If critical acclaim and a Nobel winning author don’t successfully draw you to The Chronicle of a Death Foretold, then let me tell you that it backtracks a murder enveloped in mystery, and yet there is no ‘solving the crime’. An entire town knows that Santiago Nasar is going to be killed by the Vicario twins. The death is so ‘foretold’ that the first line of the novella tells its readers that this is the day ‘they’ were going to kill Santiago Nasar, raising the traditional question of a Whodunnit- Who killed Santiago Nasar and why? What follows this curious statement is a skillful shift to mundane details. We are told that Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty that morning to wait for the boat that the bishop was coming on. Busy wondering about the relevance of the mundane, we slip into the magical- a world where Santiago’s dreams about timber trees could carry death omens. Therein lies Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s well-known talent of integrating fantasy into otherwise realistic settings.
Magical realism is an untangling of reality, an attempt to discover what is mysterious in real human acts. Marquez was once quoted saying “In Mexico, surrealism runs through the streets. Surrealism comes from the reality of Latin America.” The use of the surreal, makes the Chronicle an extraordinary murder mystery in many ways. It is not a Sherlockian demonstration of scientific reasoning. ‘Logically’ speaking, Santiago Nasar’s murder is essentially an act of honour killing. The magical realism of the text however goes beyond this logical explanation.
An incredible number of chance occurrences create the perfect conditions for Santiago Nasar’s murder, I will only mention a few. As the plot unfolds, it seems clear that the Vicario twins, who knew Santiago Nasar well, don’t really want to kill him. Why else would they announce their murder intentions to anyone who would hear it? They want someone to warn him. As a result, almost anyone in the town could have warned Santiago Nasar but they simply fail to take the situation seriously. They are occupied with the bishop’s visit, who does not even step out of his boat.
The text tells us “No one even wondered whether Santiago Nasar had been warned, because it seemed impossible to all that he hadn’t”. Cristo Bedoya, the one friend who does try to warn him, fails to find him on time. Santiago Nasar also fails to notice an anonymous note of warning that has been slipped into his house. How can these be explained by mere chance? His mother fails to find anything odd about Santiago Nasar’s repetitive dreams of trees. She is a very well reputed interpreter of dreams, how could she then miss omens about her own son’s death? Was his death ‘fated’? Could nothing stop Santiago’s murder?
These fatal coincidences lend a sense of cosmic inevitability to the murder. It becomes the stuff of local legend. It is noteworthy that these coincidences baffle the investigative judge, a figure representative of western ideas of justice and governance. In using magic realism, Marquez is shaping an indigenous culture and in playing with the detective fiction genre, he is subverting western literary norms. We do not get a simple investigator but a journalistic figure attempting to ‘chronicle’ the events after they occur. He describes his task to the readers: “… I returned to this forgotten village to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.”
Memories are indeed scattered in the chronicle, the townsfolk cannot even tell us ‘the truth’ about what the weather was like on the day of the murder. Some are convinced that it was a ‘radiant’ morning while others remember it to be ‘funereal’, foreshadowing Santiago’s death. How can we trust then the rest we hear about the murder? Tarnished memories mean that we may never know the truth. This is in stark contrast to Golden age crime fiction which was particularly obsessed with the idea of the ‘whole truth’ which is bound to come out in the end.
The Chronicle is not about a simple revelation of the murderer, it is about taking a critical look at society, specifically at the insensitivity of honour killing. The guilt of this murder is not upon the Vicario brothers alone. The Vicario brothers never feel guilty, they accept that they committed the murder, but maintain that they are ‘innocent’. Their belief that they had to murder Santiago Nasar to protect their family’s honour never wavers. The entire town claims that Santiago Nasar’s death was a tragedy, but all of them fail to warn him. Why? Perhaps, it was an act of social discrimination, they were all jealous of the wealthy, young, and handsome man; especially because he was an Arab, an outsider. Maybe the town also believed that the medieval code of honour had to be upheld. It is magic realism of this murder mystery that allows the guilt of Santiago Nasar’s death to be placed upon all the townsfolk as a whole and the code of honour that reigns in society.