Wedding bells, they ring a death knell

Santiago Nasar was already dead when they came for him. He was lost in the hubbub of one celebration melting into another. How could this murder have happened when everyone knew it would? Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold contains the death of a man, the guilt of a town and the machismo that celebrates one sin at the behest of another.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Chronicle of a Death Foretold · Gabriel García Márquez · 1982
Gregory Rabassa translation · Vintage, 2003 · 120 pages, paperback

The revelries of the previous night’s nuptials pour into the wee hours of the morning like so much cane liquor, and the sex is a release, and the sex is without its agonies and now realization dawns and the flows of revelry and purity are stoppered by a mute pause.

There’s no blood on the bedsheet.

(Why is there no blood on the bedsheet? There must be blood on the bedsheet!) – and it’s rage as Bayardo San Roman returns his deflowered virgin to the house of her parents. And now the noise is not wedding bells, but instead the clangor of the docks that travels inland as the five o’clock hour wanes. The whistles scream and the bishop’s arrival is sounded in the square and Santiago Nasar is dead.

García Márquez tells his story from a point of puzzlement, 27 years after the murder. How could this murder happen? Santiago Nasar was a marked man and everyone in the town knew it. The Vicario brothers hardly even wanted to carry the crime through, even as they forced the seventh mortal thrust of the pig-killing scimitar that gutted him clean. Santiago Nasar’s death was most certainly a death foretold, and it was a regrettable sacrifice to a tradition of beliefs that was itself dying out.

No one could even say with any certainty that Santiago Nasar was guilty of anything, and so many in the little town agreed that it was hardly even likely he had had any kind of relations with the bride, Angela Vicario, a girl made woman before her marriage.

But Angela Vicario had named him, this man of Arab and Spanish descent who never left his house by the front door, who kept his guns in a different room than he kept his bullets, who dreamed of trees and rain and splattered bird shit just an hour before his death.

It was the townspeople who shitted on him, not the birds.

Because everybody knew. Just as everybody knew that Angela Vicario didn’t name the right man, they knew that her brothers were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him, and their efforts to prevent the murder were so minimal as to be almost encouraging – only they had the slick veneer of appearing to be people of religion who damn the sin of murder.

The characters in García Márquez’s novel are not likeable people. They gossip about everything, especially what they know to be untrue. They defer responsibility; a policeman believes his work done if he takes the first knives from a killer with a “now, now, go on home, get some rest.”

Bayardo San Roman, a traveler in search of a wife, exposed the town’s diseased morality and left with the townspeople’s sympathies. He lived by the old tradition that his wife ought to be untouched and that her prior deflowering was grounds for nullifying the marriage contract. And the townspeople agreed with him, though they had no qualms over murder: to them a woman’s chastity was of greater value than a man’s life, even when the former is freely given.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold is journalistic in style, much more so than García Márquez’s other work. Its narrator returns to the town 27 years after the murder and tries to understand how the murder could have happened. He finds that there are too many convenient mis-rememberings and forgotten (or delicately added) little details for an accurate picture to take shape.

Why, even the judge himself “never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature, so that there should be the untrammeled fulfillment of a death so clearly foretold.”

We read Santiago Nasar’s death as an accomplished fact, just as the townspeople swore they saw the blood-stained knives at 4 a.m. when the murder didn’t take place until 6. The novel works backward – the autopsy, performed by the priest with the medical examiner in absentia (a wry twist of law and morality), precedes the murder. In fact, the murder is the last scene in the novel.

And that murder is an agonizing scene. Santiago Nasar’s mother had the opportunity to save him, and in her attempts to do so, she became the final reason for his death.

We do get just a tiny dose of García Márquez’s preferred style – magical realism – at novel’s end, but even this he’s tamed. He let his characters and his setting drive this story, and that was a very smart decision.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold · Gabriel García Márquez · 1982
Gregory Rabassa translation · Vintage, 2003 · 120 pages, paperback

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