08 August 2009

Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Gabriel García Márquez)

It isn’t right that everybody should know that they’re going to kill her son and she the only one who doesn’t.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold can really stand another rereading. There is still a lot to be mined for such a short book, a novella in fact. Gabriel García Márquez has so imbued the book with folk wisdom and traditional beliefs that I find that this is not one of those ‘magical realist’ works that has everyone gasping in disbelief. It is rooted in its own domestic atmosphere of news and gossips.

The novella centers on a courtship, a wedding, and a murder. There’s no magic realism in these pages. There is fatal realism, for sure. It concerns mass guilt and a stab at the culture of machismo that has so pervaded the decisions of an entire village to condone a murder. Throughout the narrative, a sustained voice of inevitability permeates the telling that it is impossible not to turn your eyes away from the pages, even if the outcome is already foretold, even if by rereading, it is somehow retold.

The patriarchal and matriarchal society is what defines the novella’s strength as more than a chronicle but a document of conventional attitudes on such principles as honor and justice. I think also that the role of mothers in Chronicle of a Death Foretold is important in understanding the whole puzzle, just as important as the machismo that propels the announced crime of murder to its bloody success.

You always have to take the side of the dead.

The man whose death is foretold is Santiago Nasar. The motive is clear: he is accused of the unforgivable crime of tarnishing the honor of a just-married woman, Angela Vicario. Only in the man’s death will the woman’s honor be regained. A murder is then set in motion – a murder that has every chance of being thwarted and yet every indication of being a foregone conclusion.

The novella’s chronicler is one of Santiago Nasar’s friends who comes back to investigate the cold case a good many years after. With the obsession of a journalist, he interviews almost all the people involved in the crime. The major witnesses sought for explanations and recollections include Angela Vicario herself and Pedro Vicario, one of the two murderers who are twin brothers of Angela Vicario. (It was all too neat that the killers be twins. Perhaps to better emphasize the conflict and wavering of resolve between them.) Yet the primary witness is the entire village who was helpless to stop the crime unfolding before their very eyes.

There had never been a death more foretold.

What is poetic justice? Is it the same as the plain old romantic justice that is a condition of a society in which evil is outshone by good?

The novella is a lens for observing human behavior and responses shaped by a tragic event. The novelist is deft in providing all the necessary means, motive, and opportunities for a crime whose consummation is the very reflection of guilt, both individual and collective. There is a popular backing behind the murder and the narrator tries to find out why. Eventually it is no longer essential to know whether Santiago Nasar really is guilty or innocent of “dishonoring” a woman– this is not ultimately resolved at the end. What is perhaps more important is to understand why so many people can be so powerless to stop something they have all the means to prevent.

Is it deep-seated tradition that puts the village on the spot and leads them to commit a crime of omission? How can people be expected to react and to take action, if their long held beliefs in things such as honor is the one put on trial? It is this very same belief that commanded “what a man should do” to avenge the honor lost. It's not unlike the fundamentalist attitudes of religion.

For years we couldn’t talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety. 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.

This is a book in which a second reading will not put anything in better perspective but will leave the virtue of ambiguity intact. It does not judge anyone. Not the killers, not the murdered man, not the woman on whose disgrace the murder was predicated. The killers only could do what is expected of them. The book does not judge anyone because everyone is implicated in the crime.

Gabriel García Márquez’s blow by blow style is a powerful thing. He made the reader spectator to the crime. On second reading, the reader is still held hostage by the narrative pull. It has the intensity of a thriller. The murder, even if already forecast in advance, is still a murder mystery and will remain unsolved.

Love can be learned, too. This cliché is put to good use in a surprising subplot. But that is another story. If the pursuit of love is like falconry, what about the pursuit of truth? The falcon cannot hear the falconer?

(Image: Le Fauconnier. France, 17th century; watercolor and gouache on vellum)

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