I’m not usually much for murder mysteries. They are cool and all, and I’m sure I’d have fun reading one, but the standard ones just don’t pull me very much. Introduce a murder, find some clues, figure out who did it, and wrap things up. Case closed. However, those who would call Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold a murder mystery (and they validly might) would have to throw all that out the window.
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for T.C. Boyle.)
How to begin? Well, the story centers on the murder of Santiago Nasar. Pedro and Pablo Vicario stab Santiago to death for supposedly dishonoring their sister, causing her to be returned to her home by her groom on her wedding night.
Am I giving out spoilers? No, this is all pretty much known right from the beginning, if not from the summary on the back of the book. Consider the opening passage:
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. He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit. “He was always dreaming about trees,” Plácida Linero, his mother, told me twenty-seven years later, recalling the details of that distressing Monday. “The week before, he’d dreamed that he was alone in a tinfoil airplane and flying through the almond trees without bumping into anything,” she said to me. She had a well-earned reputation as an accurate interpreter of other people’s dreams, provided they were told to her before eating, but she hadn’t noticed any ominous augury in those two dreams of her son’s, or in the other dreams of trees he’d described to her on the mornings preceding his death.
So, if the reader knows right away who kills Santiago Nasar as well as the how and why, where’s the mystery? Well, the mystery is in how everyone in the town behaves and why they do so.
After all, everyone in the town knows that Santiago is going to be killed. Some do a little to try to stop it, but no one does very much…certainly nothing that actually stops it from happening. Some think he should be (though it is far from clear that he actually slept with the young miss Vicario), some are too afraid to get involved, some don’t think it is going to happen, and some just think it’s fate:
Victoria Guzmán, for her part, had been categorical with her answer that neither she nor her daughter knew that the men were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him. But in the course of her years she admitted that both knew it when he came into the kitchen to have his coffee. They had been told it by a woman who passed by after five o’clock to beg a bit of milk, and who in addition had revealed the motives and the place where they were waiting. “I didn’t warn him because I thought it was drunkards’ talk,” she told me. Nevertheless, Divina Flor confessed to me on a later visit, after her mother had died, that the latter hadn’t said anything to Santiago Nasar because in the depths of her heart she wanted them to kill him. She, on the other hand, didn’t warn him because she was nothing but a frightened child at the time, incapable of a decision of her own[.]
Stranger, Pedro and Pablo Vicario don’t even appear to really want to kill Santiago Nasar, though they go through with it. They keep going where Santiago is not and telling everyone what they are going to do, creating as many chances as possible for someone to stop them. Really, no one does. Eventually, after the mayor takes away their knives and sends them home, the brothers get new knives and go out again. Pablo tells his brother: “There’s no way out of this…It’s as if it had already happened.”
Thus, there is the mystery of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Was it fate? Did the people of the town want this murder to happen? Was it a combination of all different kinds of things? Why did everyone know and no one stop it?
Man, hell if I know. You’ll have to read and try to figure it out yourself.
Having finished reading, I have to say that Chronicle of a Death Foretold is one of the strangest works of Márquez I’ve read yet, and that is really saying something. It’s definitely his shortest work I’ve looked at, if not his most perplexing. I really have to hand it to him. I mean, how can you make something so baffling when you provide all the answers? I’ll be thinking about this one for a while. Anyone else who reads Chronicle of a Death Foretold will probably end up thinking about it for a while afterward as well.