasure of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In the end Love in the Time of Cholera won partly, as I have a feeling, completely wrong I have no doubt, that when I read the first sentence of One Hundred Years I will remember the whole book and not be able to continue. Also, I wanted to read a love story, for various reasons

Apart from the fact that my thought is absurd, reading Love in the Time of Cholera again has proved that my fear is completely unfounded. Despite the fact I have struggled to get into a reading mood while actually reading, I have enjoyed Love in the Time of Cholera much more the second time around. The story of Love that literally lasts a lifetime, as Florentino Ariza nurses his unyielding love for the first woman of his life, Fermina Daza. Despite an immature relationship Fermina goes on to marry the elegant and well respected Dr Juvenal Urbino and Florentino loves from afar.

The story twirls around in your hands, as it charts the lives of the three main protagonists and as it turns the perceptions that Floretino and Fermina have of each other and the situation they are each in changes and is revealed to the reader, but not always to them, so that while at the beginning you see one facet of a relationship, as the book continues Garcia Marquez turns you to another view and you see a different one, and slowly the truth emerges, in the middle of the layers of pages you peel away. I don’t remember this on the first read and it adds a completely different dimension to the simple yet powerful story of unrequited love.

As Florentino Ariza tries to replace Fermina with an impressive number of other women, he eventually realises that he can’t, and while they provide a kaleidoscope of distractions to his slow burning love, none of them can extinguish it. Meanwhile Fermina and Dr Urbino at various times enjoy and work at their domestic life as they creep into old age together.

Dr Juvenal Urbino is not a perfect husband by any means, but is a product of his time, and pushed by the developments of a Europe well ahead of his Caribbean city he is a likeable, if fallible character that the reader becomes softly attached to at the beginning. Reasoned and caring, his faithful wife preserving him gently with her love and thoughtfulness, in a beautiful tender portrait of what it is to love.

He recognised her despite the uproar, through his tears of unrepeatable sorrow at dying without her, and he looked at her for the last and final time with eyes more luminous, more grief-stricken, more grateful than she had ever seen them in half a century of a shared life, and he managed to say to her with his last breath:
‘Only God knows how much I loved you.’

The introduction of Florention Ariza is not quite the same, he arrives surreptitiously at the funeral and in my mind behaves appallingly within the first few pages of his entrance, what was he thinking? Even as the story unfolds and his life long love is revealed in all it’s passionate, twisted and wrenching truth, I can barely forgive him for his inopportune imprudence.

In the middle of the two is Fermina Daza, an incredible woman who Garcia Marquez paints almost with pleasure, who has very few flaws, and even these are only revealed when drawn out by the men in her life. While she never has to choose, as the story reveals the lives of the two men you come to realise that she needs neither of them, a fiercely strong willed woman who’s pride is as strong as her love.

After the fuss kicked up over Garcia Marquez’s last novel, memories of my melancholy whores, it is strange that Love in the time of Cholera is not mentioned in the same vein, given Florentino Ariza’s last dalliance, with a ward of his who again is too young. Maybe people don’t remember, maybe because of it’s classic status it has become untouchable. It was something I don’t remember from the first time, but which made me feel uncomfortable reading it now, particularly given the outcome, which almost feels an irrelevance when it occurs. I wonder if he were alive, if Marquez would write the same storyline again.

However, Love in the Time of Cholera is a timeless tale, and one which by the end I had immersed into, so that not even the aberration of Florentino’s last affair and his behaviour at the funeral, or of Fermina’s implacable pride, could make me begrudge their twilight happiness. The strength of love, and crucially, of loving and being in love, which as the story, and indeed life shows, are two different things, is something that can affect everyone everywhere, and thanks to Garcia Marquez’s wonderful story telling, it’s as if you witness it from your hammock on the patio, with the sea rolling in the background and with a warm Caribbean breeze blowing the pages.

That, along with so many other ephemeral images in the course of so many years, would suddenly appear to Florentino Ariza at the whim of fate, and disappear again in the same way, leaving behind a throb of longing in his heart. Taken together, they marked the passage of his life, for he experienced the cruelty of time not so much in his own flesh as in the imperceptible changes he discerned in Fermina Daza each time he saw her.

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The Earthquake Bird – Susanna Jones

I took a small step forward so that the tips of my shoes entered the water and were reflected over the hotel. He didn’t look up. He shifted round the puddle with the camera against his eye all the time. Then he shot the picture, including my feet. I kept my position and he lifted his head to look at me. His eyes sesarched my face as if he couldn’t quite find what he wanted. He put his camera back to his eye and looked at me through the viewfinder, like a child peering through an empty toilet roll tube to see the world in another way.

So I have to admit, crime fiction, I just don’t get it. It’s at best, formulaic, and at worst, formulaic. I know that’s an sweeping generalisation, but aside from celebrity memoirs, there isn’t a genre that completely fails to interest me like crime fiction. Someone disappears, dies, or both (in either order) and someone else tries to work out whodunnit, not restricted to but including an ageing-flawed-crossed-the-tracks-a-few-times-grizzled-veteran cop. There are obviously some great crime writers and I know it’s a huge genre, it’s just not my bag. So, why did I read The Earthquake Bird, a whodunnit focused not around the cop, but someone who mighthavedunnit? It was a gift, and I hoped the setting in Japan would lift it from the monotony of a crime novel.

