There you have it. From the first sentence of Chronicle of a Death Foretold Gabriel Garcia Marquez reveals what’s going to happen – someone named Santiago Nasar is going to be killed and this is the chronicle of his death…foretold. A poorer author, an author of lesser quality wouldn’t be able to pull out a story, let alone a masterpiece from this. The most important ingredient is missing – the building suspense that most authors rely on to engage their readers is not there. We know who is going to be killed after the first sentence and we know who killed him after the first couple of sentences. But this is Marquez and his qualities as a storyteller and as a journalist are indisputable. In his novella the brilliant Latin-American tells the story of a senseless murder, committed as much by the actual killers as by the entire community.
Imagine what it would be like if everyone around you knows you would be killed in an hour or so but nobody tells you. You spend the entire night celebrating the wedding of a woman who would soon become the reason for your demise. You drink with your friends and come home for a few hours before setting to meet the Bishop coming by boat. You pass by your servants, your neighbors, your murderers and your friends and all of them know – you are going to die.
That is what happens to Santiago Nasar, a prominent and wealthy townsman, when Angela Vicario accuses him of taking her virginity. Hours after her marriage, the girl is returned to her mother and the only choice for her two brothers to restore the family honor is to kill the “perpetrator”. As the story unfolds, it becomes quite clear that they don’t really want to shed the man’s blood; it’s just what the entire community is expecting them to do and what the family pride dictates. They set out to complete their mission, sharing on the way their plans with anyone who wants to hear, as if hoping someone would stop them. But nobody does. The town’s officials, the police, the neighbors and even some of Santiago’s friends come across the facts but fail to act. Or simply don’t want to.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is told through the eyes of a man who returns on the crime scene many years later to investigate and talk to witnesses. There are as many versions as people in the village – for some it was a shiny day, for others it poured like hell. But everyone seems to agree on one point – Santiago was going to be killed and they knew it. The author himself clearly shows the young man is not guilty. But innocence doesn’t really matter. It is never revealed why Santiago was chosen or who the real “perpetrator” was. But again this doesn’t matter. The town and the Vicario brothers need a victim. And even though the brothers Vicario killed Santiago, multiple times, Santiago’s blood was all over the hands of the rest, who knew but didn’t do anything to prevent it.
In a pseudo-journalistic fashion Marquez tells the story of a real-life murder and gently takes the reader into the world of magical realism, where the failure to act makes you as guilty as the murderers themselves. In that sense Santiago Nasar is the victim of society’s inertness, of that firmly rooted thought that if it doesn’t affect you personally, it’s not your responsibility. Everyday, I witness wrongdoings and I rarely do something to stop them – it’s none of my business, I say. But when this ignorance becomes a rule rather than an exception and when an entire community closes their eyes on purpose and comes up with excuses for not intervening, evil flourishes. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the townspeople were just about to warn Santiago and they simply didn’t. It’s a depressing thought of how much more humanity can accomplish if it could only stop for a moment and take a stand towards injustice and violence.
The strength of Chronicle of a Death Foretold is not in the suspense of the crime and in that sense it somewhat reminds me of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Marquez’s strength, as always, is in the beautifully written prose, in the engaging characters, in the power of magical realism to present a different view of the world. The Latin American can be so different – he wrote about everlasting love in Love in the Time of Cholera, he created a world of superstitions, demons, and love in In Love and Other Demons and in Chronicle of a Death Foretold he portrayed a collective murder. Yet, in every piece of literature I can hear this voice I love so much – a voice with wisdom and a bit of magic in it.