Book: Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1981)
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Genre: Magical Realism, Crime, Mystery
Page Count: 122 pgs
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
(Read for Lit Club)
There had never been a death so foretold.
As inevitable as the sunrise was the untimely death of Santiago Nassar.
His death rung like morning church bells across the early pale sky. As the mist rose from the wet earth, the secret too diffused into the salty air which quietly glared at all who knew of the foretold death: From the townspeople to the omens they spoke of; from Nassar to the premonitions he sullenly dreamt of; from the perpetrators to the crime they proclaimed of; this act of murder was not just premeditated, but signed directly by fate.
Set within a small, nameless Colombian town, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tries to recover a story buried within the whispering thickets of the anonymous village. Nobel Laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez superbly blends myth and fact to repeatedly show the material effect of ritualistic superstition especially in conjunction with the real and tangible.
Yet this isn’t a tale about the crime, matter of fact the act just serves as a crux for something far more encompassing.
Structured as a mystery, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is first and foremost a piece of journalistic nature that appears to unfold the “truth” behind the inexplicable murder. Marquez crafts this enthralling tale with polarizing elements: one part steeped in factual investigation and the other in mystical reinforcement, and somewhere in between the two awaits the truth, silently glaring from a comfortable distance without so much of a whimper or fuss, never fully revealing itself in neither fact nor fiction. Second and more importantly, this is a narrative that intertwines the aforesaid to reveal the inner machinations of a collective conscious – represented by the town – subdued by their monolithic virtues, unrelenting loyalty to said virtues, and an inclination to act without will. And to show just how far this cycle go? Perhaps it could be asserted that such a cosmic cycle perpetrated the death of Nassar – consciously and collectively.
The plot moves backward as it does forward, weaving through the past and present. It starts with an unnamed narrator explaining his return to this unnamed town 25 years after the murder of Santiago Nassar had taken place. It is revealed early on that Nassar had been killed by the Vicario brothers as a solemn act of retribution for their sister’s displaced honor. The death was Foretold in a very literal manner: the townspeople knew of it implicitly and explicitly, the dreams and omens foreshadowed it, the air carried it. Yet the more that is revealed, the less that is understood. It seems that the properties of this town’s history, time, and memory are safely tucked within a static state of flux slithering opaquely outside of the reader’s grasp.
In an effort to keep the facts “straight”, Marquez adopts at face, a very stringent tone, focusing on the event and tying it together through the ruins still left over in the memories of those who were there. This in itself sets up to be an inherently unreliable and faulty approach, but as the narrative progresses the distinction between fact and truth start to surface. Through the shoddy memories of various characters, and reconstructing the event the narrator attempts to unlock the truth behind how and why a death that was so inevitable and prophesized was allowed to happen, and ultimately who was responsible beyond the obvious. However, something deeper lies at the core of what is being conveyed here that cannot be explained simply by welding the pieces together strung by fact alone. And this is where Marquez’s infinite genius shines as a master storyteller.
Under the facade of a murder, Marquez seams together the soul of the narrative with arguable satirical elements and an earnest reproach to show a specific culture and how cultural tendencies can more often than not collectivize the populous, as if in a hive, and leave them with little to no regard for individual will (if it can even exist at all and what the implications of such a non-existence are). Therefore the superficial truth that the book sets to initially drive out becomes irrelevant, as it isn’t the truth that Marquez sets out to deliver, but the consequence of seeking such a truth for this culture while exposing the fanaticism of such a mechanically unaware conscious.
The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren’t doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate.
In effect then, the tale shifts out from an already-solved mystery to a societal breakdown, where Marquez taps into the psyche of a collective will to explore a deeply disturbing phenomenon that offsets the search for x into a psychological exploration of human nature and societal dangers. The death of Santiago Nassar – which could have been in vain – becomes the scapegoat of the narrative. Chronicles of a Death Foretold is thus not concerned with judgment or justice, nor is it concerned with creating a hearty dualism between the murdered and the murderer, but rather engrossed in its pursuit of decisive exploration of human irrationality through those elements, especially when blindly condoned by status quo.
We don’t know whether Santiago Nassar was guilty of the treachery that the Vicario brothers accused him of and it doesn’t matter, because under the earth of the matter it is evident that fact plays little to no role here. Even with the evidentiary unreliable narrator there is visible reliability in the dissonance between him, the town, and their history. Marquez brings out this credibility through his veiled disapproval of such a hive mentality through this personable and visceral guilt that the townspeople cannot rid themselves of (a universal characteristic of a tainted history). This isn’t the kind of criticism that preaches or ridicules, but rather just sheds light on a society that might initially seem intently ignorant, but upon closer examination seem eerily similar to a society closer to home.
The brothers were brought up to be men. The girls were brought up to be married. They knew how to do screen embroidery, sew by machine, weave bone lace, wash and iron, make artificial flowers and fancy candy, and write engagement announcements… my mother thought there were no better-reared daughters. ‘They’re perfect,’ she was frequently heard to say. ‘Any man will be happy with them because they’ve been raised to suffer.’
There are also some strong Latin American cultural undertones (such as old-school Latin machismo, patriarchal constructs, gender divides, and superstitions) that are perforated within the story and to fully understand the whys, the cultural subtleties must be framed within contextualization – but the holistic value and undertaking of the novel can be relished on a universal level. And universality goes a long way since not many can approach the level of nuanced writing within a subculture/context and have it fall with meaning upon all minds – alike or different.
The one very small criticism I have of this novel is my absolute indifference to most of the characters. They all just sort of are, just like their town, without much to say or to do but rather to simply exist within this plane of one-dimensional existence. Granted that this is the intent, I can’t help but think that to display an erosion of individuality would really have lit up if there was some evidence of it in the first place. The implications against are fantastically drawn up, but there is nothing really to pit the dark forces against beyond themselves. Other than that, the novella transcends in every element of storytelling while coating it all up in vivid, descriptive language that just captivates and penetrates the deepest abode of one’s perception of language.
Overall, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a stellar, multi-faceted novella that speaks of a death foretold and foretells the consequences of letting such an act occur. A marvelously written piece; it enraptured me from the get-go and maintained momentum until the final pages. A short, dark story that probes the mind, repels the heart, and entangles the soul.
… but when you listened with the stethoscope you could hear the tears bubbling inside his heart.