Sadly it didn’t. Jones’s prose is sparse and functional, and in this novel, because of the setting, seems almost Murakami-light. There is the same randomness of the actions and descriptions of the characters, which borders slightly on the unbelievable, yet never quite becoming absurd, which is a neat trick, but does leave me feeling that Japan in literature is, well, just a little bit weird.

I didn’t like Lucy, the narrator, at any point during the book, did not warm to her, did not feel anything but a mild annoyance towards her. While it was obvious she did not commit murder, Susanna Jones deserves credit for creating a protagonist that is almost completely unlikeable, I read on in a vain hope I might understand why on earth she kept suddenly referring to herself in the third person while recollecting her stories. I expect there was a reason but I couldn’t muster the interest to work it out. I also didn’t get the connection between her life story, and the crime, it was like a memoir written on the wall of an interrogation room because she happened to be there at the time. Take away the corpse and it could of been on a bus station wall.

While I didn’t completely guess who committed the murder, it was mostly because I didn’t care. Although I did see the major event between the 3 characters coming a mile off. I rushed through the 260 odd pages in one evening not to confirm what I thought, but to get the book out of the way.

So that’s it really, I don’t really like writing negative reviews, I considered following the saying if you don’t have anything nice to say say nothing at all, but it would have made something of a short review. I’m happy to admit my own prejudices against the genre might have clouded me, and I’ve barrelled past the nuances that such books contain, but you can’t love ’em all.

There is a moment of quiet. Then, a rustling in the trees as if someone is creeping toward the house. My skin turns cold. I am absolutely still. I tell myself it’s the neighbours’ dog but I know dogs don’t creep. My mouth is dry. And then I hear it. The unmistakable sound of a camera clicking. The whirr that follows it as the film winds on for the next shot. I look for Teiji but see only trees and bushes.

The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux

Neither an explorer nor a hitch-hiker; no rucksack, no compass. Just a tidy little suitcase and small gold-rimmed glasses covered with dust, an empty Pepsi bottle and a sandwich wrapper, sitting with Teutonic uprightness through the tumbling hinterland of Chiapas. His map was small, he had no other book, he did not drink beer. In a word, a skinflint.

Paul Theroux, author, traveller, grumpy old man. Even though he made this trip in 1978, when he wasn’t so old. It’s what I love about him, he judges fellow passengers with acerbic wit yet at the same time tempers his complaints about the grind of travel with the the enjoyment he gets from it’s many pleasures.

Another re-read to tide me over until some fresh words, the whole premise of The Old Patagonian Express was to track a train in his native Boston and to travel as far south as he could. There was no set itinerary, just a world train timetable and an ultimate destination of as far south as possible. Starting in a freezing Boston buried in snow, Theroux boards a commuter train and just keeps going. He passes through pretty much everywhere, never staying for more than a couple of days, unless waiting for a connection, this is Theroux travelling on his love of train journeys. The simple relaxing pleasures, even when stuck on a train in Mexico for hours on end, a simple beer stretched out on the empty benches of his car as the sun goes down makes up for the hours of interminable boredom, the realisation that at times the drudgery of the journey has taken his enjoyment of the scenery away, yet at others he finds it uplifting:

It is not often that one gets a view like this in a train and it was so beautiful that I could forget the heat and the dust, the broken seats, and was uplifted by the sight of the hills way down and the nearer hills of coffee and bamboo. For the next half-hour of this descent, it was an aerial railway diving across hills of purest green.

As usual he talks to as many people as he can, finding the Guatemalans taciturn yet the Salvadorean’s more open and friendly. The football match in San Salvador between El Salvador and Mexico is a highlight, as it descends into farce and violence. More often than not it seems the train is abhorred, the quicker, more comfortable bus a preferable alternative to all those that can afford it’s modernity. Unfortunately that doesn’t include Mr Thornberry, one of the more famous travelling companions Theroux has met. Despite his clear loathing of Thornberry, it is this old man that rescues Theroux when he has nowhere to sleep, even if it means turning in at nine pm.

There is a jump to South America, and indeed there are a few times when Theroux just appears in the next country seemingly without touching a rail. He settles into Quito and has to pull himself away from the parties and colonial churches as he treks through Peru and Bolivia down to Argentina. Another highlight is the time he spends with Borges, reading to the author and going to dinner with him before the final stretch of his journey to Esquel.

Despite it’s age, The Old Patagonian Express still reads well, Theroux is best when on the move and he writes this simple trip extended across a continent with wit and a keen eye, that leaves you wishing the line went just that bit further.

…it ought to be possible to make your way by road through Nicaragua, if only to judge how much reckless exaggeration there is in the commonly held view that Nicaragua is the worst eyesore in the world: the hottest, the poorest, the most savagely governed, with a murderous landscape and medieval laws and disgusting food. I had hoped to verify this. The inhospitable country, like the horrible train ride, has a way of bringing a heroic note to the traveller’s tale.

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