Professor Mabel Morana of Washington University in St. Louis, professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies, explains that Garcia Marquez is a genius at restoring the "time-honored mission of entertaining by means of the mere act of narrating" (Morana, 1990). In other words, Garcia Marquez's writing is so effective it really isn't crucially important who or what he is writing about. Just jump on board and enjoy the ride. Getting older? Garcia Marquez will enliven and energize a person. Feeling grumpy and experiencing some forgetfulness? Garcia Marquez knows just the cure for what ails you -- his wonderfully coherent and riveting storyline and narrative.
Writing in Contemporary Literary Criticism, Morana asserts that Garcia Marquez's brilliant narrative intermingles the "real and imaginary, the autobiographical and the collective" in life, and has "no justification beyond the revival of the 'forgotten art of telling stories'" (Morana, 1990). Storytelling is a gift that many can engage in but few can match Garcia Marquez's abilities. The author, Morana continues, has the ability to deftly link "love and old age" -- in a thematic "emphasis of the narrative." That sets him apart from other fine authors, Morana believes, and she takes her praise a step further by stating that Garcia Marquez is so confident of his skills that he takes a "seemingly worn-out theme" and moves the theme into the "third age."
And the narrative is so effective, according to Morana that it "seems to float off in a sumptuous exercise of virtuosity into the freedom of lyrical pleasure." And so Morana launches her essay based not on what is beneath the surface of the novel, but rather on the "scope of the narrative," which she is so clearly and thoroughly mesmerized by.
As has been mentioned previously, highly important to the theme of the novel is of course the prospect that every reader and every human being must face, old age, and the various medicinal cures or hoped-for cures that accompany the transition from youth to middle age and then to the elderly phase. But it should be stated beyond the aging issue, that there are three other distinct themes in this novel: love, health / medicine and patience. And a big part of the "health / medicine" theme is the aging process along with the theme of Cholera.
So, two years of wooing the widow Fermina -- once her wealthy doctor husband Urbino had passed away -- following fifty-plus years of waiting for Urbino to die, have finally paid off for the love-struck Florentino. He has talked Fermina to take a trip with him, up the Magdalena River on a vessel called "New Fidelity," not a very subtle metaphoric image but then it works well. It calls to mind the fact that notwithstanding fifty-one years of pining for the married Fermina, Florentino has helped himself to the sexual charms of hundreds of women. He can claim all he wants that all that really mattered in his heart was Fermina, but nonetheless he got down into the most heated bedroom scenarios because he was driven to need a lot of sexual intercourse.
The trip up the Magdalena River brings out several health / medicine issues that dovetail perfectly with the conclusion of this book. Fermina Daza (every time Garcia Marquez writes her or his name it is in full) and Florentino Ariza are having their own health issues but the landscape on either side of the river is also very unhealthy. The "god-forsaken villages" were flooded and it was one of the "cruelest droughts"; Cholera was obviously the culprit that caused them to be awakened at night because "nauseating stench of corpses" were floating down the river. How cruel that the captain of the boat had orders to tell passengers those rotting, stinking dead human bodies were "drowning victims."
The health of the planet is clearly part of Garcia Marquez's narrative. The river trip passed by "calcinated flatlands" that were "stripped of entire forests." Wood was needed to fire the boilers of the riverboats, and the "tangle of colossal trees" that Florentino had remembered seeing in years past were gone. The monkeys and parrots that once made "riotous noise" in those forests were gone too, due to the destruction of their habitat. All that was left now was "the vast silence of the ravaged land," Garcia Marquez explains. In fact there was so little wood left -- due to the poor health of the deforested landscape -- that the New Fidelity actually ran out of fuel. Even the woodcutters had disappeared, fleeing the "invisible cholera." In fact as an example of how deeply, crazily Florentino was in love with Fermina, Florentino had in fact received "alarming reports on the state of the river" but "he never took the trouble to think about it." The terribly poor health of the river and of the people living beside the river did not help to make this the romantic sojourn that Florentino had envisioned.
These passages from Garcia Marquez are so wonderfully rich in imagery, the reader can almost hear the nattering hum of a hundred mosquitoes and smell the horrific aroma of rotting human flesh as corpses float along side the boat. Indeed, the "pestilential stench" in the cabins of the boat forced passengers out on the deck, where they did battle with "all sorts of predatory creatures" and even in the Presidential Suite things were miserably unhealthy. Besides battling mosquitoes, Fermina had an "unbearable" earache that ended abruptly one morning because her hearing in that ear just quit. Was the ear issue another sign of old age creeping in? Most certainly it was, and typical of many elderly people, Fermina "did not tell anyone" because she knew full well hearing loss was a brother to old age and letting others know of her malady was like broadcasting the "irremediable defects of old age" (Garcia Marquez).
But what about sexual romance -- was it ever going to happen between these two at the ages of 76 (Florentino) and 71 (Fermina)? Garcia Marquez insists that the reader have patience as the two love birds "spent unimaginable hours holding hands" and they "exchanged unhurried kisses" while enjoying the "rapture of caresses without the pitfalls of impatience." In these final passages readers are treated to those themes again: patience, love, old age and health. In fact there are probably more instances and images of those four themes woven into the tone and substance of the final pages than at any other time in the book. It's fitting that Garcia Marquez chose the climatic moments to hammer home those themes once again.
Author Jean Franco, professor of Latin American Literature at Columbia University, critiquing the last scenes in the novel writes, "bodies fail long before passions are spent" (Franco, 1988). Fermina helped Florentino take his enemas on board the riverboat, Franco notes, and Fermina gets up early to brush his false teeth for him while both of them have "the sour smell of old age" (Franco). "Decay is part of the landscape" and the lovers' happy ending produces a mood that is "paradoxically apocalyptic," Franco explains.
The same civilization that "idealizes lovers" has the potential to produce "a global wasteland, and the private fantasies of romance are rafts on a sea of public devastation," Franco continues. That phrase "private fantasies of romance" perfectly define what Florentino is all about throughout this book. He indeed is a raft of sorts, and the public devastation due to poor conservation policies and cholera is all around him. Still, he has held on to a romantic dream of being with Fermina for more than half of his life, and he is not going to give in until old age or health will prevent him from having her.
At the end of this novel, the lovers are on a raft and all around them "Natural life has almost disappeared," Franco continues. And while Florentino and Fermina "salvage their own idyll" they are "themselves part of the destruction, a last nineteenth-century romance that can only find a heart of darkness" (Franco).
Did they really "salvage their idyll" as Franco puts it? They certainly tried, despite all the terrible distractions on that riverboat ride. As he "dared to explore her withered neck" he found that her breasts were "armored in metal stays," Moreover, being old results in the other discoveries that Florentino made: her hips had "decaying bones"; her thighs with "their aging veins"; her breasts "sagged" and her shoulders were "wrinkled"; her ribs were "covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog's" (Garcia Marquez).
With enough alcohol in her system, Fermina was willing to try to have sex, but their first attempt failed and Florentino was "furious" and "ashamed" as any man would be, especially after all the expressive love…