on May 7, 2014
GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ'S
CHRONICLE OF A DEATH FORETOLD
A reading report by Robert Crosman
I remember this short novel appearing in Playboy when I was in graduate school in the `sixties, but I read no more than the opening paragraphs. Garcia-Marquez had recently won the Nobel Prize, but I hadn't yet read anything by him, and there was something antipathetic about the notion of a "death foretold." Not just the implicit violence, but above all the sense of fatality - that from the very title this revenge murder is declared inevitable. The message I got was that in Latin American culture there is a rigid cultural demand that one die for actions I would consider trivial. But for a while we remain ignorant of the reasons or motivations for Santiago's killing. While the story asserts in the first sentence that "they were going to kill him," it is reticent about why he deserves to die.
As he arises early and comes down to the kitchen to drink coffee, the condemned man, Santiago Nasar, is oblivious to the fate hanging over him. There the servant, Victoria Guzman, is busy slaughtering rabbits, and feeding their guts to dogs that howl for their portion of the spoils. The vividly described disembowelment prefigures the most grizzly part of Santiago's own death, at the hands of his killers, as the narrator matter-of-factly informs us in the second paragraph: "he was carved up like a pig an hour later." But why? The justice of the situation is unclear, and I instinctively feel badly for the handsome young man, even though he is unkind to the servants.
I found it distracting that much of these first paragraphs dwells on Santiago Nasar's recent dreams, which are not bloody but rather of flight in a forest or orchard setting. These dreams seem irrelevant, inasmuch as they do not warn him of immanent violence, and even his mother, Placida Linero, a psychic, sees nothing sinister in them. Perhaps they prefigure the freeing of his soul from earthly bounds, or (to the contrary) reflect his reputation as a raptor preying on innocent "chicks," but if so, these meanings are hidden from him, and from us, as he casually bosses the house servant, and gropes her nubile teenage daughter, Divina Flor, who sees herself destined to be seduced by the handsome cattle rancher, as her mother was by his deceased father, Ibrahim Nasar. The girl views this future with apprehension but also with resignation, while her mother "had so much repressed rage," that she continues disemboweling rabbits to Santiago Naser's evident discomfort. Why, she wonders, is he so squeamish, when as a rancher he is constantly involved in slaughtering cattle?
Thus, the violence at the base of all civilized life - the taking of one life to sustain or advance another - is rather brutally acknowledged, and if I read this far as a young man I did not like it. The animals are sacrificed to the appetites of humans, just as the servants must submit to their human masters. This will be a tale not only of violence but of the dominance of the rich over the poor, with no attempt made to gloss over the material facts of life and death, until the resentment of the victimized boils over in a futile act of murder that solves nothing, but that reveals the material consequences of dominance and submission, enforced by violence.
As Santiago Naser (characters in this story are almost invariably referred to by their full names) sallies forth into the already hot morning to meet a riverboat bringing the local bishop upriver from Riohacha. In the event the bishop does no more than wave a blessing as his boat passes by. The scene shifts to the twins, Pablo and Pedro Vicario, young men like himself but of a lower class - professional butchers - who plan to stab Santiago to death for seducing their sister. That young woman, Angela Vicario has only just married a rich suitor, Bayardo San Roman, who has discovered on his wedding night that his new wife is not a virgin, and has immediately returned her to the parental house in a volcanic rage. The brothers are none too enthusiastic about the burden of revenge that has been thrust upon them, but see no alternative to killing the man who has ruined their sister and brought dishonor on their whole family, which subsequently leaves town for good.
The customs and practices of this Latin American culture - Riohacha is a town in Marquez's native Colombia, though the country is never named in the tale - are regarded by the narrator, no less than by all the actors in his drama, as unquestioned and inevitable. This accounts for a good deal of the fatalistic attitude that he and everyone else takes toward the story of Santiago Naser's killing. The narrative present is long after the events he describes - twenty-seven years - so of course the outcome is in that sense inevitable, but it is also told in a way that shows how everyone believes that death is the only possible outcome. Paradoxically, this inevitability is underlined by a whole series of facts that seem to point in the opposite direction. In the first scene, in the Nasar household, mention is made of an anonymous letter shoved under the front door warning of the revenge plot. The letter is overlooked and ignored by the servant who finds it. Though many townspeople try to avoid the eventual outcome, and none abet it, yet they all seem to see it as inevitable and even proper, given the demands of honor.
