I am deeply saddened by the passing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, one of the world’s best contemporary authors. His magical realist style brims with life and zest — and his descriptions are unique and unforgettable. His most famous work is the magisterial One Hundred Years of Solitude, but my personal favorite is Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
I teach this great work in my law and literature class. It is a novella about a murder and its legal consequences that takes place in a small town. What is amazing about the book is that it is quite short — it is really just a long short story — yet unlike most works of its length, it focuses on not just the microcosm of one character but the macrocosm of an entire town, with an enormous array of characters. So much is packed into this short work, and I marvel at how each time I read it I discover interesting new details. The novella reminds me of a Breugel painting, a canvas filled with so much detail, so many interesting things going on.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold begins with one of Garcia Marquez’s signature openings, so gripping and enriched with unexpected details that it is impossible to stop reading:
On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on. 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.
The book is written by a narrator 27 years after the murder, pieced together by various interviews, memories, and documents. Chronicling memories that have faded, stories that diverge and contradict each other, the narrator writes in part like an investigative journalist piecing together an expose and in part like a detective investigating a crime. The narrative isn’t told in a linear way but in various fragments that are pasted together like a collage.
We know who will be murdered on the first page, and we find out the culprits very early on. And yet, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a murder mystery. What it shows, as the narrator recreates the final days of Santiago Nasar’s life, is how each and every character played a role in the murder. Some were indifferent, some were too absorbed in their own pursuits to pay much attention, some were vindictive, with hidden malice, and some just didn’t take things seriously. So many are to blame, yet most played but a small part, and others who played larger roles acted in part based on societal pressures.
But beyond the individual characters, the ultimate indictment is against the town itself and its norms. This is a collective crime. We see how norms of race, class, and gender all combine to create a bitter stew, how many characters feel trapped by traditions and beliefs that lead them to act in unsavory ways. The indictment is thorough — the individuals and the very fabric of their society all interact to produce this tragedy.
I teach this work in my law and literature class to show how puny a force the law can be, and how the law can be too myopic in its focus. The law in this story fails to address the roots of what happened; it just focuses on a few branches and ignores most of the tree.
I marvel at this work every time I read it — the beauty of the prose, the vividness of the description, the brevity of the story that has enough detail for a book ten times as long, and the ability to capture a whole town and its culture and values in so many dimensions — without becoming too abstract or didactic.
If you haven’t read this book, I strongly recommend it to you. It is gripping, challenging, fascinating, and insightful. It is a true masterpiece, and can be read in just an afternoon. Often overshadowed by Garcia Marquez’s great novels — One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera — Chronicle of a Death Foretold, despite its brevity, is as rich and sweeping.
Cross-posted at LinkedIn