Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 23)
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Fermina Daza, always resistant to the demands of fashion, brought back six trunks of clothing from different periods, for the great labels did not convince her. She had been in the Tuileries in the middle of winter for the launching of the collection by Worth, the indisputable tyrant of haute couture, and the only thing she got was a case of bronchitis that kept her in bed for five days. Laferrière seemed less pretentious and voracious to her, but her wise decision was to buy her fill of what she liked best in the secondhand shops, although her husband swore in dismay that it was corpses’ clothing. In the same way she brought back quantities of Italian shoes without brand names, which she preferred to the renowned and famous shoes by Ferry, and she brought back a parasol from Dupuy, as red as the fires of hell, which gave our alarmed social chroniclers much to write about. She bought only one hat from Madame Reboux, but on the other hand she filled a trunk with sprigs of artificial cherries, stalks of all the felt flowers she could find, branches of ostrich plumes, crests of peacocks, tailfeathers of Asiatic roosters, entire pheasants, hummingbirds, and a countless variety of exotic birds preserved in midflight, midcall, midagony: everything that had been used in the past twenty years to change the appearance of hats. She brought back a collection of fans from countries all over the world, each one appropriate to a different occasion. She brought back a disturbing fragrance chosen from many at the perfume shop in the Bazar de la Charité, before the spring winds leveled everything with ashes, but she used it only once because she did not recognize herself in the new scent. She also brought back a cosmetic case that was the latest thing in seductiveness, and she took it to parties at a time when the simple act of checking one’s makeup in public was considered indecent.
They also brought back three indelible memories: the unprecedented opening of The Tales ofHoffmann in Paris, the terrifying blaze that destroyed almost all the gondolas off St. Mark’s Square in Venice, which they witnessed with grieving hearts from the window of their hotel, and their fleeting glimpse of Oscar Wilde during the first snowfall in January. But amid these and so many other memories, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had one that he always regretted not sharing with his wife, for it came from his days as a bachelor student in Paris. It was the memory of Victor Hugo, who enjoyed an impassioned fame here that had nothing to do with his books, because someone said that he had said, although no one actually heard him say it, that our Constitution was meant for a nation not of men but of angels. From that time on, special homage was paid to him, and most of our many compatriots who traveled to France went out of their way to see him. A half-dozen students, among them Juvenal Urbino, stood guard for a time outside his residence on Avenue Eylau, and at the cafés where it was said he came without fail and never came, and at last they sent a written request for a private audience in the name of the angels of the Constitution of Rionegro. They never received a reply. One day, when Juvenal Urbino happened to be passing the Luxembourg Gardens, he saw him come out of the Senate with a young woman on his arm. He seemed very old, he walked with difficulty, his beard and hair were less brilliant than in his pictures, and he wore an overcoat that seemed to belong to a larger man. He did not want to ruin the memory with an impertinent greeting: he was satisfied with the almost unreal vision that he would keep for the rest of his life. When he returned to Paris as a married man, in a position to see him under more formal circumstances, Victor Hugo had already died.
As a consolation, Juvenal Urbino and Fermina Daza brought back the shared memory of a snowy afternoon when they were intrigued by a crowd that defied the storm outside a small bookshop on the Boulevard des Capucines because Oscar Wilde was inside. When he came out at last, elegant indeed but perhaps too conscious of being so, the group surrounded him, asking that he sign their books. Dr. Urbino had stopped just to watch him, but his impulsive wife wanted to cross the boulevard so that he could sign the only thing she thought appropriate, given the fact that she did not have a book: her beautiful gazelle-skin glove, long, smooth, soft, the same color as her newlywed’s skin. She was sure that a man as refined as he would appreciate the gesture. But her husband objected with firmness, and when she tried to go despite his arguments, he did not feel he could survive the embarrassment.
“If you cross that street,” he said to her, “when you get back here you will find me dead.”
