Love in the Time of Cholera (Chapter 27)

Love in the Time of Cholera

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chapter 27

What Florentino Ariza did not know was that Dr. Juvenal Urbino should have been included on the list. Hildebranda Sánchez had revealed the secret to him during one of her many visits in the early years. But she did so in such a casual way and at such an inopportune moment that it did not go in one of Dr. Urbino’s ears and out the other, as she thought; it did not go in at all. Hildebranda had mentioned Florentino Ariza as one of the secret poets who, in her opinion, might win the Poetic Festival. Dr. Urbino could not remember who he was, and she told him–she did not need to, but there was no hint of malice in it–that he was Fermina Daza’s only sweetheart before she married. She told him, convinced that it had been something so innocent and ephemeral that in fact it was rather touching. Dr. Urbino replied without looking at her: “I did not know that fellow was a poet.” And then he wiped him from his memory, because among other things, his profession had accustomed him to the ethical management of forgetfulness.

 

Florentino Ariza observed that, with the exception of his mother, the keepers of the secret belonged to Fermina Daza’s world. In his, he was alone with the crushing weight of a burden that he had often needed to share, but until then there had been no one worthy of so much trust. Leona Cassiani was the only one, and all he needed was the opportunity and the means. This was what he was thinking on the hot summer afternoon when Dr. Juvenal Urbino climbed the steep stairs of the R.C.C., paused on each step in order to survive the three o’clock heat, appeared in Florentino Ariza’s office, panting and soaked with perspiration down to his trousers, and gasped with his last breath: “I believe a cyclone is coming.” Florentino Ariza had seen him there many times, asking for Uncle Leo XII, but never until now had it seemed so clear to him that this uninvited guest had something to do with his life.

This was during the time that Dr. Juvenal Urbino had overcome the pitfalls of his profession, and was going from door to door, almost like a beggar with his hat in his hand, asking for contributions to his artistic enterprises. Uncle Leo XII had always been one of his most faithful and generous contributors, but just at that moment he had begun his daily ten-minute siesta, sitting in the swivel chair at his desk. Florentino Ariza asked Dr. Juvenal Urbino to please wait in his office, which was next to Uncle Leo XII’s and, in a certain sense, served as his waiting room.

They had seen each other on various occasions, but they had never before been face to face as they were now, and once again Florentino Ariza experienced the nausea of feeling himself inferior. The ten minutes were an eternity, during which he stood up three times in the hope that his uncle had awakened early, and he drank an entire thermos of black coffee. Dr. Urbino refused to drink even a single cup. He said: “Coffee is poison.” And he continued to chat about one thing and another and did not even care if anyone was listening to him. Florentino Ariza could not bear his natural distinction, the fluidity and precision of his words, his faint scent of camphor, his personal charm, the easy and elegant manner in which he made his most frivolous sentences seem essential only because he had said them. Then, without warning, the Doctor changed the subject.

“Do you like music?”

He was taken by surprise. In reality, Florentino Ariza attended every concert and opera performed in the city, but he did not feel capable of engaging in a critical or wellinformed discussion. He had a weakness for popular music, above all sentimental waltzes, whose similarity to the ones he had composed as an adolescent, or to his secret verses, could not be denied. He had only to hear them once, and then for nights on end there was no power in heaven or earth that could shake the melody out of his head. But that would not be a serious answer to a serious question put to him by a specialist.
“I like Gardel,” he said.
Dr. Urbino understood. “I see,” he said. “He is popular.” And he slipped into a recounting of his many new projects which, as always, had to be realized without official backing. He called to his attention the disheartening inferiority of the performances that could be heard here now, compared with the splendid ones of the previous century. That was true: he had spent a year selling subscriptions to bring the Cortot-Casals-Thibaud trio to the Dramatic Theater, and there was no one in the government who even knew who they were, while this very month there were no seats left for the Ramón Caralt company that performed detective dramas, for the Operetta and Zarzuela Company of Don Manolo de la Presa, for the Santanelas, ineffable mimics, illusionists, and artistes, who could change their clothes on stage in the wink of an eye, for Danyse D’Altaine, advertised as a former dancer with the Folies-Bergère, and even for the abominable Ursus, a Basque madman who took on a fighting bull all by himself. There was no reason to complain, however, if the Europeans themselves were once again setting the bad example of a barbaric war when we had begun to live in peace after nine civil wars in half a century, which, if the truth were told, were all one war: always the same war. What most attracted Florentino Ariza’s attention in that intriguing speech was the possibility of reviving the Poetic Festival, the most renowned and long-lasting of the enterprises that Dr. Juvenal Urbino had conceived in the past. He had to bite his tongue to keep from telling him that he had been an assiduous participant in the annual competition that had eventually interested famous poets, not only in the rest of the country but in other nations of the Caribbean as well.

