Broadly speaking, there are two types of mystery stories: whodunnits and whydunnits. We read a mystery story to find out who committed the crime (with the why, the motive, often serving to help the investigator find the culprit), or we read knowing from early on who the guilty party is as the story lays out the reasons, psychological and otherwise, that prompted the crime. An intriguing subclass of the whodunit is the inverted detective story. In this type, the howcatchem, the crime, and usually the perpetrator are shown at the story’s beginning. The main thrust of the drama here becomes how the detective goes about solving the crime and catching, or killing, the perpetrator. Nearly every episode of Columbo follows this format and, more recently, Luther. But what about a mystery story where, from the first pages, the reader knows who did the crime, why they did it, who they killed and how the person was killed – yet no detective solves anything? In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the setting is a small village in Colombia, South America, and to add to the excess of information known, not only does the reader know all the crime’s particulars, but the characters in the story, the village residents, know before the fatal act occurs who will be killed, by whom, and why. Everyone even remotely connected to the killing knows the pertinent facts, with the possible exception of the victim. When all the typical questions that a mystery story answers are answered from the get-go, what kind of mystery is left? What does the narrative’s investigator need to investigate? It’s precisely these enigmatic areas that are explored in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel.
The story’s basic ingredients are simple. On the night of their wedding, Bayardo San Roman discovers that Angela Vicario is not a virgin. Outraged, he immediately brings her back to her family house, where her mother beats her for her transgression. Under the rain of blows, she eventually says that Santiago Nasar, a well-to-do villager, is the man who violated her. Santiago Nasar has no established connection to her at all, but at once, without doing anything to verify her accusation, Angela’s twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo, vow to uphold the family’s honor. Fulfillment of this duty can come about in only one way – by killing the violator. The brothers mark Santiago Nasar for death, and before dawn, they arm themselves with enormous knives they have used when slaughtering pigs. The catch is that the self-appointed killers don’t want to do this deed. Far from hatching a plan in secret, they do everything they can to make their designs known. Armed with their knives the morning of the planned killing, they sharpen the weapons out in the open at the meat market:
…There weren’t very many customers that early, but twenty-two people declared they had heard everything said, and they all coincided in the impression that the only reason the brothers had said it was so that someone would come over to hear them…
…Finally, they made the knives sing on the stone, and Pablo laid his beside the lamp so that the steel sparkled.
“We’re going to kill Santiago Nasar,” he said.
Their reputation as good people was so well-founded that no one paid any attention to them. “We thought it was drunkards’ baloney,” several butchers declared, just as Victoria Guzman and so many others did who saw them later…
As the hours pass, the brothers repeatedly state their intentions to anyone who will listen. It’s clear that they want someone, anyone, to prevent them from going ahead with the killing. By the time the act is about to occur, as the narrator says, “there were very few of us who didn’t know that the Vicario twins were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him, and in addition, the reasons were understood down to the smallest detail.” Yet there is no conspiracy, no maliciousness on anyone’s part. Nasar lives a well-adjusted life in a house with his loving mother, and it’s not as if any townspeople beside the Vicarios want him to die. Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, nobody stops the brothers and nobody manages to warn Santiago Nasar. Misunderstandings and miscommunications unfold in a way both funny and horrifying. “There had never been a death more foretold,” the narrator says, but in this South American village, foreknowledge stops nothing.
The unnamed narrator functions as the tale’s investigator. He was a young man in the town when the killing occurred and relates his chronicle twenty seven years after the events. He has the deadpan tone of a journalist simply trying to assemble the facts and get at the “truth”, but the more he learns about what happened, the odder the story becomes. In effect, he’s investigating not just a murder committed by two men, but an entire town’s complicity in that murder, and by extension, an entire culture with its own very specific mentality.
