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Return to the Past in García Márquez’s El amor en los tiempos del cólera

From: Romance Notes
Volume 53, Number 2, 2013
pp. 203-212 | 10.1353/rmc.2013.0016

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EL amor en los tiempos del cólera assembles many of the themes and techniques that characterize García Márquez’s earlier work. Paramount among the techniques are hyperbole, retrospection, humor, and sarcasm. Thematically, memory, old age, illegitimacy, the passage of time, poverty, politics, and civil wars provide its spiritus vivicans. In El amor, the reevaluation of memory in light of the rapid changes ushered in by modernity takes center stage. The reassessment of the value of memory in the novel parallels efforts from early modernity to subvert the importance of remembering. This essay argues that while García Márquez joins the chorus celebrating the weakening of memory as a basic life-orientation, he avoids the excesses of those like Jean Baudrillard that promote a near total break with the past. His position in El amor approximates that of Soren Kierkegaard who calls for a self-perfecting in the twin arts of remembering and forgetting in order to play at “battledore and shuttlecock with the whole of existence” (Either/Or 1: 234). To that end, the essay provides a historical review of the importance of remembering and forgetting before examining the novel under three rubrics, to wit, remembering, forgetting, and the twin arts of remembering and forgetting.

Historical Review

In Lost Time: On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture, David Gross establishes that pre-modern view of remembering was generally positive. The Greeks, Romans and the medieval world all considered memory as sine qua non for piety, creativity, ethics, character, spirituality, happiness, and wholeness. However, this positive outlook began to be questioned especially in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when the foundations of traditional society began to shake in the wake of modernity. The rapid changes occasioned by industrialization, including mobility and urbanization, came with a new set of values. New institutions sprang up to replace traditional ones. The individual could no longer be relied upon to preserve values, customs and traditions handed down from forebears since she was not glued to one place. In light of this new reality, intellectuals began to question the value of memory, which began to lose its appeal and became a liability. In time, it was viewed as an “outside determination,” coercive and restrictive of one’s thoughts and actions. Forgetting became the new paradigm and was praised by psychologists, psychiatrists, and philosophers alike. In the view of many thinkers, including Pierre Janet, Herman Ebbinghaus, Frederick Nietzsche, Henry Maudsley, William James, Herbert Spencer, Henri Bergson, Walter Benjamin, and Louis Lavelle, the advantages of ridding ourselves of the “old lumber of the past” were enormous. For one thing, we are able to loosen up, improvise, or even start afresh. These qualities of “freedom, improvisation, and innovation” would enable us to cope successfully with the demands of modernity (Gross 31). In addition to being unreliable and escapist, many thinkers perceived memory as an “impediment” and even a “monstrosity” (33). Forgetting, on the other hand, was liberating, regenerative and purifying. According to Anthony Giddens, forgetting opened the door to “potentially new ways of being and acting” (78).

Setting the Stage

In El amor, the process of mnemonic reevaluation begins by setting the story in post-independent Colombia over a period of about fifty years, beginning from 1880 to about 1930. Nation building was the order of the day as European culture and technology found its way into Colombia. Modernity was on a slow but certain march and the foundations of traditional society had begun to wobble. It is against this backdrop that García Márquez weaves a love triangle spanning over fifty years and whose development allows a reassessment of the value of memory in light of emerging realities. García Márquez’s journey to the past is not guided by the allure of romanticism or the magic of tradition. Instead, he sees the confluence of the past and emerging realities as an opportunity to reexamine the assumptions underlying the value of remembering and to posit a dispassionate look at the benefits of forgetting. This contest between remembering and forgetting is best exemplified by Fermina Daza’s mental disposition following her husband’s death. The more she tries...

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