Earlier today, before I headed into my afternoon of teaching, I heard that one of my favorite writers, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, had died at the age of 87. I immediately texted my dear friend and colleague Erica Wells to let her know, as Garcia Marquez is not only one of her favorite writers, too, but also plays a central role in her Master’s thesis on old age in literature. I invited Erica to write a gero-punk tribute to Garcia Marquez by way of reflecting upon the wonderful and fresh scholarly inquiry she conducted over a decade ago. For me, Erica’s thesis is an important moment in my own journey across the life course because at the time I was not only her thesis advisor, but soon-to-be close friend and comrade. — jenny
In Memory: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-April 17, 2014)
by guest Gero-Punk
Memories have a life of their own, don’t they? Some disappear into our mind’s deep sea, never to surface again, while others remain on the surface, sparkling in the sunshine, clear as the day they were formed. That is how I recall coming across the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: a glittering moment in the midst of my foggy, struggling-to-stay-afloat graduate school days.
I was doing research for what was to become my thesis (Old Age in Literature: The Limits and Liberties of Aging) and looking for material that would help me combine my passion for reading with a way to talk about what was quickly becoming an obsession, namely, the question of how we can understand aging or old age when we have no first hand experience of it. We attach so many pre-conceptions, fears and problems to aging, yet our view of it is always from afar. We can’t know it until we live it ourselves. My intention was to demonstrate that one of ways we can understand aging was through novels. Literature and stories are how we know about all kinds of things that we are unlikely or unable to experience (historical events, life in different culture, a forbidden love affair, a murder mystery), so why not use novels to learn about later life? The problem, of course, was finding the right stories.
Here’s where the glitter comes in: a search engine entry in the winter of 2002. The following is taken directly from my printout, (result 49 of 68), so the words in bold and italic must have been my search terms:
Title: Literature and medicine: Garcia Marquez ‘Love in the Time of Cholera.’
Subject(s): LOVE in the Time of Cholera (Book); GARCIA Marquez, Gabriel; BOOKS
Source: Lancet, 10/18/87, Vol. 350 Issue 9085, p1169, 4p, 1bw
Author(s): Jones, Anne Hudson
Abstract: Considers how Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ ‘Love in the Time of Cholera,’ could be most important for young people to read. The book being the best ever written about aging; The theme of the book; The novel exploring aging as a time of discovery. INSETS: The indecency of old age; Old age illuminated by love.
Can you feel my heart racing? Could the language here be any more relevant to my inquiry? Wait, it gets better. Here’s the first line of Jones’ article: “Arguably the greatest novel ever written about ageing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera may be a challenging text for those who need to read it most: the young, the would-be rational, and the impatient.” Granted, her intended audience was medical students and health-care professionals, but believe me, I knew she was speaking to me. More important, I knew I had to get started with this book immediately.
I had never read Garcia Marquez before and I was completely unprepared for the emotion and intensity that was about to be unleashed through his writing. Vivid detail, lengthy descriptions of flawed, passionate characters and mysterious, foreign places from another era, an epic love story, a sharp political and social commentary, quite a bit about medicine and yes, cholera, along with indeed some of the most poignant, powerful and lasting images of aging and old age I’d ever come across, and have yet to find again.
Would you mind reading a bit from my thesis now, to peek at how this extraordinary novel fit in to my understanding of aging and old age in 2003? I had spent a year with this book, and 4 others, attempting to find meaning in a life experience far from own reality, having just given birth to my first child at the age of 32. But here’s how it was for me then:
“This novel is the most unique and far-reaching in its depictions of old age, which range from a man who commits suicide to avoid growing old, to a man who refuses to let old age ruin his chance at rekindling the passionate love he first discovered in his twenties. Love in the Time of Cholera takes a dramatic and powerful look at the human life course and examines old age from a variety of angles. Because this novel takes place over the course of fifty-plus years, in reading it we are reminded that our later years are indeed a continuous part of our life experience, even if our physical selves have changed dramatically. As we grow old, we carry with us the history that makes us individuals. Our experiences, memories, fears and dreams combine to create our identity, which keeps the self intact even when the body does not cooperate. The power of the mind to maintain identity and therefore the self is one of the main themes of this story, and the characters embody this notion as they prepare for, enact or avoid their old age. Each character has their own way of coping to accommodate the changes aging brings to their lives, providing a realistic and honest portrayal of later life. Stereotypes are not relevant here, instead we are introduced to human beings who illustrate the amazingly full range of emotions one can only experience over a lifetime…The beauty of this novel is its ability to portray old age in all its forms, and still leave the reader hopeful for the possibilities of later life…If old age does not overwhelm us with its grim potentialities, we can open ourselves up to new possibilities. Instead of giving up, we can become truer versions of ourselves when we allow old age to be something more than an itemization of bodily changes and personal losses. Old age is challenging, but with effort and strength, it is our last opportunity to challenge the boundaries of personal pre-conceptions and social conventions.”
Writing this essay, re-reading my thesis and re-visiting the well-worn and often-flagged pages of the first copy of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ I purchased, (I had to buy a second copy so I could read without referencing my notes), I am reminded of how exciting it can be to come across something for the first time. Discovery and recognition are the scholar’s rewards in the process of inquiry. My students can relate to the tedious nature of research and the thrill of finding just the right source to satisfy our curiosity, all the while knowing it’s a temporary fix, for we will certainly come up with more questions. We are always pursuing knowledge, understanding and the answers to our burning questions about what it means to be human. For a long time, Garcia Marquez settled those questions for me, in surprising and eloquent ways. Perhaps it is time to re-read this treasured text again, with the perspective of my 43-year-old self to bring to the experience.
It wouldn’t be right to end this essay in my own words, so I will leave you with one of my favorite passages from the book (and there are many):
Speaking of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, one of the novel’s main characters, on his way back home to South America after finishing his medical studies in Paris at the age of 28, Marquez writes (translated from Spanish by Edith Grossman),
“In Paris, strolling arm in arm with a casual sweetheart through a late autumn, it seemed impossible to imagine a purer happiness than those golden afternoons, with the woody odor of chestnuts on the braziers, the languid accordions, the insatiable lovers kissing on the open terraces, and still he had told himself with his hand on his heart that he was not prepared to exchange all that for a single instant of his Caribbean in April. He was still too young to know that the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past. But when he stood at the railing of the ship and saw the white promontory of the colonial district again, the motionless buzzards on the roofs, the washing of the poor hung out to dry on the balconies, only then did he understand to what extent he had been an easy victim to the charitable deceptions of nostalgia.” (p.105-6)
Garcia Marquez, G. (1988). Love in the time of cholera. New York: Penguin.
Erica is a 2003 graduate of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program and member of the adjunct faculty at Marylhurst University. Since 2005, she has taught courses in human science inquiry and gerontology. Her day to day life revolves around orchestrating and facilitating the schedules of two curious and confident grade-schoolers, all while vainly attempting to establish a semblance of order to her surroundings. When the whirlwind of the school-week subsides, you can find her in the kitchen, experimenting with a cocktail shaker and savoring the company of friends and family as everyone toasts to togetherness and the simple pleasure of a good meal.