Chronicle of a Death Foretold is exactly what it says on the tin. It is the story of a murder publicly announced before the event and observed by the whole town who do little beyond verbal protestations to stop it. What it is not is Marquez’s signature magical realism; this is pure realism and, to my astonishment, I only discovered after reading it that it is in fact very closely based upon real events that occurred to a family known to Marquez in 1951. The story is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, a friend of the victim, who, many years later, is trying to piece together exactly what happened and why it happened. The essence of the story is announced in the very first sentence of the novella; “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." The almost whimsical nature of that sentence is retained throughout, even when describing some of the grimmest aspects of the events, and in some respects it does mirror the magical realism I have found more typical of Marquez in that instead of a juxtaposition of the mundane and the magical here it is a juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrific.
I have seen some discussions of the metaphorical nature of the story – for example the idea that Santiago Nasar is a Jesus figure – but on the basis that this is closely based on real events I’m not sure that is justified. For me it is an examination of guilt and morality, both individual and collective, set against the backdrop of a vividly, magically even, described community. A young woman is married to a stranger who has recently entered the community and on the wedding night, after discovering she is not a virgin, she is returned to her family in disgrace. She names Nasar as the perpetrator but gives no further details. Her twin brothers feel obligated to kill Nasar to avenge the insult to their family honour.
The narrator’s investigation questions the guilt of Nasar, though suggests that is it likely in the future he would have perpetrated a similar act on the daughter of his household’s cook. The brother’s tell everyone what they plan to do as though to allow them to be stopped before the deed is done but everyone either thinks it’s just drunken talk or otherwise dismiss it as ridiculous. In this way, although the murder and its perpetrators are known right from the start of the book, the question of guilt and complicity remains ambiguous throughout: the bride, the brothers, the victim, the community. Did the bride tell the truth? Were the brothers’ actions justified? Does Nasar deserve his fate? What, if anything, should the community have done to prevent it? No answers are given; the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is beautifully written with a dreamy poetic feel that stands in stark contrast to the darkness of its subject matter and I couldn’t help but love it. At less than 100 pages it requires little effort from the reader and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone.
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