It is impossible to read a García Márquez novel with equanimity and it was no different with Chronicle of a Death Foretold. In this short novel, Santiago Nassar is accused of defiling the honor of Angela Vicario, a young girl who is engaged to be married to a charismatic outsider. When the novel starts, Santiago Nassar has already been murdered for revenge by the brothers of Angela Vicario. The story recounts the events leading up to the murder, and shows how, in spite of the fact that the crime was clearly and publicly advertized by the would-be murderers, it cannot be prevented. Most of the people in the town are guilty of complacency, and the few who tried to stop the murder are thwarted by unlucky coincidences.
The murder itself is described in graphic brutality. I still don’t know what the symbolism was intended, if any, in the portion where Santiago, stabbed and disembowelled, walks around to the back of the house, enters it and drops dead in the kitchen. It does serve to accentuate the brutality of insular traditions which insist on reciprocal violence to preserve a family’s honor.
Somehow, from the way that the story is written, it does not seem chilling that individuals in the town are so complacent about the announcement by the Vicario brothers. I won’t spoil the book by describing the details, but everyone seems to have their reasonably valid reasons for doubting that the Vicario brothers would carry out their preposterous claim. It is chilling however, that the cumulative effect of little harmless complacencies is to precipitate such a ghastly event. The book’s bitterness about the absurdity of the human condition becomes apparent upon reading about the future of the maligned bride. Santiago Nassar, whether he despoiled her honor or not, turns out to be worse than a scapegoat: In the long term, he is an inconsequential scapegoat, and his death makes no difference at all.
As in most of García Márquez’s other books, the principle characters are personifications of the tragedy of Latin America. I do not wish to be insensitive in writing this, but it appears that most of his characters have irreversibly, hereditarily, almost genetically, been altered by the social upheavals of Latin America, the revolutions, the poverty, the crime. Everyone seems to have developed a singular, eccentric way of dealing with, or not dealing with, his or her own private hell – whether it is Aureliano Buendia’s little gold fishes, or Florentino Ariza’s life of the flesh and the love poem, or the old protagonist’s periodic trips to whorehouses in Memories of My Melancholy Whores, or Angela Vicario’s drive to write passionate letters to an imagined lover for seventeen years . Terrifyingly, it also appears that they might not be able to deal with happiness. I don’t know exactly why it appears that way to me, but it does. Someone who has lived or been brought up in South America can shed some light on this. It pervades my reading of his novels, as strongly and vividly as the smell of Santiago Nassar that pervaded the town on the day after his death.