This novella by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, who won the Nobel prize in Literature in 1982, paints a picture of life and death on the coast of Colombia in the mid-twentieth century. In doing so, he gives us a glimpse at the culture and attitudes of his home country at the time. If you can get past the impassive way it is told, then there is much to be discovered between the pages of this book.
First published in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tells the tale of the murder of a wealthy Colombian man by the vexed brothers of a woman he has allegedly deflowered. This man, Santiago Nasar, goes about his day unaware of the danger that the deflowered bride, Angela Vicario, has placed him in. Through interviews and conversations with the residents of the village, we are guided through the final hours of Nasar’s life and shown the multitude of ways the murder could have been prevented.
Nasar is somewhat of a lothario; Good at running his ranch, interested in firearms, drinking and has more than an eye for the ladies. Because of that, it is easy to see why no questions were asked when he is accused of deflowering Angela Vicario. The way information is relayed to the reader about Nasar is unreliable and contradictory. For instance, Victoria Guzman, the cook says, “He was just like his father … A shit.” The narrator’s sister, on the other hand, speaks favourably about him: “I suddenly realised that there couldn’t have been a better catch than him” and “Just imagine: handsome, a man of his word, and with a fortune of his own at the age of twenty-one.” This makes it hard to get a definitive idea of the character and feels like a barrier to having empathy for him. Nevertheless, by the end of the book I did feel sorry for Nasar due to the brutal nature of his murder and the number of times the death could have been prevented.
Angela Vicario, by comparison, is initially presented as quiet and beautiful, a little socially awkward and a little immature. It is her fear of her mother and brothers’ rage that causes her to utter Nasar’s name and by doing so, set the tragic events in motion. As potential antagonists go, Angela is subtle and not entirely irredeemable but because it is never revealed whether her accusation is true or not, she serves well in her role.
Thematically, the piece explores the nature of honour, as it existed in that society in the mid-twentieth century. It does so by showing how the villagers could have prevented the murder and stopped the brothers, but chose not to, preferring to believe that the brothers were justified in seeking retribution. While the novella has a historical setting, honour killings are still very prevalent in modern society, whether in Colombia, the United Kingdom, India, or anywhere else in the world and so the theme of the novella is still as important today as it was both when it was set and when it was written.
Márquez’s use of repetition, constantly bringing the awareness of the reader back to the murder with lines such as, ‘On the day they were going to kill him’ and ‘until he was carved up like a pig an hour later’ helps to heighten the shock and brutality of Nasar’s murder. His presentation of everything as cold, hard facts serves the narrative well and keeps the plot rolling along, despite its nonlinear nature. Personally, the shock of the murder was removed for me by a detailed autopsy scene halfway through which seemed out of place and took away a lot of the impact from the later scene.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is powerful, darkly humorous and descriptive, though the dispassionate nature of the narrative sometimes jarred with the colourful and poetic descriptions of the village and its people. It also seems as if the villagers react in an unrealistic way when confronted with evidence that the murder will take place, such as when the butchers in the meat market are told by Pablo Vicario, “We’re going to kill Santiago Nasar” and even though they can see the brothers are sharpening knives, nobody seems even slightly concerned.
Yet, today in the media, we see inaction by witnesses and bystanders, content to record and capture on their smartphones, rather than step in and stop a tragedy from occurring, as seen in 2009 when a fifteen year old girl was assaulted and raped outside of a homecoming dance in front of more than fifteen witnesses. With this in mind, the themes and questions explored in this novella seem more relevant today than they did in 1981. Put down your smartphone, read this book and ask yourself, what would you do?