No sooner had the conversation begun than the hot, steamy air suddenly cooled and a storm of crosswinds shook doors and windows with great blasts, while the office groaned down to its foundations like a sailing ship set adrift. Dr. Juvenal Urbino did not seem to notice. He made some casual reference to the lunatic cyclones of June and then, out of the blue, he began to speak of his wife. He considered her not only his most enthusiastic collaborator, but the very soul of his endeavors. He said: “Without her I would be nothing.” Florentino Ariza listened to him, impassive, nodding his agreement with a slight motion of his head, not daring to say anything for fear his voice would betray him. Two or three sentences more, however, were enough for him to understand that Dr. Juvenal Urbino, in the midst of so many absorbing commitments, still had more than enough time to adore his wife almost as much as he did, and that truth stunned him. But he could not respond as he would have liked, because then his heart played one of those whorish tricks that only hearts can play: it revealed to him that he and this man, whom he had always considered his personal enemy, were victims of the same fate and shared the hazards of a common passion; they were two animals yoked together. For the first time in the interminable twenty-seven years that he had been waiting, Florentino Ariza could not endure the pangs of grief at the thought that this admirable man would have to die in order for him to be happy. The cyclone passed by at last, but in fifteen minutes its gusting northwest winds had devastated the neighborhoods by the swamps and caused severe damage in half the city. Dr. Juvenal Urbino, gratified once again by the generosity of Uncle Leo XII, did not wait for the weather to clear, and without thinking he accepted the umbrella that Florentino Ariza lent him for walking to his carriage. But he did not mind. On the contrary: he was happy thinking about what Fermina Daza would think when she learned who the owner of the umbrella was. He was still troubled by the unsettling interview when Leona Cassiani came into his office, and this seemed to him a unique opportunity to stop beating about the bush and to reveal his secret, as if he were squeezing a boil that would not leave him in peace: it was now or never. He began by asking her what she thought of Dr. Juvenal Urbino. She answered almost without thinking: “He is a man who does many things, too many perhaps, but I believe that no one knows what he thinks.” Then she reflected, shredding the eraser on a pencil with her long, sharp, black woman’s teeth, and at last she shrugged her shoulders to put an end to a matter that did not concern her.

“That may be the reason he does so many things,” she said, “so that he will not have to think.”

Florentino Ariza tried to keep her with him. “What hurts me is that he has to die,” he said. “Everybody has to die,” she said.

“Yes,” he said, “but he more than anyone else.”

She understood none of it: she shrugged her shoulders again without speaking and left. Then Florentino Ariza knew that some night, sometime in the future, in a joyous bed with Fermina Daza, he was going to tell her that he had not revealed the secret of his love, not even to the one person who had earned the right to know it. No: he would never reveal it, not even to Leona Cassiani, not because he did not want to open the chest where he had kept it so carefully hidden for half his life, but because he realized only then that he had lost the key.

That, however, was not the most staggering event of the afternoon. He still had the nostalgic memory of his youth, his vivid recollection of the Poetic Festival, whose thunder sounded throughout the Antilles every April 15. He was always one of the protagonists, but always, as in almost everything he did, a secret protagonist. He had participated several times since the inaugural competition, and he had never received even honorable mention. But that did not matter to him, for he did compete not out of ambition for the prize but because the contest held an additional attraction for him: in the first session Fermina Daza had opened the sealed envelopes and announced the names of the winners, and then it was established that she would continue to do so in the years that followed.

