Chronicle of a Death Foretold GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ
Gabriel García Márquez was born in Aracataca, Colombia, in 1928, the eldest of sixteen children. After graduating from the University of Bogota, he worked as a reporter for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador and as a foreign correspondent in Rome, Paris, Barcelona, Caracas, and New York. His most famous work, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold occupies a unique place among Márquez’s works because the narrative is both journalistic and fictitious. García frequently uses journalistic techniques in his fiction. For example, in most of his novels he creates a high level of interest in the very first line of the text, and employs many journalistic details based on close observation throughout the entire novel. Márquez himself said that he became a good journalist by reading literature, and that journalism in turn helped him maintain contact with reality, which he considers essential to writing good literature.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Latin-American novel did little besides realistically portray of regional or national life and customs. In terms of narrative technique, this fiction functioned within the realist tradition of the nineteenth century. In the late 1940s, Latin-American novels changed, as they had been influenced by the modernist novels of Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner. Such modernist novelists were well-known among Latin American intellectuals by the 1930s.
Along with contemporaries such as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias, the Mexican Agustin Yanez, and the Argentine Leopoldo Marechal, Gabriel García Márquez contributed novels that insisted on the right of invention. The books were concerned with the construction of new realities, not the reflection of existing themes. One technique that came into being in this fiction is magic realism, which is the incorporation of fantastic or mythical elements matter-of-factly into otherwise realistic fiction. Alejo Carpentier was the first to use the term when he recognized the tendency of his region’s authors to illustrate the mundane by means of the extraordinary.
Colombia prides itself on being a stronghold of Spanish tradition. Gabriel García Márquez became part of a coastal group that wanted to leave Bogota and the conservative attitudes prevalent in much of Colombia. Coastal towns like Barranquilla were more supportive of innovative and imaginative literature. Márquez and his contemporaries involved in this coastal movement were called the "Group of Barranquilla." Márquez’s first novel, Leafstorm, strongly reflects Faulkner’s influence in its structure and narrative point of view. In the 1940s, Márquez read and learned from Faulkner’s novels. Márquez, who was originally planning to study law after graduating from university, said that when he first read Faulkner, he knew he had to become a writer.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold showcases Márquez’s skills as a journalist rather than as a novelist. After the publication of the novel, journalists poured into Sucre, the town where the real murder that inspired the book took place, in order to interview the surviving characters. In a strange twist, real life replicated the novel—the novel tells the story of a the narrator’s return to the Colombian town to resolve the details of a murder twenty years after it had taken place.
The narrative outlines the events surrounding the murder of Santiago Nasar, a young man who is thought to have taken the virginity of Angela Vicario. On her wedding night, after discovering that she was not a virgin, Angela’s husband, Bayardo San Roman, returns her to her house. Angela’s twin brothers, Pedro Vicario and Pablo Vicario, ask her who took her virginity, and she tells them that Santiago Nasar did. The brothers find Santiago and kill him.
The narrative is non-linear. The narrator begins the story by telling us about Santiago Nasar’s household the morning he was murdered. In the course of the chapter, we learn that Santiago lived with his mother, Placida Linero; their cook, Victoria Guzman; and her daughter, Divina Flor. Santiago‘s father, Ibrahim Nasar, has died three years previously. After his father died, Santiago took over the family ranch, which has been very successful; the Nasars are wealthy in their community.
The day that Santiago is murdered was a significant day in town because the Bishop was coming by boat to bless the marriage of Angela Vicario and Bayardo San Roman. Many people were heading over to the dock to see the boats. Pedro and Pablo Vicario were sitting in the local milk-shop, which was en route to the dock, so that they could see Santiago Nasar either going or returning in order to track him down and kill him. The narrator’s sister learns that Angela Vicario was returned home on the night of her wedding.
Bayardo San Roman had come to town to find a bride. After deciding on Angela, the courtship was short. Because Bayardo came from a prestigious, wealthy family, and the Vicarios were relatively poor, Angela did not really have a choice, even though she did not love Bayardo at the time they were wed.
The night before the murder, there had been lots of wedding revelry that had continued into the early morning at a local whorehouse run by Maria Alejandrina Cervantes, where Santiago Nasar had been carousing with the twins and the narrator until early in the morning. After returning home and finding their sister in disgrace, the Vicario brothers set out to avenge her honor by murdering Santiago Nasar. Even though they repeatedly announced their intent to murder him, the butcher, the police officer, and the Colonel all thought that the Vicarios are largely bluffing. Clothilde Armenta, the proprietor of the milk shop, even told the local priest about what the Vicario twins were threatening to do. However, in the excitement surrounding the arrival of the bishop, he forgot about her warning.
