Summer readings: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
The novel's exotic Caribbean island was a perfect counterpoint to my gap-year European inter-railing
Friday 19 August 2011 15.00 BST
The scent of camellias mingled with orange blossom, the romantic yet earthy sensuality of the prose, the exotic women and lovestruck men. Of all the intense sensory impressions of Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, the one that has always stuck with me is Dr Juvenal Urbino's insistence on spraying his asparagus-scented urine on his garden.
That might be partly because Márquez's South America was (at least half) a world away from from the cathedrals of Florence and canals of Amsterdam where I was spending the summer of my gap year inter-railing between 20 years ago.
But the perfect holiday read is not necessarily a worthy tome that will enrich your experience or understanding of the culture you're visiting. It can be a vivid evocation of a place so different and exotic – in this case, a fragrant yet slightly dissolute Caribbean island – that it transports you from the discomfort of a 12-hour train journey to somewhere else entirely.
The books my friend and I brought shared our travails along the way – used to bash in tent pegs, left sodden after a sudden storm, borrowed and swapped. My other standout book of the trip, Carson McCullers's sparse, sad Member of the Wedding, came back with a hole gouged through its middle. And friends I later saw off on a similar trip with the same battered tome berated me for trying to put a dampener on their holiday mood (due to its content, rather than its condition). A lesson that not everyone will share your idea of a good holiday read.
Love in the Time of Cholera was probably one of the first books I read that introduced me to a South American sensibility, having been immersed in a traditional English A-level. That sense of reality slightly altered, not quite magical realism but not life as we know it, despite the faded grandeur and trappings of a post-colonial state.
Re-reading it a few years ago, unsurprisingly I struggled to recapture the same sense of wonder, in busy working life, reading snatches in 10-minute tube journeys and trying to keep up with the interweaving narratives from across the generations. But perhaps what my jaded adult mind appreciated more was the wry humour in the narrative voices, a sense of the fun Márquez is poking at the pretensions of his characters and their little world.