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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Chapter Seventy, in which is presented the first Review of the Slaves of Golconda

There had never been a death more foretold.

On January 22, 1951, in the town of Sucre, a handsome medical student named Cayetano Gentile was killed by the brothers of Margarita Chica Salas, after she had been returned home by her husband, Miguel Reyes Palencia, who found her not to be a virgin on their wedding night. Minutes before being stabbed, Cayetano had mailed a letter to the father of Gabriel García Márquez, and had encountered his brother and sister, who invited Cayetano home for breakfast. So the writer, working as a provincial journalist on a local paper in Cartagena, heard the story in intimate detail from his family.

Thirty years later, García Márquez put to paper a similar story: when Bayardo San Román discovers that his bride is not a virgin, he returns her to her home where her brothers Pablo and Pedro Vicario demand to know who has dishonored her. Angela Vicario names Santiago Nasar, a man merry and peaceful, and openhearted, who belonged to a different world than she did, who had never been seen with her, and who was too haughty to have noticed her. Thus, with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the unsettling events begin to unfold.

What had happened, Angela Vicario would tell in all its details to anyone who wanted to hear it, except for one item that would never be cleared up: who was the real cause of her damage, and how and why, because no one believed that it had really been Santiago Nasar. The investigating magistrate could not find a single clue, not even the most improbable, that Santiago Nasar had been the cause of the wrong. García Márquez, in the role of narrator, says Santiago Nasar died without understanding his death, a belief confirmed by the statement of Santiago Nasar when he learns the Vicario brothers intend to kill him: "I don't understand a God-damned thing." Though the details change, that is probably the way death comes to us all.

The Vicario brothers were set on defending the honor of their sister and their family. But they did not really want to kill Santiago Nasar. [T]he Vicario brothers had done nothing right with a view to killing Santiago Nasar immediately and without any public spectacle, but had done much more than could be imagined to have someone to stop them from killing him, and they had failed. They announce to everyone their intentions, causing one woman to believe the Vicario brothers were not as eager to carry out the sentence as to find someone who would do them the favor of stopping them. This was the key element of the story that, when eventually struck upon by García Márquez, turned the nearly forgotten subject of Cayetano Gentile's killing into the basis for a novel.

Unfortunately for the brothers, [t]heir reputation as good people was so well-founded that no one paid any attention to them. And those who tried to warn Santiago Nasar were unable to find him in time. The investigating magistrate explained these facts by noting "Fatality makes us invisible."

If the wedding of Bayardo San Román and Angela Vicario had not been such a public event; if Angela's prayers for the courage to kill herself had been answered; if the mayor hadn't had a date for dominoes; if the bishop had stopped--any of these things, and a hundred others, would have changed the fate of Santiago Nasar. Though there were many who could have done something to prevent his killing, they consoled themselves with the pretext that affairs of honor are sacred monopolies, giving access only to those who are part of the drama. The narrator concedes that this was a death for which we all could have been to blame. With the bishop coming to town that morning, and passing right by in his boat without even stopping, it is as if the whole town has been damned by God. For the immense majority of people, there was only one victim: Bayardo San Román.

A strong sense of machismo and honor pervades Latin cultures. "We killed him openly," Pedro Vicario said, "but we're innocent." Unfortunately, for Santiago Nasar and others like him, honor is not always the same as justice. The lawyer stood by the thesis of homicide in legitimate defense of honor, which was upheld by the court in good faith. Such notions seem odd to most North Americans, among whom refusing to get involved is a well-documented practice. One of the most famous examples of this was the 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese at her New York apartment, where at least 38 people had some knowledge of the crimes but did nothing to stop them. The recent passage of so-called Good Samaritan laws are reactions to such incidents. One even sees mirrored in individual blindfoldedness the collective reluctance to become involved in foreign conflicts in places like Bosnia and Iraq.

A blurb inside our edition of Chronicle likens the novella to the performance of a ballet. Indeed, there is the stage of the town, and upon this stage the various characters all move about in a dance of death. What keeps us reading, knowing from the first line the fate of Santiago Nasar, is the details that flesh out the how and why. With his training as a journalist, it is in a reporter's plain and thorough style that García Márquez tells his story. To the basis of truth he adds but a few touches of magical realism--a bullet that penetrates a cupboard and several walls before destroying a plaster statue; a man who does not sleep for eleven months; an aged woman whose beauty is preserved like a rose by sleeping past noon--all characteristically related as simple fact. The supreme talents of García Márquez as a novelist remain in this story in the background, producing a perfect choreography--like a ballet--so the coincidences and fatalities, as absurd as they may seem, work. Even though the fate of Santiago Nasar is known from the beginning, we are still stunned by his death at the end.

In what we consider to be the gem of the whole book, the investigating magistrate summed up the speechless perplexity of the whole matter: 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.

Crónica de una muerte anunciada was published in 1981, one year before García Márquez won the Nobel Prize. Gregory Rabassa's English translation followed in 1983, from which quotes in italics above are taken.

1 comment:

  1. I've read a lot of Garcia Marquez, but not this novella. You've convinced me I need to correct this gap.