(In the final months of 2013 and throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the "hero's journey," as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)
Chronicle of a Death Foretold
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Review by Madeleine Maccar
When Gabo's at the helm of a novel, even the most ordinary story is transformed into something hazier, dreamier and not entirely grounded by the standard definition of logic. Such is the case with 1981's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, a breathtaking little novella that packs years of unanswered questions and a parade of multifaceted characters into a mere 120 pages.
Told in a non-linear narrative that jumps back and forth across 27 years, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella is not as demonstrative of the magical realism with which he has imbued so much of his canon, but it still maintains the ethereal appeal that is peculiar to his fiction. The book begins and ends with its focus on Santiago Nasar, a young man who has been dead longer than he was alive, and the mystery that shrouds his violent, loudly foretold death at the hands of twin brothers Pedro and Pablo Vicario, though a yawning chasm of time and directionless queries shove lifetimes between the informal investigation of that raucous dawn and final face-down collapse of his last hours.
It is that erratically charted chronology that contributes to--but is not solely responsible for--the difficulty in determining who the real hero is here, as it's impossible to make such a proclamation without knowing the full story. And while the book's final pages do boomerang back to its starting point, the full scope of the facts surrounding Santiago's murder isn't revealed until the very end of the book, and even then witnesses prove unreliable or unwilling to divulge all that they know, town gossip that's grown more akin to modern mythology colors a number of details, and key events prove to have gone unseen, unheard and misunderstood.
The primary players are presented with the same almost journalistically detached treatment that the hours immediately surrounding Santiago's death receive. There's Bayardo San Roman, the charming but conceited wealthy foreigner who stumbled upon this small Colombian town in search of a bride and found Angela Vicario, a beautiful girl despite her "penury of spirit," whom he couldn't woo with gifts so he won over her family instead; Angela is the youngest daughter of a poor family who thrusts her into a marriage she doesn't want, only to be returned to her family in both disgrace and a shredded wedding gown immediately upon her new husband's discovery that he didn't marry a virgin; Angela claims Santiago, also a wealthy young man, as her first lover, which incites her brothers Pedro and Pablo to murder; the twin brothers search for Santiago, proclaiming to all within earshot that they seek the man who has tarnished their sister's honor. And then there is the unnamed narrator, who is kin to many of those involved but maintains a professional distance from everyone in his search for the complete truth behind the circumstances leading to Santiago's death: It is the narrator's unhurried, intermingled examination of these individuals and the supporting cast that brings their full dimensions into stark clarity, as one's person's story is always part of another's.
I don't necessarily subscribe to the notion that "hero" and "protagonist" are interchangeable terms, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a lovely little example of why, thanks to its almost cinematic approach to storytelling (that is, beginning at the end and gradually shedding more and more light on crucial details as the narrative comes full circle) and matter-of-fact acceptance of life's opposing polarities. Santiago is the main character but he is dead for much of the book, leaving him little opportunity for a satisfying character arc; yes, Santiago's death is the crux of the story and it's more than likely that Angela--thinking that his riches would protect him--falsely named Santiago as the man who took her virginity without taking her as a wife to divert the blame from another man, but does that make him a hero or more of an unwitting martyr? The Vicario twins are the agents of the story's rising action and are followed extensively before and after they kill Santiago, but they're also lacking in a hero's transformation; yes, Pedro and Pablo sought vengeance for their sister's soiled honor but isn't it possible that honor in one man's eyes is cold-blooded murder in another's? Besides, while they're on the hunt for Santiago, they broadcast their intent to kill him and brandish the knives to prove it with a little too much desperate bravado, as if they're begging someone to stop them from exacting the revenge they're only seeking because they believe societal conventions of familial pride demand it from them. Bayardo is the tragic figure whose chosen bride consents to wed him not from love but because her prayers for the strength to kill herself go unanswered before their wedding day; yes, he could have easily let his temper get the best of him and returned his sullied wife to her family not in disgrace but in a coffin, but he is too soft and his pride too easily wounded for him to carry out such violence--he is, as described by a minor female character, a man who "looked like a fairy .... I could have buttered him up and eaten him alive."
All that being said, I do believe that dualities can (and do) exist in a hero, especially in contemporary reinterpretations of the long-standing archetype, and especially when being burdened with such a conflicted soul makes the man on a journey so much more human and believably, magnetically flawed.
