What Gabriel García Márquez knew about plagues

In his writing, Márquez uses disease as a device to illuminate and intensify his recurring themes of love, power and solitude. He then finds hardiness, heart and humour

December 31, 2020
"Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life.” Image: Scanpix Norway/PA Images
"Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life.” Image: Scanpix Norway/PA Images

Aracataca was accustomed to plagues. Throughout the nineteenth century, the Colombian Caribbean endured epidemics such as yellow fever and cholera. The late Gabriel García Márquez, who was born in Aracataca in 1927, heard stories of petrifying locusts, of his mother’s malaria-racked childhood, and of his aunt’s death from typhus.

Much of this history filters into García Márquez’s fiction, which concentrates on the Colombian Caribbean. Alive to its natural presence in the region, García Márquez described plagues as “uncontrollable dangers” of “almost metaphysical dimension.” In his writing, he uses disease as a device to illuminate and intensify his recurring themes of love, power and solitude. Plagues make love more ardent, cut off a village from the outside world, and highlight the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots.

García’s Márquez’s most developed engagement with disease is in Love in the Time of Cholera (1985), set from the 1870s to the 1920s in a Colombian Caribbean city. Fermina, the nouveau riche daughter of a mule trader, arrives in the city at the beginning of a cholera outbreak. She falls in love with Florentino, an unrefined telegraph operator, but her domineering father rejects Florentino’s proposal. He later accepts the clean-cut Juvenal Urbino—a respectable doctor who has recently returned from Europe with grand plans to improve public health. Fermina’s marriage to a physician condemns Florentino to fifty years as a patient afflicted by lovesickness.

On one level, the novel compares the physical symptoms of cholera with the emotional ones of unrequited passion. But for García Márquez, this is no binary distinction. Florentino may be a dreamy lovelorn romantic, but his illness has such bodily symptoms as diarrhoea, green vomit and sudden fainting. Florentino’s godfather, a homeopath, is alarmed by the patient’s “weak pulse, the hoarse breathing, and the pale perspiration of a dying man.” He concludes “that the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera.”

Barred from seeing Fermina, Florentino tests the limits by serenading her with a violin. He is arrested by the Conservative local authorities for supposedly sending the Liberals coded messages in G major. For three secluded nights in his cell, Florentino is alone in his love. He stays in that metaphorical romantic isolation for the next five decades; not even dalliances with 622 other women can cure his lovesickness.

Dr Urbino’s death allows Florentino to cure his disease of the heart. He approaches Fermina at her husband’s funeral wake and, after overcoming tempestuous arguments, Fermina eventually agrees to a trip along the great Magdalena River. Aboard, the protagonists—now in their seventies—finally consummate their relationship. And to ensure their lovemaking is not interrupted by the port authorities, Florentino tells the riverboat captain to fly the yellow flag to indicate that the ship contains diseased passengers. The cholera epidemic may not have abated but, by the end of the novel, Florentino’s lovesickness has a panacea.  

In Love in the Time of Cholera, sickness is primarily juxtaposed with love; but in One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) it is chiefly associated with isolation. This time the disease is insomnia—brought to the village of Macondo by Rebeca, the timid adopted daughter of the patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía. When he realises the plague is spreading, the patriarch imposes a lockdown “so effective that the day came when the emergency situation was accepted as a natural thing.” Lockdown briefly restores Macondo, which had been slowly mooring itself to the outside world, to its original secluded, quasi-Edenic state—a state that allows villagers to enjoy simpler pleasures such as interminable yarns about castrated chickens.

Reinforcing García Márquez’s habitual concern for power and love, Rebeca—the disease carrier— marries her brother by adoption, José Arcadio Buendía II. Úrsula, their mother and the village matriarch, is ashamed by the marriage and banishes the couple from the family home, sending them into another form of solitude.

The theme of power, and who has it, comes through strongest in García Márquez’s screenplay The Year of the Plague (1979), which adapts Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year from 1660s London to 1970s Mexico. While the president hosts a lavish birthday celebration, the poor are tossed into mass graves. A homeless man—surely one of the next to be buried—is beaten by youths. Across town, in the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie, piano soirées continue undeterred.

The virus doesn’t so much change society as widen its fissures. The film ends with a doctor—separated from his quarantining family and his lover—traipsing through the debris of a deserted street. Pestilence magnifies notions of love, power and solitude, but does not revoke the social order. Rather than a great leveller, this plague is classist.

García Márquez maintains a wry tone. In contrast to Sophocles’s Oedipus the King, which García Márquez called “the perfect work,” his own treatment of disease does not bring mere gloom. The spirit of The Year of the Plague is as much satirical as critical. In particular, García Márquez mocks the elites—the government and media powerbrokers—who collude to downplay the effects of the disease sweeping the megalopolis. When the doctor suggests policies such as self-isolation, a bureaucrat retorts that these measures “are worse than the plague itself.” Near the end of the film, the president announces: “During my tenure there will never be a plague.” The insomnia plague in One Hundred Years of Solitude also showcases García Márquez’s playful humour. The plague causes a bout of amnesia so powerful that José Arcadio Buendía has to label objects, even livestock, with their name and purpose: “This is the cow. She must be milked every morning so that she will produce milk, and the milk must be boiled in order to be mixed with coffee to make coffee and milk.” And in Love in the Time of Cholera, although the theme is unrequited passion, García Márquez’s tenor is not tragic but comic.

Writing about plagues allowed García Márquez to explore life’s extremities, and the ways in which momentous events affect our interactions with the world, and the limits of what we can do. Reading his work in 2020 is a reminder to heed the message of his Nobel Speech—that “Neither floods nor plagues, famines nor cataclysms, nor even the eternal wars of century upon century, have been able to subdue the persistent advantage of life.”

From the Magdalena, to Macondo, to Mexico, García Márquez takes plague—a theme associated, even in his own life, with biblical destruction—and finds hardiness, heart and humour. As he said to an interviewer in 1988, “What I find curious is that the great plagues have always produced great excesses. They make people want to live more.”