Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the Magdalena River

One Hundred Years of Solitude must be Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s best title, and it’s the book that made him famous all over the world. But I somehow neglected to finish that epic novel, and was more attracted instead to Love in the Time of Cholera, a book so good it would probably have made the Colombian author famous again if he hadn’t been already. I also enjoyed Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, and I wonder if I specially favor these two novels because they both employ a vivid setting: Colombia’s Magdalena River.

I’m a fool for riparian literature, perhaps because rivers hold such great spiritual significance (from the Jordan to the Ganges), or because they work so well as metaphor, whether the characters are lazily floating downstream like Huck Finn or tensely steaming up against the current like Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. My fascination with rivers makes Love in the Time of Cholera a natural for me, since this novel is basically a happy Heart of Darkness with senior sex. The ever patient Florentino Ariza has waited an entire lifetime to lie in the arms of his beloved Fermina Daza, and after many decades he finally outlasts her husband and scores with her on a boat heading up the mighty Magdalena. (Ariza’s patience is his one great power, a character trait so distinct it earned him a seat in my hypothetical literary poker tournament a few years ago).

The river is a constant presence in this novel. Early in the story, Ariza escapes his heartbreak by travelling up the river, where the beauty that surrounds him is disturbed by visions of the cholera epidemic currently gripping the land:

The days were easy for him as he sat at the rail, watching the motionless alligators sunning themselves on sandy banks, their mouths open to catch butterflies, watching the flocks of startled herons that rose without warning from the marshes, the manatees that nursed their young at large maternal teats and startled the passengers with their woman’s cries. On a single day he saw three bloated, green, human corpses float past, with buzzards sitting on them.

Many decades later, he manages to persuade his unreachable Fermina Daza to join him for a new journey up the same river. They are now both over seventy years old, and now even the river has changed, has gone dry in many places.

She was embarrassed when she greeted him, and he was more embarrassed by her embarrassment. The knowledge that they were behaving as if they were sweethearts was even more embarrassing, and the knowledge that they were both embarrassed embarrassed them so much that Captain Samaritano noticed it with a tremor of compassion. He extricated them from their difficulty by spending the next two hours explaining the controls and the general operation of the ship. They were sailing very slowly up a river without banks that meandered between arid sandbars stretching to the horizon. But unlike the troubled waters at the mouth of the river, these were slow and clear and gleamed like metal under the merciless sun. Fermina Daza had the impression that it was a delta filled with islands of sand.

“It is all the river we have left,” said the Captain.

Florentino Ariza, in fact, was surprised by the changes, and would be even more surprised the following day, when navigation became more difficult and he realized that the Magdalena, father of waters, one of the great rivers of the world, was only an illusion of memory. Captain Samaritano explained to them how fifty years of uncontrolled deforestation had destroyed the river: the boilers of the riverboats had consumed the thick forest of colossal trees that had oppressed Florentino Ariza on his first voyage.

Two years ago, it was announced that South America’s most beloved writer would not be writing any new books. We’d already heard rumors that Gabo’s mental abilities were declining, and his family now confirmed that the novelist had senile dementia, or Alzheimer’s disease.

This is always a shocking diagnosis for any victim, and for the families and loved ones of any victim. It’s hard to imagine the sharp mind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the torment of constant confusion, and his readers must wonder how much (if any) of his literary or artistic sensitivity may have remained during his final years. “It is all the river we have left,” said the Captain. I don’t know how Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived out his last years, but I like to pretend or imagine that he might have been taken on a boat ride on the river he described so well.

The ship left the bay with its boilers quiet, made its way along the channels through blankets of taruya, the river lotus with purple blossoms and large heart-shaped leaves, and returned to the marshes. The water was iridescent with the universe of fishes floating on their sides, killed by the dynamite of stealthy fishermen, and all the birds of the earth and the water circled above them with metallic cries. The wind from the Caribbean blew in the windows along with the racket made by the birds, and Fermina Daza felt in her blood the wild bleating of her free will. To her right, the muddy, frugal estuary of the Great Magdalena River spread out to the other side of the world.

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