Hidden in the darkness of an orchestra seat, a fresh camellia in the buttonhole of his lapel throbbing with the strength of his desire, Florentino Ariza saw Fermina Daza open the three sealed envelopes on the stage of the old National Theater on the night of the first Festival. He asked himself what was going to happen in her heart when she discovered that he was the winner of the Golden Orchid. He was certain she would recognize his handwriting, and that then she would evoke the afternoons of embroidery under the almond trees in the little park, the scent of faded gardenias in his letters, the private Waltz of the Crowned Goddess at windblown daybreak. It did not happen. Even worse, the Golden Orchid, the most sought-after prize among the nation’s poets, was awarded to a Chinese immigrant. The public scandal provoked by that unheard-of decision threw doubts on the seriousness of the competition. But the decision was correct, and the unanimity of the judges had its justification in the excellence of the sonnet.

No one believed that the author was the Chinese who received the prize. At the end of the last century, fleeing the scourge of yellow fever that devastated Panama during the construction of the railroad between the two oceans, he had arrived along with many others who stayed here until they died, living in Chinese, reproducing in Chinese, and looking so much alike that no one could tell one from the other. At first there were no more than ten, some of them with their wives and children and edible dogs, but in a few years four narrow streets in the slums along the port were overflowing with other, unexpected Chinese, who came into the country without leaving a trace in the customs records. Some of the young ones turned into venerable patriarchs with so much haste that no one could explain how they had time to grow old. In the popular view they were divided into two kinds: bad Chinese and good Chinese. The bad ones were those in the lugubrious restaurants along the waterfront, where one was as likely to eat like a king as to die a sudden death at the table, sitting before a plate of rat meat with sunflowers, and which were thought to be nothing more than fronts for white slavery and many other kinds of traffic. The good ones were the Chinese in the laundries, heirs of a sacred knowledge, who returned one’s shirts cleaner than new, with collars and cuffs like recently ironed Communion wafers. The man who defeated seventy-two well-prepared rivals in the Poetic Festival was one of these good Chinese.

When a bewildered Fermina Daza read out the name, no one understood it, not only because it was an unusual name but because no one knew for certain what Chinese were called. But it was not necessary to think about it very much, because the victorious Chinese walked from the back of the theater with that celestial smile Chinese wear when they come home early. He had been so sure of victory that he had put on a yellow silk robe, appropriate to the rites of spring, in order to accept the prize. He received the eighteen-carat Golden Orchid and kissed it with joy in the midst of the thundering jeers of the incredulous. He did not react. He waited in the middle of the stage, as imperturbable as the apostle of a Divine Providence less dramatic than ours, and as soon as it was quiet he read the winning poem. No one understood him. But when the new round of jeers and whistles was over, an impassive Fermina Daza read it again, in her hoarse, suggestive voice, and amazement reigned after the first line. It was a perfect sonnet in the purest Parnassian tradition, and through it there wafted a breath of inspiration that revealed the involvement of a master hand. The only possible explanation was that one of the great poets had devised the joke in order to ridicule the Poetic Festival, and that the Chinese had been a party to it and was determined to keep the secret until the day he died. The Commercial Daily, our traditional newspaper, tried to save our civic honor with an erudite and rather confused essay concerning the antiquity and cultural influence of the Chinese in the Caribbean, and the right they had earned to participate in Poetic Festivals. The author of the essay did not doubt that the writer of the sonnet was in fact who he said he was, and he defended him in a straightforward manner, beginning with the title itself: “All Chinese Are Poets.” The instigators of the plot, if there was one, rotted in their graves along with the secret. For his part, the Chinese who had won died without confession at an Oriental age and was buried with the Golden Orchid in his coffin, but also with the bitterness of never having achieved the only thing he wanted in his life, which was recognition as a poet. On his death, the press recalled the forgotten incident of the Poetic Festival and reprinted the sonnet with a Modernist vignette of fleshy maidens and gold cornucopias, and the guardian angels of poetry took advantage of the opportunity to clarify matters: the sonnet seemed so bad to the younger generation that no one could doubt any longer that it had, in fact, been composed by the dead Chinese. (27′ C 9)

 

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