After the murder, the entire Vicario family left town because of the disgrace the combination of events had brought upon their family. A week after the murder, Bayardo San Roman left with his family; they came and retrieved him by boat. The Vicario brothers were imprisoned for three years. After their release from prison, Pablo proceeded to marry his betrothed, Prudencia Cotes, and Pedro went back into the armed forces.
After Bayardo returned Angela to her home on their wedding night, she fell in love with him. After she moved away from the town where she was disgraced, she wrote him letters every week for seventeen years, and eventually he returned to her.
For years after the crime, it was all anyone in the town spoke of. The narrator tells how his friend Cristo Bedoya searched frantically for Santiago the morning of the murder in order to warn him of the Vicario brothers’ plan, but failed to find Santiago because he did not realize that Santiago had gone to the house of his fiance, Flora Miguel. Her father was the first to warn Santiago of the murder. At this point, there were crowds of people outside who had come to see the Bishop but had lingered because they had heard the rumor that Santiago was to be killed.
When he left Flora Miguel’s house, Santiago was very confused. Clothilde Armenta yelled at him to run, and he ran the fifty yards to his front door. The Vicario brothers easily caught up with him, and stabbed him to death right outside of Santiago‘s front door.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Manifestations of love in Chronicle of a Death Foretold are ritualistic, and the novel itself is a ritual which re-enacts Santiago Nasar’s death. When Bayardo San Roman first comes to town, he decides to marry Angela Vicario, whom he has never met. His courtship of Angela demonstrates the rituals of Latin American marriage culture. He brings her a gift of a music box inlaid with mother-of-pearl for her birthday, and obtains everything his future bride asks for. The purpose of this courtship ritual is not to cause the lovers to fall deeper in love but rather to demonstrate the man’s affluence and power. Personality does not determine worthiness; rather, their family and wealth do.
Angela Vicario’s obsessive letter writing is another example of ritual. Angela does not care what she says in her letters; she is more concerned with the fact that Bayardo is receiving them. The ritual of writing brings her happiness. Similarly, Bayardo San Roman does not read her letters, but receiving two thousand letters over the course of seventeen years gives him the certainty that she is serious in her desire for him to return to her.
The novel’s style is itself a ritual repetition of the events surrounding a crime. It does not follow a traditional narrative arc, but rather is told for the cathartic value of the act of telling. The only thing we gain from reading the story is the same limited knowledge of the occurrence that is available to the narrator. In this sense, the novel can be seen as a mere ritual of investigation as an end in itself with no other results or discoveries.
In the culture of the Colombian town in which the narrative takes place, honor is taken very seriously. Nobody in the novel ever questions any action that is taken to preserve someone’s honor, since it is commonly believed to be a fundamental moral trait that is vital to keep intact. A person without honor is an outcast in the community.
All of the characters in the novel are influenced by this powerful construction of honor. The defense of this ideal is directly responsible for Santiago Nasar’s murder. The Vicario brothers kill Santiago in order to restore the honor of their sister. She dishonors her family by marrying another man when she had already slept with someone else. In order for this wrong to be righted, her brothers must kill Santiago, the man who supposedly took her virginity, in order to clear her name. Though a few people in the community, like Clothilde Armenta and Yamil Shaium, try to prevent the death from occurring, most people turned the other cheek, because they believed that the severity of the crime deserved a cruel punishment. The fact that death was considered a reasonable retribution for the crime of taking a girl’s virginity indicates how awful it was to sleep with an unmarried woman; doing so ruined her chances of marrying well, and marriage was women’s one way to advance in the world.
Gabriel García Márquez repeatedly uses strange, surreal details to highlight otherwise ordinary events. One instance of this is his description of the local brothel, which sounds so nice that the reader at first has trouble discerning what exactly Maria Alejandrina Cervantes does—though she is a whore, the description of her house is so beautiful that if one were to gloss over the description, they might perceive her house as an elegant domicile.
Márquez uses magical realism in Chronicle of a Death Foretold to illustrate anecdotal digressions or details about characters that are not at all essential to the plot, though they are interesting. In the opening of the book, the narrator discusses the dream that Santiago Nasar has right before his death: "He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit." This whimsical sort of detail works against the journalistic investigative style of the narrative, and sends the reader into several different conceptual areas between reality and fiction that he then has to disentangle.
We learn that both the narrator’s and Santiago Nasar’s mothers interpret symbols from dreams, but the overall importance or significance of symbols in the novel is never clearly linked to any other concept or idea that informs the work as a whole. This is especially true because the work is supposed to be journalistic and factual, so any such symbols work against the narrator’s purported intent of clarifying the events surrounding Santiago Nasar’s death, becoming purely anecdotal. Because they occur randomly, constantly, and without any easily discernible premeditated purpose, it is difficult to distinguish any recurring symbol that has a greater significance in the text as a whole.