Nearly everyone in town except the intended victim is aware of the twins' plan of revenge, and one after another try to warn him, but every attempt miscarries in one way or another, as though the would-be warners did not have their hearts in it - one, a priest, simply forgets it. As Santiago walks through the town, changing direction and stopping in unwonted places, those who would warn him keep missing him, while others lose heart, or delegate the job to others who in turn decide it's none of their business. The twins themselves appear to want the young man to flee and avoid his fate. At one point the mayor deprives them of the butcher knives they have honed to razor sharpness, but they nonetheless obtain other, crueler knives, and proceed toward the seemingly inevitable encounter at his front door.
That door is usually barred, the back door being the usual portal of ingress and egress. On this morning Santiago has however left home by the front door, leaving it unlocked for his return. But a servant, unaware of the plot, has barred it once again as a matter of routine, again making Santiago's fate seem both fortuitous and inevitable, inasmuch as no amount of human agency expended to prevent his death seems to be adequate to forestall his fate, which, after all, has been foretold. At its heart lies the unpardonable transgression - the defloration of a girl deemed worthy of marriage to a rich and eminent bridegroom, son of a distinguished Conservative general in the country's civil wars, and this despite the fact that her own family of tradesmen is of modest circumstances, a family of butchers. Her husband's rejection of her is a reversal of all their hopes of social elevation, a mark of shame that cannot be expunged but only qualified by being avenged. And yet, at the center of this tragedy of an enactment of a stern cultural code lies an ambiguity, an uncertainty.
Angela Vicario goes to her bridal bed knowing that she will not bleed when her husband enters her. She has been provided with the means necessary to fake virginity, including Mercurochrome to redden the sheet that must be displayed on the following morning. And yet, not in love with her new husband, she rebels against the cultural custom and tells him straightforwardly that she is not a virgin. She gives a name - Santiago Nasar - and twenty-seven years later she tells the narrator, who has had doubts, that she spoke truly. He certainly fits the mold: as a teenager, the handsome Santiago had carried on a long and passionate affair with the town's madam, Maria Alejandrina Cervantes, (with whom the narrator himself was in bed on the night before the twins killed Santiago Nasar), and was known as a "sparrow hawk, like his father, going about alone nipping the bud of any wayward virgin who showed up in those woods."(90) But he avoided the girls close by, with whose families there would be inevitable entanglements, and he never had been seen to pay Angela any attention, regarding her as "a booby." Could she have named him as a plausible seducer, and thereby have protected a lover she still cared for, the narrator wonders. Yet the now-middle-aged Angela, an old maid supporting herself in another village by sewing cloth flowers, assures him that she told the truth: "'Don't beat it to death, cousin,' she told me. `He was the one.'"(90) Yet some shadow of doubt remains.
Based on her allegation the whole far-fetched tragicomedy of missed opportunities and misunderstandings unfolds with seeming inevitability. The cultural codes demand a blood sacrifice to the God who has ordained that the poor must submit to the rich, and women must serve men, either as degraded sex-objects or as pure vessels of paternal succession of bloodlines from father to son - we must know that our sons are truly ours! Only one marriage in the entire town is described as happy - that of a man, Xius, and his wife, Yolanda. After her death, he lived on in their lovely house full of her presence still, until Bayardo San Roman bullies him into selling it to be the locus of his happy marriage to Angela.
On his way home, the hapless Santiago Nasar stops by the home of his fiancée Flora Miguel; theirs was a match arranged by their parents and is loveless on both sides. Having heard of Angela's charges against her fiancé, Flora angrily throws a chest full of his perfunctory love letters back at him, and Santiago is bewildered, until her father explains the facts to him. Confused, he hurries toward home, expecting to find the front door open as he left it. But inside the house there is further confusion: his mother and a friend, Cristobal Bedoya, believe he has already entered, and even his screams as the twins attack him at the front door seem to them to come from his upstairs room, which they run to.
