Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Tags:  general-fiction,

The unnamed narrator of Gabriel García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold pieces together a picture of events that unfolded on an infamous day twenty three years prior. In a small town at the mouth of a river on the Caribbean coast of Columbia, in what appears to be the second decade of the nineteen hundreds, a wealthy young man with no apparent enemies was murdered in broad daylight, in front of a crowd that included most of the town’s citizens.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Why did it happen? And why did no one do anything to prevent it, even when virtually the entire town knew it was going to happen?

It’s impossible to understand the series of events that led to the murder without first understanding the social world in which it took place. Márquez takes the opportunity to paint a nuanced and richly detailed portrait of social ties, intrigue and betrayal in a rigidly structured Catholic society.

Warning: From here on, this review contains spoilers. So if you don’t want me to ruin the story, come back after you’ve read it.

Most of the story unfolds over a period of twelve hours. Bayardo San Román, a wealthy young man with an unknown past, arrives one day by steamboat and plants himself in the small close-knit community. He makes friends easily enough, but no one knows why he’s there or what he’s after.

One day, when asked point-blank, he says he’s come to find a wife. He begins to inquire about the least likely candidate, a timid and, by the narrator’s own description, spiritless young woman named Angela Vicario. Before he’s even spoken to her, he decides she’s the one.

When they do meet, she finds him arrogant and unappealing. He uses his money to buy her an extravagantly inappropriate gift. Her twin brothers, Pablo and Pedro, offended by the gift, take it back to him. He charms them and spends the night drinking with them. Eventually, the whole family is so taken with San Román, they force Angela to marry him, arguing that she has no right to snub such good fortune.

Bayardo San Román, it turns out, is no mere adventurer. When his family comes to visit, the town learns he’s the son of one of Colombia’s great generals. His wealth is real. He buys the best house in town and the general pays for the most lavish wedding the area has ever seen. Everyone is invited, the celebration spills out into the main square, and the whole town is richly fed and heartily drunk when Bayardo San Román whisks his new bride off to the wedding bed in the great mansion on the hill.

One problem though. Angela is not a virgin. Bayardo San Román returns her in disgust to her mother before the night is through. Angela’s mother beats her savagely, and the family demands to know who took her virginity.

After intense interrogation, she gives up the name of Santiago Nasar, a young, wealthy landowner currently engaged to another young woman in town. The narrator, who had been close to Nasar at the time, and with whom he shared many secrets, does not believe Nasar ever had any dealing with Angela Vicario.

He believes Angela named him as her seducer precisely because he wasn’t the type, and because he was generally liked and well regarded and wealthy. All of these factors would have dissuaded her brothers, Pablo and Pedro, from trying to avenge her honor.

But it doesn’t dissuade them. Beginning at dawn on the day after the wedding, they vow to kill Santiago Nasar to avenge the supposed wrong he perpetrated on their sister. At dawn, many of the wedding revelers are still roaming the streets, while the more sober citizens are up and about, preparing for the business of the day.

The Vicario brothers, carrying the knives they use to butcher pigs, tell almost everyone they encounter that they are going to murder Santiago Nasar. People in town begin to put two and two together. They understand that Bayardo San Román has rejected his bride on the wedding night, and there’s only one legitimate reason to do that. They understand that if the Vicario brothers' anger is focused on Nasar in light of the rejection, there can be only one reason why.

By the time Nasar leaves his house to start his day, everyone in town knows the Vicario brothers are waiting to kill him, though no one believes they’ll actually do it, since they’ve never caused trouble in the past. Worse yet, because everyone in town knows that this murder is going to take place, and where and when it will happen, they assume Nasar knows as well. They assume someone has passed along the information to him.

Well, when everyone assumes someone else did the telling, no one actually bothers to do it themselves, and here is a big part of the tragedy. Many, including the narrator, speculate that the Vicario brothers went around telling everyone what they were going to do because they wanted someone to stop them. They had to appear to avenge their sister’s honor, but they didn’t want to actually murder anyone, much less a man they liked and respected.

But when the time came and Nasar stumbled into his assassins, the crowd pressed in to watch, and the brothers could not back down from their boast. They had to go through with it.

Much of the chronicle describes the long series of missed opportunities that could have prevented the tragedy. From a narrative perspective, you might say that, buried in the unfolding of a murder procedural is a portrait of a close-knit society whose rigid rules of propriety and honor created the high-pressure environment that led to what was really a series of preventable tragedies: Angela’s engagement, her rejection, and then the murder.

But you can also look at this book as an ethnography that happens to center around a murder. The richer part of the book really is the lively and detailed portrait of a small town that Márquez conveys in surprisingly few words. He is a brilliant writer, and this is an excellent work showing how cultural values and expectations can destroy people, can lead them to destroy others, and can tear apart the very society they’re designed to hold together.