It was something natural in her. Before she had been married a year, she moved through the world with the same assurance that had been hers as a little girl in the wilds of San Juan de la Ciénaga, as if she had been born with it, and she had a facility for dealing with strangers that left her husband dumbfounded, and a mysterious talent for making herself understood in Spanish with anyone, anywhere. “You have to know languages when you go to sell something,” she said with mocking laughter. “But when you go to buy, everyone does what he must to understand you.” It was difficult to imagine anyone who could have assimilated the daily life of Paris with so much speed and so much joy, and who learned to love her memory of it despite the eternal rain. Nevertheless, when she returned home overwhelmed by so many experiences, tired of traveling, drowsy with her pregnancy, the first thing she was asked in the port was what she thought of the marvels of Europe, and she summed up many months of bliss with four words of Caribbean slang:
“It’s not so much.”
THE DAY THAT Florentino Ariza saw Fermina Daza in the atrium of the Cathedral, in the sixth month of her pregnancy and in full command of her new condition as a woman of the world, he made a fierce decision to win fame and fortune in order to deserve her. He did not even stop to think about the obstacle of her being married, because at the same time he decided, as if it depended on himself alone, that Dr. Juvenal Urbino had to die. He did not know when or how, but he considered it an ineluctable event that he was resolved to wait for without impatience or violence, even till the end of time.
He began at the beginning. He presented himself unannounced in the office of Uncle Leo XII, President of the Board of Directors and General Manager of the River Company of the Caribbean, and expressed his willingness to yield to his plans. His uncle was angry with him because of the manner in which he had thrown away the good position of telegraph operator in Villa de Leyva, but he allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves. Besides, his brother’s widow had died the year before, still smarting from rancor but without any heirs. And so he gave the job to his errant nephew.
It was a decision typical of Don Leo XII Loayza. Inside the shell of a soulless merchant was hidden a genial lunatic, as willing to bring forth a spring of lemonade in the Guajira Desert as to flood a solemn funeral with weeping at his heartbreaking rendition of “In Questa Tomba Oscura.” His head was covered with curls, he had the lips of a faun, and all he needed was a lyre and a laurel wreath to be the image of
the incendiary Nero of Christian mythology. When he was not occupied with the administration of his decrepit vessels, still afloat out of sheer distraction on the part of fate, or with the problems of river navigation, which grew more and more critical every day, he devoted his free time to the enrichment of his lyric repertoire. He liked nothing better than to sing at funerals. He had the voice of a galley slave, untrained but capable of impressive registers. Someone had told him that Enrico Caruso could shatter a vase with the power of his voice, and he had spent years trying to imitate him, even with the windowpanes. His friends brought him the most delicate vases they had come across in their travels through the world, and they organized special parties so that he might at last achieve the culmination of his dream. He never succeeded. Still, in the depth of his thundering there was a glimmer of tenderness that broke the hearts of his listeners as if they were the crystal vases of the great Caruso, and it was this that made him so revered at funerals. Except at one, when he thought it a good idea to sing “When I Wake Up in Glory,” a beautiful and moving funeral song from Louisiana, and he was told to be quiet by the priest, who could not understand that Protestant intrusion in his church.
And so, between operatic encores and Neapolitan serenades, his creative talent and his invincible entrepreneurial spirit made him the hero of river navigation during the time of its greatest splendor. He had come from nothing, like his dead brothers, and all of them went as far as they wished despite the stigma of being illegitimate children and, even worse, illegitimate children who had never been recognized. They were the cream of what in those days was called the “shop-counter aristocracy,” whose sanctuary was the Commercial Club. And yet, even when he had the resources to live like the Roman emperor he resembled, Uncle Leo XII lived in the old city because it was convenient to his business, in such an austere manner and in such a plain house that he could never shake off an unmerited reputation for miserliness. His only luxury was even simpler: a house by the sea, two leagues from his offices, furnished only with six handmade stools, a stand for earthenware jars, and a hammock on the terrace where he could lie down to think on Sundays. No one described him better than he did when someone accused him of being rich.