Time is presented in a fascinating way in Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The standard mystery novel investigation proceeds in a linear fashion. The plot may be complex and the past may play a large role in influencing the present, but the detective pushes through the suspects and clues, determined to move forward and make progress in the case. There are false leads, distractions, and obstacles and the detective backtracks when necessary, but the main thrust of the narrative is straight ahead until the detective arrives at the solution. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by contrast, the structure is circular; the narrator tells the tale in such a way that time keeps looping back on itself. Each section begins at a certain point within the few hours that covers the novel’s central action, but then the tale goes off into flashbacks and flash forwards, digressions, commentaries on the different people involved. Needless to say, Marquez’s craftsmanship is impeccable, and despite all the jumping around, the narrative is extremely tight. In no more than 140 pages, we learn about the histories of numerous characters. We get their backgrounds leading up to the fateful day, and with some, we find out where life took them after the murder. The narrator’s journalistic voice is the novel’s main one, but often he quotes other people, friends of his from the town, acquaintances. It’s a vivid mosaic Marquez creates, a jigsaw puzzle of conflicting perceptions, dreams, thoughts, ambitions, and desires, and the total effect of it all is uncertainty. Yes, we know in great detail exactly what transpired the day Santiago Nasar was killed, but at the same time, somehow, like the people who are part of the drama, we don’t understand a damn thing. As the narrator keeps going over the same events from different perspectives, asking questions about this or that incident or encounter, trying to tease out meanings, the story feels more and more dreamlike. The people are like sleepwalkers, or figures moving through a prearranged ritual. While Chronicle of a Death Foretold, strictly speaking, is not a work of magical realism (nothing supernatural happens in it), it ranks among the strangest of Marquez’s works specifically because it is based in quotidian “reality” and that reality is inexplicable. Indeed, the narrator describes a judge who writes a 500 page brief about the case but who himself can’t grasp its core. The case disturbs the judge because “he never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature, so that there should be the untrammeled fulfillment of a death so clearly foretold.”
As a matter of fact, the novel does derive from actual events. In 1951, in Sucre, Colombia, a Marquez childhood friend, a medical student from an affluent family, was murdered for supposedly deflowering a young bride. Years later, the man serving as the basis for Bayardo San Roman sued Marquez for using him as that character’s model and declared that he should get 50% of the book’s royalties and a co-author credit. Litigation lasted for seventeen years. In the end, the court ruled in Marquez’s favor on both counts, stating, well, the obvious – that “Hundreds of literary, artistic, and cinematographic works have had as their central story facts from real life”, and that the plaintiff should not be credited as co-author because he “could never have employed the literary language that was actually used.”
Marquez was in college studying journalism when the murder occurred, and he heard the news about it from a friend who lived in Sucre. In his autobiography, he says that he wanted at once to write a report on the crime. Yet as time passed, his thinking changed and what came to interest him was “no longer the crime itself but the literary theme of collective responsibility”. The inverted detective story structure suits this theme perfectly, but what’s striking is how thoroughly Marquez subverts even this structure. The traditional inverted mystery poses the investigator with a challenge because the murder committed was well-planned and smoothly executed. The means are elaborate and difficult for the detective to figure out. Often the fun resides in watching the detective work through solving what the arrogant criminal thinks is the perfect murder. But there is no need for deductive brilliance in Chronicle: Marquez’s killers are imperfect and inept in every way.
They are also brutal. Marquez saves the murder for the very last scene in the book, and he does not stint on graphic detail:
Actually, Santiago Nasar wasn’t falling because they themselves were holding him up with stabs against the door. Desperate, Pablo Vicario gave him a horizontal slash on the stomach, and all his intestines exploded out. Pedro Vicario was about to do the same, but his wrist twisted with horror and he gave him a wild cut on the thigh. Santiago Nasar was still for an instant, leaning against the door, until he saw his own viscera in the sunlight, clean and blue, and he fell on his knees.
The final absurd touch is how, once stabbed repeatedly against his front door, Santiago Nasar picks up his entrails and walks all the way around the side of his house – a good one hundred yards – to enter by the back door. He wipes dirt off his guts, smiles at some neighbors having breakfast, and dies in his kitchen. While this finale strikes one as a Marquez touch, one tragic detail apparently is not. Before the stabbing, as he nears the front door, Santiago Nasar sees his killers waiting for him. He runs for the door to get inside, but his mother shuts and bolts it from within. Though she sees the brothers with their knives, she doesn’t see her son approaching from an angle and believes he is already inside, in his bedroom. The victim’s own mother unwittingly seals his doom – something that, according to Marquez in his autobiography, happened during the actual murder.
Marquez says that he didn’t write the tale of the Sucre murder till thirty years after the events. He wanted to write it well before that, but his mother begged him not to. The victim’s mother, alive all that time, was a close friend of Marquez’s mother, and his mother remained opposed to a story despite everything Marquez argued. He says “it seemed a lack of respect to write it without her permission”. Only after the victim’s mother died (“without ever getting over the loss of her son”) did Marquez’s mother relent, saying he could write the story if he chose to. She never read it, though. As she told Marquez, she had a reason for avoiding it: “Something that turned out so awful in life can’t turn out well in a book.”
Um, if I might, with all due respect to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s mother, about the book he wrote – she was wrong.
Scott Adlerberg lives in New York City. He co-hosts the Word for Word Reel Talks film commentary series each summer at the HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival in Manhattan. He blogs about books, movies, and writing at Scott Adlerberg’s Mysterious Island. His most recent book is the genre-blending noir\fantasy novella Jungle Horses, available from Broken River Books.