Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Book review - Chronicle of a death foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Chronicle of a death foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

London: Penguin, 1982.                                  ISBN  0140157549

I’ve never read any Marquez before – reasons why one reads or doesn’t read an author are many and varied, and not often logical. I guess some of the reasons I haven’t read any Marquez might have something to do with my slight aversion to reading works in translation, and definitely due to my aversion to the genre of “magic realism” to which Marquez has been linked.

Opposed to those (not compelling) reasons not to read Marquez are the critical acclaim his works have received for a long time, and his Nobel Prize for Literature. So, when a copy of Chronicle of a death foretold came into my possession, I took it as a sign that I should get over my illogical prejudices and give it a go, and I’m glad I did.

The story seems simple enough – the morning after a wedding, when the bride has been sent home by the groom because she is not a virgin, the bride’s twin brothers kill the man she has identified as her seducer to maintain the families honour.

Of course the story on the page is not as simple as that – or at least not as told as simply as that. The narrator of the story, a friend of the victim Santiago Nasar, is, twenty-something years after the crime, trying to reconstruct what happened from his own memory and by interviewing other townspeople.

Given the nature of the insult Nasar had inflicted on their sister, the Vicario twins made their intentions known, and almost everyone in the town knew that Nasar is to murdered before the crime takes place, but, in a series of assumptions and missed meetings, Nasar himself only finds out at the moment the crime is about to happen. This narrative method gives the whole book a kind of nightmarish quality – those nightmares where you are yelling to someone, but they can’t hear, or you’re running from someone, but not getting anywhere.

The way Marquez has structured his narrative gives him leave to comment about social life and status in Latin America, or at least small town Latin America. Many of the events that lead to Nasar not hearing about his impending death come down to class barriers, doing what’s seen to be right, and assumptions about what certain people will or won’t do. Nobody is responsible, and in fact the death is made to seem inevitable, and of course in certain eyes is the correct outcome.

Marquez plays with memory and gossip – the “witnesses” to the murder can’t agree on simple things such as the weather at the time of the crime, who saw what when, or what was said. The description of the groom, Bayardo San Roman, built from the gossip of the townsfolk, is never complete, nor are his reasons for doing anything, including choosing Angela Vicario for his bride, made clear.

In fact reading this novel to find out what is actually going on is like walking through a reedy marsh – things are moving in your peripheral vision, but at the same time it is incredibly hard to see what is in front of your face.

The narrator in fact can’t believe that Nasar would have deflowered Vicario – due to their social difference, and the fact that they had never been seen together by anyone in the village. This sits against the irony of Nasar stating in the novel that he intends deflowering his servant-girl, and San Roman wanting to marry the poor Vicario despite his wealth and status (Roman’s father turns out to be a General, and hero of the civil wars).

What the narrator ends up believing after his detective work is that the Vicario twins never really wanted to kill Nasar: they felt they had to uphold the family’s honour, but their repeated statements of their intentions to anyone who would listen, their stakeout of Nasar’s front door (which everyone knew he never used) all pointed to the fact that they wanted to be stopped before they had to act.

He also discovers that the tragic wedding night was not the finish for Angela and Bayardo. The Vicario family leave town after the murder – the twins are in jail for three years before the trial takes place (they are acquitted), the father dies, and Angela and her mother end up together in a toxic relationship. Angela finds out where Bayardo lives, and starts to write to him obsessively – after 17 years with no response, he turns up at her door to move in, with all the letters, unopened.

Although we have known since the first page of the book that Nasar is to be killed, it is not until the final pages of the book that the event actually takes place, and the juxtaposition of our (and everyone in the village) knowledge of what is to happen and Nasar’s complete surprise adds an extra quotient of horror to what is a well written and surprisingly, given its structure, suspenseful tale.

For what is a short work (122 paperback pages), Marquez packs a lot in – this is a book that I’ll be thinking about and trying to unpick for some time to come – well worth reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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