“No, not rich,” he said. “I am a poor man with money, which is not the same thing.” His strange nature, which someone once praised in a speech as lucid dementia, allowed him to see in an instant what no one else ever saw in Florentino Ariza. From the day he came to his office to ask for work, with his doleful appearance and his twenty-six useless years behind him, he had tested him with the severity of a barracks training that could have broken the hardest man. But he did not intimidate him. What Uncle Leo XII never suspected was that his nephew’s courage did not come from the need to survive or from a brute indifference inherited from his father, but from a driving need for love, which no obstacle in this world or the next would ever break. The worst years were the early ones, when he was appointed clerk to the Board of Directors, which seemed a position made to order for him. Lotario Thugut, Uncle Leo XII’s old music teacher, was the one who advised him to give his nephew a writing job because he was a voracious wholesale consumer of literature, although he preferred the worst to the best. Uncle Leo XII disregarded what he said concerning his nephew’s bad taste in reading, for Lotario Thugut would also say of him that he had been his worst voice student, and still he could make even tombstones cry. In any case, the German was correct in regard to what he had thought about least, which was that Florentino Ariza wrote everything with so much passion that even official documents seemed to be about love. His bills of lading were rhymed no matter how he tried to avoid it, and routine business letters had a lyrical spirit that diminished their authority. His uncle himself came to his office one day with a packet of correspondence that he had not dared put his name to, and he gave him his last chance to save his soul.
“If you cannot write a business letter you will pick up the trash on the dock,” he said. Florentino Ariza accepted the challenge. He made a supreme effort to learn the mundane simplicity of mercantile prose, imitating models from notarial files with the same diligence he had once used for popular poets. This was the period when he spent his free time in the Arcade of the Scribes, helping unlettered lovers to write their scented love notes, in order to unburden his heart of all the words of love that he could not use in customs reports. But at the end of six months, no matter how hard he twisted, he could not wring the neck of his diehard swan. So that when Uncle Leo XII reproached him a second time, he admitted defeat, but with a certain haughtiness. “Love is the only thing that interests me,” he said.
“The trouble,” his uncle said to him, “is that without river navigation there is no love.” He kept his threat to have him pick up trash on the dock, but he gave him his word that he would promote him, step by step, up the ladder of faithful service until he found his place. And he did. No work could defeat him, no matter how hard or humiliating it was, no salary, no matter how miserable, could demoralize him, and he never lost his essential fearlessness when faced with the insolence of his superiors. But he was not an innocent, either: everyone who crossed his path suffered the consequences of the overwhelming determination, capable of anything, that lay behind his helpless appearance. Just as Uncle Leo XII had foreseen, and according to his desire that his nephew not be ignorant of any secret in the business, Florentino Ariza moved through every post during thirty years of dedication and tenacity in the face of every trial. He fulfilled all his duties with admirable skill, studying every thread in that mysterious warp that had so much to do with the offices of poetry, but he never won the honor he most desired, which was to write one, just one, acceptable business letter. Without intending to, without even knowing it, he demonstrated with his life that his father had been right when he repeated until his dying day that there was no one with more common sense, no stonecutter more obstinate, no manager more lucid or dangerous, than a poet. That, at least, is what he was told by Uncle Leo XII, who talked to him about his father during moments of sentimental leisure and created an image that resembled a dreamer more than it did a businessman.
He told him that Pius V Loayza used the offices for matters more pleasant than work, and that he always arranged to leave the house on Sundays, with the excuse that he had to meet or dispatch a boat. What is more, he had an old boiler installed in the warehouse patio, with a steam whistle that someone would sound with navigation signals in the event his wife became suspicious. According to his calculations, Uncle Leo XII was certain that Florentino Ariza had been conceived on a desk in some unlocked office on a hot Sunday afternoon, while from her house his father’s wife heard the farewells of a boat that never sailed. By the time she learned the truth it was too late to accuse him of infamy because her husband was already dead. She survived him by many years, destroyed by the bitterness of not having a child and asking God in her prayers for the eternal damnation of his bastard son. The image of his father disturbed Florentino Ariza. His mother had spoken of him as a great man with no commercial vocation, who had at last gone into the river business because his older brother had been a very close collaborator of the German commodore Johann B. Elbers, the father of river navigation. They were the illegitimate sons of the same mother, a cook by trade, who had them by different men, and all bore her surname and the name of a pope chosen at random from the calendar of saints’ days, except for Uncle Leo XII, named after the Pope in office when he was born. The man called Florentino was their maternal grandfather, so that the name had come down to the son of Tránsito Ariza after skipping over an entire generation of pontiffs.