Reverse-Engineered: Chronicle of a Death Foretold
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‘There had never been a death more foretold.’ Or ‘announced’ – ‘anunciada’ is Márquez’s word. ‘Foretold’ suggests an excitingly exotic world of omen and prophecy for the English reader greedy for a certain kind of South American literature, but ‘announced’ is more blunt and workaday. For this is the story of two hapless men who go around their home town announcing that they are about to commit a murder, that they are honour-bound to do it, quietly desperate for somebody to stop them – and nobody does. As such, this is the closest thing Márquez ever came to social criticism, even satire, in the English tradition.

When the novella first appeared in 1982, in Gregory Rabassa’s fine translation, it provoked interesting responses from English writers. Several immediately associated it with the recent the Falklands War – even though the garishly coloured, constantly perspiring Caribbean coast of Márquez’s Colombia is temperamentally about as far from the sea-grey, windswept Falklands as it is from Eastbourne. John Fowles, in an essay called ‘The Falklands and a Death Foretold’, admired the book as ‘richly sardonic … a powerful Buñuelian fable’ and also felt that it was a good text on which to base a sermon on the stupidity of humanity in general: one of his favourite themes. Unfortunately he forgot that you can only preach on human stupidity if you make it funny. Both the Chronicle and the Falklands War, he felt, involved people being killed for no good reason, with nobody intervening to prevent it as they should have done. Nowhere in his essay does Fowles explain quite what he would do about the invasion of the Falklands by a fascist military dictatorship.

Salman Rushdie wrote a piece in the London Review of Books about the ‘Angel Gabriel’, and went one further than Fowles, calling the Falklands War ‘the battle for the Malvinas’, which showed a delicate political sensibility, but perhaps less concern for the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination. But then he was very unhappy at school. Rushdie also recognised Chronicle of a Death Foretold as a work of genius, ‘as haunting, as lovely and as true as anything García Márquez has written before’, both ‘elegiac and didactic’. On top of that, it’s Mariella Frostrup’s favourite Gabo.

It has a few dreams and fabulous touches, but only a few. We may even be able to talk about it without once using the dreaded label, M… R…. It’s a kind of laughter-free comedy (like Don Quixote), in which two brothers set out to avenge the ruined honour of their sister. The object of their vengeance is Santiago Nasar. They sharpen their knives in public, they get drunk; they wait. Nobody does anything. People are much more excited about the imminent visit of the Bishop.

We first encounter the narrator – probably surnamed Márquez, though we can’t be absolutely sure – after the wedding night of the dishonoured sister, Angela Vicario. ‘I was recovering from the wedding revels in the apostolic lap of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes.’ Why apostolic? Because Maria is an earthly parody of the Apostolic See, the See of Rome, the chief priestess of the kindly religion of prostitution, tending to men’s needs and comforting them with healing caresses. At least this is how Márquez, always rather a brothel-romantic, sees things. Maria inhabits the serene and gentle House of Mercies, while the Bishop comes to the town on a boat that snorts like a dragon, bellowing his arrival like an angry bull. He never deigns to set foot on shore, but he does eat a preposterous cockscomb soup. The Italians used to make a dish called Cimabella con cibreo, where the combs were combined with chicken livers, eggs and ricotta, served on tagliatelle, which sounds unspeakable. The point about the bishop, though, is not his poor culinary taste but his extravagance. He not only demands a steady supply of cockscombs: unbelievably he then throws the rest of the cockerel away uneaten.

When he makes the sign of the cross over the town he is merely ‘mechanical’, ‘without malice or inspiration’. Maria the whore, on the other hand, is a spiritual presence throughout, as well as being intoxicatingly physical. Entering her room, the narrator smells ‘the smell of a warm woman’, he sees ‘the eyes of an insomniac leopard’ waiting for him in the darkness, and, best of all, after that, ‘I didn’t know anything else about myself until the bells began to ring’. Dissolution of the ego is the goal of all true religion, but if sex with Maria gets you there, who needs that soup-slurping Bishop?

Chronicle of a Death Foretold combines many of the Márquez’s favourite themes – including hot sex with warm whores, prophetic dreams and caustic anti-clericalism – but perhaps his greatest achievement here is his perfect control of mixed forms. It’s satire or unfunny comedy or farce, but it’s also a reverse detective story in which we learn the identity of the killers long before the crime is committed. Our approach to that gory, messy, botched killing is winding and twisting, sometimes spiralling beyond it to later times, later years, uncertain reminiscences, the narrator trying to put back together ‘the broken mirror of memory’.

