Rating: 4 Stars
[Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa]
Gabriel Garcia Marquez was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982
My few experiences with South American writing have left me both fascinated and apprehensive. I have been especially curious about Columbian-born Gabriel Garcia Marquez, among the most pre-eminent of Latin American novelists. I decided to first test the waters by gingerly swirling a toe around some of his lighter books, before taking the plunge into his more acclaimed works. Chronicle of a Death Foretold happened to fit the bill perfectly.
Part detective story and part investigative journalism; this slim novella still packs a mighty wallop. It’s partly based on events from the author’s life, though altered for fiction. In the very first page, we learn that the narrator is looking back into a murder that took place in his town some twenty-seven years ago. He meets and speaks with his fellow townspeople, most of them family and friends, or neighbors of many years standing. They have all played a role in the events that took place on the fateful day, by what they did and what they didn’t.
There is not a lot of suspense to the story, but I’ll try not to give anything away. A wedding precedes the murder, and the murder coincides with the Bishop’s fleeting visit to the town. Both the wedding and the Bishop’s visit have a great bearing on the death. Intertwined with the killing are themes of ‘returned’ brides and family honor; with many memorable characters, including matrons who prophesy that certain young women would be good wives because ‘they’ve been raised to suffer’. As seems to be the case often in South American fiction, there is love and lust - unwieldy, unpredictable, and completely beyond the bounds of reason and etiquette.
The story proceeds backward, tracing each and every incident that leads to the final, shattering climax. The description of the actual murder is horrifyingly graphic. Marquez is remorseless in the details, and the reader is so entranced by the compelling narrative that we can only behold, mesmerized, the tragedy that unfolds before our eyes. So it must have been with the townsfolk. One thing that is made painstakingly obvious is that there were several occasions to avert this misfortune, yet each of those opportunities went to waste; and that raises poignant questions about human nature and predestination.
The killers themselves come out as rather hapless; nor do they bear the burden of guilt alone, not when the whole town appears complicit in the crime. Each character is strikingly lifelike, even though for many it’s only a cameo appearance. By and large, Marquez eschews Magic Realism in the novel except in the final scene which has all the psychedelic vividness of a terrible dream.