Gabriel Garcia Marquez may have made his name and got fame worldwide with his fifth novel, Sien Anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude – 1967/1970), translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, but he did not consider it among his best. He told a friend the novel nearly ruined his life because nothing was ever the same again after it was published.
Instead, among his early work, Marquez thought that The Autumn of the Patriarch was the most important, from a literary point of view, “the one which might save me from oblivion”; and Chronicle of a Death Foretold his best novel. Talking to Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza ( The Fragrance of Guava), Marquez said with Chronicle (1982), he did exactly what he wanted to do: “In my other books the story took over, the characters took on a life of their own and did whatever they fancied.”
In Chronicle, Marquez exercises strict control, with the theme dictating the precise structure of a detective tale. The dramatic story revolves around a murder, announced in the first line itself: “On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”
An unnamed narrator arrives at an unnamed coastal town 27 years after the incident and begins digging up the past. As he tries to find out what happened and why, witnesses give contradictory versions, some rely on fragments of unreliable memory, others provide vague reasons, and some justify the killing. Most of all, there are no answers to one question: if everyone knew Santiago Nasar was going to be killed, why didn’t anyone try to stop it?
‘We’re going to kill Santiago Nasar’
Santiago Nasar, the 21-year-old aristocrat of Arab descent, becomes the target of ire of two brothers for dishonouring their sister who is returned home in disgrace on her wedding night. As soon as Angela Vicario names Santiago Nasar as “my perpetrator”, the brothers, butchers by trade, pick up their tools and go out to seek revenge.
“We’re going to kill Santiago Nasar,” they proclaim, but witnesses assume it is “drunkards’ talk”. Others presume that Santiago Nasar must have been aware of the danger he was in.
In the course of his probe, the narrator, a journalist, finds out that someone who was never identified had shoved an envelope under the door with a piece of paper warning Santiago Nasar that the brothers were waiting to kill him. In addition, the note also revealed the place, the motive, and other “quite precise details of the plot”. But Santiago Nasar left home without seeing it, nor did anyone else until after the crime had been committed. Was he purposely not alerted?
As the narrator probes deeper, Victoria Guzman, the cook at Santiago Nasar’s home, and her daughter Divina Flor admit that they had been warned about the impending death but did nothing about it. Divina Flor later told the narrator that her mother had wanted Santiago Nasar dead, for various reasons, not least because of his straying ways, just like his father when he was alive. In Marquez’s hands, an ‘honour’ killing now acquires a deeper, social meaning.
Based on the murder of Marquez’s close friend
“There never had been a death more foretold,” concludes the narrator. But though most of the townspeople consoled themselves that affairs of honour are “sacred monopolies”, the murder had led to a “single anxiety which had made of the town an open wound.”
Marquez’s biographer Gerald Martin writes that Chronicle was really an old project: a novel based on the horrifying murder of the writer’s close friend, Cayetano Gentile, in Sucre years before, but that he places it in a less explosively political period of Colombia’s history.
Critics hailed it as a tour de force of emotional and moral complexity, and together with One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold became one of Marquez’s most influential titles.
The writer looks back at one classic every month.