Plague Plots - Dispatches from Gabriel García Márquez

10/30/2014 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Can the accounts and depictions transmitted by Love in the Time of Cholera help us cope with Ebola?


Love in the Time of Cholera

Cartagena, Colombia. 1880 - 1930.
The contagions, contractions, and quarantines brought on by cholera epidemics serve as cautionary tales regarding public health, and, eventually, provide "cover" for a long-festering romantic "infection."

A third of the way into this novel (so evocative of place, time, and social taboos), the reader learns that, as a young physician, Dr. Juvenal Urbino had gained justifiable acclaim in battling cholera, along with "atavistic superstitions," ignorance, and municipal intransigence.

"His obsession was the dangerous lack of sanitation" - he persisted in advocating for closing open sewers that had become immense breeding grounds for rats; and for establishing "obligatory training courses" that would teach the poor "how to build their own latrines." Centuries of indiscriminate garbage disposal had turned mangrove thickets into "swamps of putrefaction," and so he pushed for regular incineration at uninhabited areas.

Life in the Time of Putrefaction

Of special concern was the lack of hygiene in the public market: The market was "set on its own garbage heap, at the mercy of capricious tides... where the bay belched filth from the sewers back onto the land." To compound matters, "the offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was also thrown away there - severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse floated there, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood."

Fouled drinking water had long posed a widespread "mortal threat." Dr. Urbino's "renovating spirit" along with his "maniacal sense of civic duty" brought about some purification measures.

The first victims of cholera "were struck down in the standing water of the marketplace" and the cemeteries were soon filled to overflowing. Two orchards and cattle ranches had to be repurposed for interments. The hasty three-deep coffin-less burials "had to be stopped because the brimming ground turned into a sponge that oozed sickening, infected blood at every step."

"Life" in the Time of Quarantine

The young physician's zeal and commitment is explained in large part by his discovery that his father (a physician who dealt with cholera thirty years before) had retreated to a complete self-quarantine "when he recognized in himself the irreversible symptoms that he had seen and pitied in others." The father "did not attempt a useless struggle but withdrew from the world so as not to infect anyone else."

The stench of the market, the rats in the sewers, and the children rolling naked in the puddles of the streets convinced the son that the cholera might again visit his shores. He instigated a series of quarantines beginning with a contaminated schooner that had offloaded hands who soon succumbed to the disease, "choked by a grainy white vomit." Subsequently, entire neighborhoods were subjected to strict medical supervision.

Passions and Obsessions

Cholera had been Dr. Juvenal Urbino's obsession; sanitation his passion. As a young physician, he was intent on removing "sanctuaries" for disease.

The other male protagonist in this novel struggles to master an obsessive love for a woman whose favor had been "quarantined" from him. Over decades, he nurses his longing. Would my Nursing and other Health Science students buy into such an obsession? Was Nobel Laureate García Márquez trying to get us to think of such unrequited love as a suffering that could ravage like a plague?

At the very end of the novel, the yellow flag of cholera is hoisted to establish a kind of quarantine that liberates. There's an isolation in which a passion might take hold and a love-sickness quelled.

Other Plague Plots and Dispatches

Perhaps selections from two historical novels will provide my students with telling perspectives on pestilence and contagion: the likely candidates are Alessandro Manzoni's The Betrothed and Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague. What may prove to resonate are the Bubonic ravages and defenses depicted in Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith and in Albert Camus' The Plague.

My thoughts regarding these novels are about to come out of isolation.