Serious accidents often turn out to have been over-determined: foggy conditions, a neglected brake repair, a branch-obscured stop sign, the slight impairment of two beers, all conspire to cause a wreck that in the absence of any one would not have happened. So it is with Santiago's death - the absence of any one of a dozen factors would have made it avoidable. But his killing is brutal, as reconstructed first in an autopsy and then given a gruesome description of the stabs and cuts administered by two frantic butchers, ending in a disembowelment that leaves the mortally wounded young man staggering toward the back door with his own entrails in his hands.
Like Shakespeare, Garcia-Marquez tells this story with seeming impartiality. The narrator's careful attempt to reconstruct the story decades later leads to testimony from a large cast of characters who report their own views and feelings, along with their roles in the tale, a representative cross-section of the entire unnamed town, all ages, sexes, social ranks from prostitute and servant to doctor, priest and mayor, rich and poor alike. Neither they nor he condemn the young, privileged victim nor do they defend him, and likewise with his murderers (who are held for a while and then exonerated by the court), and all the others in the story. No one is an angel, no one a demon; the social codes that condemn Santiago Nasar, while their enforcers paradoxically wish to spare him from death, are neither praised nor damned. They are just the way human beings are. A supporter of traditional cultural values might, I suppose, see the "justice" enacted as appropriate, though deploring the explicitness of the brutal descriptions. Yet the story can easily be read as an indictment of honor killing, and in view of the author's left-wing sympathies this seems the more likely interpretation. Yet he leaves it to us to draw the moral.
Santiago Nasar's sexual exploitation of vulnerable women is of course indefensible, and though he may have been innocent of the specific seduction for which he dies, he clearly deserves to be punished. Yet that behavior is so conventional in his land that the entire male sex seems to bear his guilt to one degree or another, including the outraged bridegroom, Bayardo San Roman, whose macho outrage at being deprived of an intact hymen contributes much to the tragedy, and even more to the general unhappiness of the aftermath. Both he and Santiago suffer, and yet neither is aware of why they are being punished, and thus nothing is learned, by them or anyone else. In their own eyes they are victims. Garcia-Marquez has a soft spot in his heart for prostitutes, however, whom he sees as loving and warm-hearted, who provide a minimally destructive outlet (as he sees it) for what he sees as men's raging libidos, whether as sex-starved bachelors or as equally frustrated married men. The inequality of wealth and social status are also to blame for the hostility that seethes below the surface of social life, and that lends energy to the deadly cataclysms that regularly occur - most notably in the perpetual civil wars of his homeland (Garcia-Marquez left Columbia at thirty and spent most of his remaining fifty plus years abroad).
The status of women is particularly bleak. The narrator quotes his mother as describing Angela Vicario and her sisters as "perfect . . . Any man will be happy with them because they've been raised to suffer,"(31) and this judgment is all the more devastating because it is offered with no apparent animus, as a simple statement of the way things are, with only the occasional exception of a Yolanda Xius, whose husband loved and cherished her until, alas, she died, and he then believed her spirit still visited him.
All these injustices and sorrows are matter-of-factly reported by Marquez's narrator, who seems to feel a degree of sympathy for all the principals, and to blame none very much - not even the insufferable Bayardo San Roman, who after all is a product of his upbringing and his culture just as much as are all the others. To alter their behavior they would have to question (and defy) the norms of their society, and this never seems to occur to any of them. Given the code that prescribes both an insatiable male libido and obligatory female asexuality, and given the values that enforce both male promiscuity and a familial demand for honor and vengeance, Santiago Nasar, the Vicario twins, and all the rest are doomed to enact a script that has been written long before they were born, and acted out time and time again. Since before traditional European culture moved to the so-called New World, Santiago's violent, gruesome death has been a death foretold. Garcia-Marquez nonetheless turns his magnifying glass on the whole nexus of traditions, values and attitudes and raises questions in the mind of a reader who rebels against the notion that there is only one way this story can end.