“….it was also in the mule-drawn trolley that Florentino Ariza met Leona Cassiani, who was the true woman in his life although neither of them knew it and they never made love…black, young, pretty, but a whore beyond the shadow of a doubt….”
Did I read that correctly? Florentino Ariza, the chief protagonist in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s iconic novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, was attracted to a Black woman? I had to read over this passage two or three times before my mind could conjure an image of a Black woman taking center stage.
I was the only Black person, male or female, in the June 2014 first-term group in the Bennington Writing Seminars. Though my experiences overall were wonderful, I was constantly bombarded with references to Alice Munro’s mastery of prose, Henry James’ essays, and Virginia Woolf’s techniques. Not a single notable author of African descent performed at the guest readings.
I was always thinking about how I should present myself as a literary artist and how I should create my characters, both white and of color. As in so many other mediums, whiteness was considered to be the standard — the standard of excellence, wealth, and most definitely, beauty. I tried to diversify the list of novels I read. So why was I so surprised when I first encountered Leona Cassiani?
For one, it could be because I’ve read too much Tolstoy, who refers to Black people as “negroes” in philosophical conversations amongst aristocrats who reference them as abstractions in the context of modern ideals — not as human beings. As I read Tolstoy, I began to absorb his thoughts, and inevitably wound up imagining my own people as hollow shells that not even the greatest of writers could fill. Jean-Paul Sartre, another literary titan, is a little more generous, but not much. He gives the negro action, such as running to go get white people water and food. But giving them a voice? Oh, no, that’s too much.
But Leona Cassiani, my God. First, I’d never seen a name that beautiful belonging to a Black woman in literature, and a sex worker at that. The name naturally rolls off the tongue, especially that surname, which has a sort of rhythm to it. What’s more, Marquez describes her as pretty. Never had I read a novel by a non-Black author that called a Black woman pretty without comparing her to anyone else. Marquez doesn’t describe her features in detail, just says that she is pretty. He demands that the reader imagine her this way, a task in and of itself for those who automatically believe a character to be white unless stated otherwise.
As I read this passage, something happened to me. I felt like a wall had been shattered. Black women could be beautiful. Literature should not obstruct this fact, but emphasize it.
I felt just as captivated by Leona Cassiani’s appearance as Florentino Ariza was. As he walked to the slave quarters to find Leona there, I could hear his panting, his feet traversing the labyrinthine streets. When he realizes that a man of his stature should not be there, Leona finds him before he can leave, unnoticed.
“‘You made a mistake, good-looking,’ he said. ‘I don’t do that.’”
“‘Of course you do,’ she said. One can see it on your face.’”
She had a voice. I briefly paused before reading on. I was lost in my own thoughts, wondering what her voice sounded like. Perhaps it was velvety and rich, which would seem plausible for someone as intuitive as she. Or maybe it was cold and acerbic, resulting from her many years of service to men of whose games she grew tired. Whatever it was, however she sounded, Marquez breathed life into Leona when he gave her a voice — and not just any voice, but a strong one.
This is the only time Marquez writes a dialogue between Leona and Florentino, and I believe it to be perfect this way. I would argue that Leona and Florentino don’t need to speak too much, for their language — of eye contact, facial expressions — is shrouded in secrecy. They understand each other despite their obvious differences: him being an aristocrat, she being a slave; him being Latino, she being Black.
Despite all this time together, Leona never gives herself to Florentino, even though one would almost believe this act to be an inevitability because of her profession. Florentino Ariza is not allowed to have her just because she sleeps with other men. Instead, Leona gives Florentino something much more powerful: secrecy. She is trustworthy, and loyal to Florentino’s frequent oscillations about love and the human condition. In exchange, Florentino gives her a low-level job, which ultimately leads to her assuming the elite position of General Secretaryship. All of this happens during a clandestine meeting in a mule-drawn trolley. She never wanted love from Florentino, especially not love that was paid for, but social ascension.
As a religious woman, upon first reading, I thought, “Why did Marquez make the Black woman a whore?” Sex work is traditionally seen as shameful by both religious and patriarchal standards, and being Black in this colonial era is already enough of a battle to fight. These were my unadulterated thoughts. But then, at the end, I wondered, “Why not?” There was nothing wrong with Leona being a sex worker. How she chose that profession was none of my business — and that’s to assume that it wasn’t chosen for her. Leona had three battles to fight: sex work, Blackness, and womanhood, and she did it all with dedication and the strength of her character. In the end, I ended up praising Marquez for writing her the way he did. It was real, and worthy of admiration.
In the end, Leona Cassiani leaves in the same manner in which she was introduced: by a mule-drawn trolley. After countless accomplishments, Leona simply “moved on with her life.” That’s the human condition, and Marquez makes Leona a part of it. She is granted two types of mobility: social and personal. We learn about her rise to power, but not as much about the inner workings of her mind. We know her, but we don’t know her, for Marquez treats her as an enigma.
This elusiveness worked for me. In the moment I spent reading about Leona Cassiani, I wanted to be her. I could relate to her. I wanted to captivate a young impressionable man from a higher social status while being Black at the same time. She made me believe it could be done, even if the story was fictional. After all, Marquez did describe Leona Cassiani as “the one true woman.” She had control over her mind and her body in an era when this was virtually impossible. Her story was not sad, but triumphant and calculating — and I loved it. That is what Black womanhood means to me: a world of possibility. Such serendipity is not only reserved for white characters.