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A seemingly factual account of a murder story opens with a rendition of a dream. The chronological order of the story is skewed so that the aftermath is rendered even before the murder has taken place. The addition of the narrator’s own stylistic and flowery language–Angela as the dart who nails Santiago, the butterfly–furthermore makes the Chronicle less chronicle-like. In the novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel García Márquez utilizes narration, magical realism, dreams, and superstitions to minimize the credibility of the narrator and adds stylistic elements to create the ironically non-journalistic narrative. The resulting blur between fantasy and reality makes the account of events as unbelievable as Santiago’s guilt itself and reveals the cultural chaos and absurdity of the Colombian world.
The simple crime story unfolds in five unmarked chapters of the Chronicle in reverse order. The reader discovers the imminent murder with the very first sentence: “On the day they were going to kill him…” (García Márquez 1). The townspeople report the murder throughout the book: “ ‘They’ve already killed him’ ”(26), at the end of chapter one and “ ‘They’ve killed Santiago Nasar!’ ”at the end of chapter three (82). The autopsy of the body is performed at the beginning of the fourth chapter; the aftereffect of the crime begins chapter five. The actual murder itself does not occur until the last few paragraphs of the entire book following a heart-stopping account of the moments right before the murder when Santiago finds out he is the target. Just as factual events are twisted in real life, this non-linear depiction of time in the novel creates a similar chaos. The absurdity here lies at the root of the culture: society makes individuals kill out of “honor,” and witnesses do not intervene because of “duty.” By the order of narration, it is implied fate has the ultimate power to control Santiago’s life and to reverse the turn of events because the outcome is more important than the process.
The term “Chronicle” in the title signifies not only an intended factual account but also implies the assimilation of the story by the narrator. The telling of the events is unique because testimonies of various witnesses are “pieced together.” The book is thus proven untruthful because memory creates contradicting factual information from the witnesses: “I had a very confused memory of the festival before I decided to rescue it piece by piece from the memory of others” (48). The narrator manages to bring two perspectives into the story at once: one during the time of the murder when he himself was a town resident, and the other in an omniscient retrospective, twenty-seven years after the occurrence. The narrator relates the tale in a first person, as a witness, and reveals the characters’ thoughts when he did not actually witness any of the events that occurred. In this way, the confusion of the reader, who already must view the events backwards, and the mystery of the crime are heightened.
The narrator diminishes his credibility by his use of stylistic elements, and his own biased view that Santiago is innocent is revealed through these subtle literary hints. In example, he parallels Santiago to a harmless “butterfly”(53), and then to a pathetic “little wet bird”(135). Thereby García Márquez allows the reader to question Santiago’s innocence and makes the absurdity of “murder for honor” apparent. When the reader realizes that perhaps Santiago has been wronged, the entire story becomes completely insane because it lacks justice, and the town becomes completely ridiculous because it feels no remorse. The complete naturalness in which the narrator uses this florid style, in an objective tone and without any kind of emotional involvement, makes fact seem as believable as fiction and, ironically, results in the sharp realism that perhaps the two are not very different.
García Márquez’s use of magical realism further diminishes the investigative mode of the narrative. Fantastic details transform everyday events into the surreal realm and makes it harder for the reader to discern reality versus fiction. The use of magical realism is not essential to the overall events; it is simply a stylistic device that the narrator uses so the reader comprehends the outside elements–fatality, honor, sacrifice–that play a role in the course of the action. For example, the dreams and superstitions do not reinforce or disprove the evidence in the crime. Including them makes the book seem like a fairy tale. The book begins with Santiago’s dream right before his death: “He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit” (1). Beginning with this dream immediately destroys the journalistic method of the story. The dream itself displays a surprise awakening that is similar to that of magical realism: both the bird dung and magical realism are “unexpected,” but when included, they are natural and inherent to the entire imagery and signify that unrelated and unnecessary additions result in literal and figurative chaos. The randomness and senselessness of the superstitions of Santiago’s mother and other mystical signs are added to disrupt the story and to emphasize the importance of the cultural element, particularly fate, in the progress of the events. Because Santiago’s mother believes in these signs but fails to read them on the fatal day, it is implied that the murder is destined, and thus the chaos turns into an un-chaotic end.
By creating a thin distinction between reality and unreality, the Chronicle makes the reader question true from false, fact from fantasy. The author subtly critiques the moral code of the Colombian world, a code in which a man is proclaimed dead before he is found guilty. Surprisingly, even though everyone in the town knows the murdered and the murderers, no one seems to be concerned as to the guilt of the crime. No one considers that Santiago might have been innocent, the victim of a moral and cultural status quo gone horribly awry: “For the immense majority of people there was only one victim: Bayardo San Román” (96). García Márquez writes an investigative piece without revealing the guilt of the victim because who really took the virginity of the Angela does not matter and whether Santiago is the culprit is not a concern. The events that occurred would have occurred regardless of these details because of one important piece of evidence: fate.
Everything boils down to destiny; the coincidence of the day only augments the town’s belief that Santiago was meant to die. Essentially, someone has to cleanse the loss of virginity of a girl and the loss of innocence of a town, and Santiago is the ill-fated one. The fear of the town for its own innocence creates enough power to murder in its own right. Every member of the town only played his or her inevitable part: “They took it for granted that the other actors in the tragedy had been fulfilling with dignity, and even with a certain grandeur, their part of the destiny that life had assigned them. Santiago Nasar had expiated the insult, the brothers Vicario had proved their status as men, and the seduced sister was in possession of her honor once more” (96). The fated sacrifice is revealed literally when the knives the Vicario twins used to kill Santiago are specially named “sacrificial tools” (57). Santiago is simply the chosen sacrificial animal.
The title misleads: the book as a chronicle does not clarify the murder. The biggest question–whether Santiago is innocent–remains a mystery. Yet the narrator does not write this story to reveal any secrets but to evaluate why the crime occurred–the many societal factors that accompanied it, from honor to sacrifice to violence. The reader completes the book without a tangible catharsis (a parallel to the non-catharsis in real life) and completely disoriented but clear on one thing: the Colombian culture creates the confusion that precipitated into this ritualistic, sacerdotal crime. In the end, the truth is not found, and the chronicle creates more haze with the addition of magical realism, flowery style, and reversed narration. Yet, ironically, this haze dissipates into truth by elucidating the culture reality of the crime–the interaction between fate and masculine honor sends justice and reason out the window. The irony ultimately lies in the fact that chaos creates order, lack of concrete truth transforms into cultural truth, coincidence leads to the stark, inevitable fate of Santiago.
García Márquez, Gabriel. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.
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