So how does a hero know when to fight fate or when to bravely accept it? Santiago did neither once his confusion finally gave way to the realization that the Vicario twins were coming for him, running from them and banging on his mother's locked door as his assailants closed in. He did not suffer his tormentors' blows and cuts to spare another: Nasar died because he was literally just seconds too late in reaching the sanctuary of his mother's house. Bayardo also did neither, opting instead to drink himself into oblivion before his own shamed family dragged home the alcohol-soaked groom a full week later, choosing to abuse his body and drown out his thoughts rather than confront himself and his situation. When does a hero know to call a bluff or graciously step back to save another's honor? Pedro and Pablo did neither, knowing full well that they were looking for someone--anyone--to stop them from killing another man, only to stubbornly forge ahead with their plan once they came face-to-face with their intended victim.
With all this in mind, I humbly submit that the two most likely heroes of this tale are Angela and the nameless narrator, as both give themselves up to something bigger for the benefit of others: Angela marries a wealthy man she did not love for the sake of her impoverished family; the narrator serves as the lens through which all pieces of the story are seen, keeping his feelings separate from the facts and inserting himself into the story only when he is an irrefutable firsthand witness of an event, for the sake of the truth about an event that is all that this sleepy, Colombian coastal town could talk about for years after it happened. (The town, it's worth mentioning, is indisputably the farthest thing from a hero that Chronicle of a Death Foretold has to offer. Individually, the townsfolk certainly displayed the redemptive qualities of decent people; as a collective force, though, the town waited for a murder to unfold with as much relish as it did for a bishop's visit, it crowded around at the news of an imminent murder not to intervene but to watch, and its expectations pushed the twins toward murder rather than either lend any credence to their threats or dissuade them entirely.)
For the narrator's deliberate lack of active presence in the story, I think it's safest to identify Angela as the true hero of this tale. True, it's not like Angela had much of a choice in fighting a marriage that was all but chosen for her, but she bore her sentence honorably, taking up the call to wed a man she didn't love, who had dazzled her family when he should have been courting her, all while she was making up her mind to die rather than admit to her lost virginity. Almost three decades later, while talking to the narrator during his research, Angela finally admitted that after Bayardo deposited Angela back at her parents' house and her mother greeted her with a righteous beating, she "finally began to remember him ... (t)he blows hurt less because she knew they were for him," beginning years of obsessive love for the man she once fostered naught but lukewarm feelings for, writing him almost two thousand unopened letters until he reappeared in her life 17 years later.
It is presumably because of her failed marriage and unfortunately delayed adoration that Angela was the one who underwent the most remarkable transformation over the 27 years following Santiago's death, traversing the lonely terrain linking her early years' "helpless air" to her genuine preference for and acceptance of death over shame to leaving the town in which she was scandalized to supporting herself as a seamstress and becoming, as the narrator later finds her, "so mature and witty that it was difficult to believe that she was the same person." Still, it seems that being a discarded bride was the proverbial kick in the ass Angela needed to become the person she was always meant to be, as her true colors show themselves as early as the night of her ill-fated wedding: She ultimately refuses to sink to the level of using the tricks and old wives' remedies for faking the appearance of a deflowered bride's "stain of honor" that her mother and other supposedly wizened older women had shown her, offering up, instead, evidence of both her willing atonement and her role as her own threshold guardian, as she crosses the bridal threshold knowing that she is dooming herself: "I didn't do any of what they told me ... because the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was all something dirty that shouldn't be done to anybody, much less to the poor man who had the bad luck to marry me."
With the help of the narrator, Angela revisits a life she's not spoken of in years, confessing to details that she had shared with no one prior. Because of the narrator's inqueries, we finally learn that there was a conciliatory reunion of sorts between the two shamed spouses, a return to something finally proven genuine that they perhaps both had been faking before, that allows Angela to triumph over her wedding-night ignominy and display a maturation of feelings her 23-year-old self simply had not been capable of. She has both physically and emotionally distanced herself from the deliberately (though not maliciously) deceitful bride she once was to foster the inward journey she would have never been able to embark upon had she lingered in the shadow of her disgrace, demonstrating a rich character development that no other character in this novella can compare to.