The Museum of Innocence is a couple of brick thick and heavy at more than 700 pages; it’s been a long time since I last read such a long-winded novel.  The first 200 pages set the story: a rich Istanbulite, Kemal, about to get engaged with a girl from the same social standing meets and falls in love with a long-distant cousin. Kemal plays with the poor cousin’s feelings (inviting her to his lavish engagement party at the posh Hilton while promising to right the wrong) and then when she steps out of his life, he feels unlatched and tries to get back to his old routine without success. The whole thing develops in the length of a month and feels reasonably paced: readers are introduced to various characters of the Istanbul bourgeoisie, their neighborhoods and activities (cruises on the Bosphorus, brothel visits), and get acquainted with the idea that there’s an actual museum, and it’s dedicated to the memory of his poor cousin … and you can’t help guessing along what happens and what is the end result. The next 400 pages take place over the next 8 years. You would think that it would be much faster, but no, it is drawn out because it mostly revolves around Kemal spending time with Fusun’s family every night to court her (now married) while everyone pretends that he’s just a rich kind relative. In those years, he picks up millions of items from their house, from cigarette butts to saltshakers. I struggled to flip the pages, in one part because I was fed up with such obsessive possessive love that seems to have no rational explanation. (What exactly is it about Fusun that he loves anyway? Besides the fact that he relishes in her natural beauty and their illicit month of daily love-making.) At the same time it was interesting  sociologically to read about the rituals of the family and the Turkish society (in Istanbul at least), and a curiosity about how this would all end. The last 100 pages tied up the whole story, and unexpectedly, as everything came together and I can look at it wholly, I enjoy it a lot more. I can’t say that it’s my favorite, or even among my top 10 or 20, but I’m fond of it. From feeling alienated to the protagonist, I have sympathy for him, though not empathy. And the background which is the Turkish society just come out quite prominent, the expectations of the sexes, of young people, of poor people, of rich people. It feels quite suffocating to be caged in, and I can relate to what it feels like to live in a society where the rules are rigid and you feel like you’d get punished and ostracized for breaking any of them.

Love in the Time of Cholera is another story of lifelong obsessive irrational love, but the magic of Garcia Marquez is that he tells a million interesting “side stories” while keeping you engaged with the “main” plot. The young Florentino falls in love with the teenage Fermina and persuades her into a secret affair by correspondence. Later when she grows up and realizes it was just a fantasy, she dumps him and gets married to the respectable and lively Dr. Urbino. Florentinio then waits out half a century till Dr. Urbino dies so he can court Fermina again. In those five decades, he works his way up society and discreetly beds more than 600 women and has a notebook to keep track of all of them. Oh yes, Garcia Marquez’ are always fantastical, and quite believable. You learn about love in its different shades and tones: in marriage, when they’re young and under the thumb of the husband’s mother, when they’re on their own and absolutely free to do as they please, when they’re old and keep going back to their ritual arguments. In affair, young widows that still have the fire in them, old widows as they’re experienced and still enjoy it, women with strict fathers, and even those with husbands, etc. But the last one really pushes the limit, and for me, it crosses the boundary and repulses me. Florentino, in his 70s, grooms for his 14-year-old protegee America into his lover. No matter what can be said about culture and the time set in the novel, I couldn’t get over how morally wrong that is, and almost didn’t finish the book. I turned from cheering for a hopeless romantic to hoping that his lunatic selfish behaviors are revealed and he would lose Fermina forever. The last part focuses on his relationship with Fermina, now that she is a widow. It does have a pleasant note and for a while I thought this was the point of the story, of finding your true love in old age and enjoying the simple things in life together. But Garcia Marquez being himself leaves me utterly perplexed by the ending. Florentino persuades Fermina to go on a river cruise with him, and then on the way back, he decides to fake an outbreak of cholera so that he and Fermina (together with the captain and his lover) can have the whole boat to themselves. When they arrive at port, not knowing how to deal with authorities, Florentino orders the captain to keep on sailing with the cholera flag up. I closed the book with a loud “wtf!” Now that I’ve had more time to think about it, my impression is that it is a chronicle of loves, including diseased love. In that sense, it is ultra realistic. Haven’t we all heard stories of people that suffer and make others suffer, or even kill, in the name of what they call love?

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