Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez. Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 352 pp. $18.95. The Colombian-born writer Gabriel Garc'ia M'arquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, 15 years after the extraordinary fireworks display of his stunning novel ``One Hundred Years of Solitude.'' In all the years before and after the prize, he continued to write fiction that sputtered and smoldered with a fitful brilliance; strongly written, but thematically disappointing works that never quite matched the already fulfilled promise of his early masterpiece of Magic Realism.
There are no fantastic happenings in ``Love in the Time of Cholera.'' But a man called Florentino Ariza does love a woman named Fermina Daza unrequitedly for more than 50 years, waiting until she is widowed to declare himself, when he is 76 and she 72.
Florentino first sets eyes on Fermina when she is still a schoolgirl. An aspiring poet (throughout his life he will continue to enter poetry competitions, never winning), he woos her in the courtliest fashion: with letters, serenades, verses inscribed on the petals of flowers. Fermina responds, more coolly and guardedly, but when her coarse, ambitious father tries to end the romance, she and Florentino circumvent his plans. Love seems just about to triumph when all of a sudden, Fermina has a kind of negative epiphany in which she realizes that this great love was merely an illusion.
Later, this time to her father's delight, she is wooed by the town's most distinguished citizen, Dr. Juvenal Urbino: handsome, aristocratic, a pious Roman Catholic, a patron of the arts, and a respected physician whose single-handed fight to improve sanitary conditions helps wipe out the dreaded cholera epidemics that have been ravaging the country.
Observing the symptoms her son exhibits at the onset of his infatuation, Florentino's mother concludes that ``the symptoms of love are the same as those of cholera.'' But the feverish love that swings from elation to frustration is only one of the many forms of love that take shape in this richly variegated novel, which follows the lives of its three main characters from the last decades of the 19th century to the first decades of the 20th, from the coastal Caribbean town where they live, across the ocean to Europe, along rough mountain roads to Andean villages, and along the Magdalena River route traveled by boats of the company in which Florentino eventually makes his fortune. There are the many physical loves that Florentino will experience secretly as a bachelor, no longer a virgin, but still, in his own mind, ``saving'' himself for Fermina. There is also the love he has for a clever, black former prostitute, whom he helps get a job at the riverboat company and who helps him transform it into a thriving concern. She is his ``true woman,'' whom he always loves but never sleeps with.
And there is the deepening, sometimes strained, but ultimately solid conjugal love that grows between Fermina and her husband, Juvenal Urbino. They do not fall in love, they ``invent'' it. By looking for it, they find it. If love can be an illusion, like a dream - involuntary, irrational, fleeting - so too can it be a deliberately crafted and sustained illusion, like a work of art - complex, enduring a rational invocation of something greater than rationality.
When Florentino once more sets about wooing Fermina, 50 years later, he takes a fresh tack. Instead of the passionate, handwritten love letters of his youth, he sends mature, meditative, typewritten philosophical disquisitions on life and love. At last Fermina is convinced: This love is no illusion. And what does she say to him, this septuagenarian widow? ``Let time pass and we will see what it brings.'' What it brings is the fruition of a love that has unfolded over half a century.
As Fermina and Florentino set sail along the Magdalena River in a boat called the New Fidelity, their late love blossoms amid a landscape made desolate by time and exploitation: The river's once-forested shores have been decimated, the water has receded, the riparian wildlife has dwindled or disappeared. Yet amid the ruins of nature, they find happiness. Time has proved both enemy and friend. This is a novel about people who choose hope over despair, self-knowledge over self-dramatization, in the belief that love can transform age and time.
``Love in the Time of Cholera'' is a boldly romantic, profoundly imaginative, fully imagined work of fiction that expands our sense of life's infinite possibilities.
Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.