“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

Wow. What an amazing book. I feel like I’ve been dazzled and bewildered by the tropical sun and a profusion of many-coloured birds and flowers. I find myself trying to unravel the layers of memory and put events into order but I think that is not what we are meant to do. I too find that my “linear habits” have “begun to spin around a single common anxiety…trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible.”

In the case of the townspeople of this novella, that anxiety is, I believe, the desire to fit into a myth, to find “an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate.” In a lecture titled Gabriel García Márquez and the invention of America,” Carlos Fuentes said:

One way of seeing Latin American history, then, is as a pilgrimage from a founding utopia to a cruel epic that degrades utopia if the mythic imagination does not intervene so as to interrupt the onslaught of fatality and seek to recover the possibilities of freedom. One of the more extraordinary aspects of García Márquez’s novels is that its structure corresponds to the profounder historicity of Latin America: the tension between utopia, epic, and myth.

I don’t pretend to understand this fully—I know little of Latin American history, I’ve read almost no Latin American literature, and though I have blood ties to the region I was raised in el Norte—but this book gives the strong impression of a people desperate to abdicate their personal agency to fit into a myth that is, they hope, more comfortable or at least more orderly than (epic) reality.

Why didn’t anyone warn Santiago Nasar that he was about to be killed? On the surface, they were in denial about the possibility that the murder would even be carried out. Deeper than that, though, I think they didn’t feel they had the “authority” to interfere with duty and with fate, that is, with the mythic plot (in the literary sense) that had been set in motion. Even Clotilde Armenta, who knew the most about the murderous plot and seemed to believe it the most (i.e. she disbelieved the myth that it was inevitable), could do no more than to implore those close to Nasar to warn first his mother and finally himself. “He’s as good as dead already,” Pedro Vicario prophesies, partly as a threat, but perhaps partly with the fatalistic awareness that no one was going to stop them, and relieve them from their “horrible duty” to kill.

The other aspect of mythic denial in the book was the denial of Nasar’s sexual guilt.

For [the magistrate], just as for Santiago Nasar’s closest friends, the victim’s very behavior during his last hours was overwhelming proof of his innocence.

This despite the fact that some of his last hours were spent in the brothel, with all his friends, including the narrator. This, among other things, highlights the sexual double standard underlying this drama. Nasar was well known as a “sparrow hawk” who “went about…nipping the bud of any wayward virgin.” The narrator admits that his entire generation received the mulatto prostitutes’ “mercies,” and even one of the killers is suffering from terrible gonorrhea contracted while in the army. At three different times Angela Vicario categorically states that Nasar was her seducer, yet Nasar’s guilt is never established in the minds of the community or the magistrate. The sexual impunity enjoyed by men in this community is fully exposed when no one can imagine why he would be sneaking into his fiancées bedroom, as he did just a few minutes before his death.

However, it would be too easy to say that Nasar got his comeuppance. It is difficult to say who was a victim and who was a perpetrator. The entire community was “frightened by its own crime,” and sought ways to absolve themselves of a guilt they didn’t seem to understand. To the town, Bayardo, the golden-eyed devil in calfskin, was the real victim, the one who “lost everything.” Pedro and Pablo were doing their duty, and were absolved by both Church and State. Nasar “expiated the insult,” or at least the insult he was supposed to have committed, according to the myth, which no one believed because of the other myth of male sexual innocence. Angela “was in possession of her honor once more” yet her mother tried to “bury her alive” as if Angela was the guilty one. Angela is guilty, but of sexual obsession with Bayardo, who returns to her 17 years later, laying his saddlebags on her sewing machine, giving an indication of the sort of relationship that I imagine would ensue. As in all mythic sacrifice, the actual victim, Nasar, is little more than a symbol of the community’s sins and it is entirely according to form that the whole town watches as the door is painted with his blood.

García Márquez is clearly a master of the gory details. I wish I had not read the last chapters so soon after breakfast. The autopsy is described as a “massacre” and indeed it seems to traumatize the whole town, even turning the war-hardened mayor into vegetarian. Try as they might to stay in their myth of honor and order, the “town that was an open wound” doesn’t easily recover from the horrifying reality that their mythic living brought about.

There is much more that could be said about sex, class, and race, and about the recurring imagery—flowers, memory, sacrifice, gold, cattle and pigs, blindness and visions—that enrich this story, but I am curious to read the thoughts of the other Slaves of Golconda so I will post this and go join the discussion over at MetaxuCafé.

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4 comments on ““Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

  1. Quillhill says:

    Good work, Sylvia. I love your interpretation, especially “I think they didn't feel they had the “authority” to interfere with duty and with fate.” Fate is not just at play in this death, but pervades all of life. A rather foreign concept to many Americans for whom complete liberty and free will is the guiding force.

  2. Sylvia says:

    Thanks. One of the Slaves compared this to Greek tragedy and I think that is probably quite appropriate. (Hmm, maybe we should read a Greek tragedy next? García Márquez said Oedipus Rex had perfect structure.)
    Thanks for getting us together, Jeff. It's great fun to read so many different perspectives at once. 🙂

  3. Ella says:

    Great review, Sylvia – and I've enjoyed your posts on Gabo over the past week.

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