It’s also surprisingly didactic, as Rushdie pointed out. Márquez clearly makes known his views on his society, and not just about the Church. The book mocks the macho ethic, the code of honour that Colombia has inherited, among other things, from Old Spain. ‘No me saques sin razon, no me envaines sin honor’, as it still says on the blades of folding knives sold to tourists in Andalusia. Do not draw me without reason, do not sheathe me without honour. The brothers Vicario fail on both counts, yet the people of the town think it a very honourable and necessary killing – even if, terrifyingly, they are dimly aware that Nasar was not the guilty man.

Márquez’s breadth of sympathies means that he sees men as well as women falling victim to the macho code, a code woven into the fabric of society itself. All are oppressed by it. ‘The brothers were brought up to be men. The girls had been reared to get married.’ And at no time does he suggest this code might be easily changed. All societies have their codes. One is much like another. In Latin American society, as in much African or Asian, if a man wants a woman he takes her. Santiago Nasar, the butchered victim of the hapless and hopeless brothers, is also a sexual predator on other girls, although in the world of Colombian society some decades ago, this is pretty meaningless. Virtually every man was a sexual predator.

Márquez also breaks plenty of rules. There are far too many characters for such a short book – 122 pages in English translation. There’s Santiago Nasar and his mother, there’s the bride, the lovely Angela Vicario, with her poverty of spirit – unusually for Márquez, a trait that he revisits, to ominous effect, only a few lines later, as ‘penury of spirit’. There are her two brothers, Pablo and Pedro, twins with confusingly similar names, and a father called Poncio, who eventually dies of something called ‘la pena moral’ – moral pain. Then there’s the priest, the bishop, the mayor, the unforgettable, faintly sulphurous Bayardo San Roman, Angela’s husband, with ‘the waist of a novice bullfighter, golden eyes, and a skin slowly roasted by saltpetre’. One woman recalls that she could have buttered him and eaten him alive.

The gossip about Bayardo is that he has wiped out entire villages and sown terror in Casanare, that he has been seen in Pernambuco trying to make a living with a pair of trained bears, that he is fabulously wealthy. The gossip is all ridiculous, the admiration for moneyed and violent men toxic in such a society, and yet it feels like authorial observation of life, not pulpit criticism. I recently read a line in a letter by D H Lawrence, after meeting E M Forster, that made me laugh out loud. ‘He was very angry with me for telling him about himself.’ What fun Lawrence must have been to have to dinner. Latin America’s readers have never been angry with Márquez for telling them about themselves, because he never sounds urging and bullying, only truthful and humane. And very, very entertaining.

Of course, writing books changes nothing. Auberon Waugh, the greatest satirist of the Twentieth Century, observed that after nearly 40 years of attacking and insulting as many fools, charlatans and thugs as he could find, the only concrete thing he had achieved was to have inspired an enraged mob of sensitive Muslims to burn down the British Council library in Rawalpindi, after he told a risqué joke about why Mohammed (pbuh) wore baggy trousers. It was an achievement, he said, which made him feel ‘very proud’.

As it turns out, Santiago is innocent and Angela lost her virginity elsewhere. The Vicario brothers end up honourable in the eyes of the town, but exhausted by ‘the barbarous work of death’, emblems of Colombia itself and its unending violencia. We talk, happily, about the English Civil War. The English Civil War. This doesn’t work with the Colombian civil war. Which one do you mean? The one of 1839-41? Or 1851? Or 1854? 1860-62? Or, to jump over a dozen more, the one of ‘1964-present’, as it’s usually called? The killing of Santiago Nasar is like a civil war in miniature, surreal, petty, seemingly interminable.

This a society full of dotty, colourful beliefs, which Márquez clearly relishes: if girls comb their hair at night, it will slow down seafarers. But the belief that you can restore a woman to virginity by stabbing the wrong man to death is surely the dottiest. All the same, Márquez the storyteller must have been conflicted. This is great material. When he left Colombia, he went not to Switzerland, but to Mexico – a country even more macho and violent than Colombia, in my small experience, with everything just as carefully scripted in advance for its inhabitants.

People looking back on Santiago’s killing feel that the chief protagonists had fulfilled their part in the tragedy with dignity, and even with a certain grandeur. One girl, Prudencia, says she would never later have married one of the Vicario brothers ‘if he hadn’t done what a man should do’.

The narrator finds the final judicial report on the murder in an old, half-flooded colonial building – ‘that lagoon of lost causes’. It is scattered with haunting marginal notes by the investigating magistrate. ‘Give me a prejudice and I will move the world’, and ‘Fatality makes us invisible’.

And the killing itself, finally, is barbarous, bloody, horrible. Santiago is carved up like a pig, ‘he saw his own viscera in the sunlight, clean and blue’, the air is filled with the stench of shit from his ruptured bowels. The violence is sickening, but those who perpetrate it are no pock-marked, sinister psycho twins like the two in Breaking Bad. In fact, says the wisest woman in the book, Clotilde Armenta, ‘They looked like two children. And that thought frightened her, because she’d always felt that only children are capable of everything.’




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