Friday, January 30, 2015

A death remembered

This short novel, published in 1981, is based on an incident that had taken place some 30 years earlier, when a young man named Cayetano Gentile Chimento, a friend of the author, was murdered in the town of Sucre, Colombia by two brothers of a woman he had allegedly "deflowered" in advance of her wedding to another man. The narrative apparently follows the outlines of the actual event fairly closely, even to the extent that relatives of the narrator (who is never himself named) bear the same names as Gabriel García Márquez's own family members, at least one of whom witnessed the killing. (Gerald Martin's fine biography of the author has the full background.)

Still, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a work of fiction, not reportage, and one that remains tense and compelling throughout even though we know the outcome from the very first sentence (not to mention from the title). As the book progresses we learn the reasons behind the killing (although some important things are never explained), and we follow the fatal chain of events that, far from being inexorable, could have been interrupted at any number of points. In fact, the killers, reluctant to carry out an act that "honor" compels them to perform, seem to go out of their way to make the final result preventable. The death is not just "foretold" in the sense of being predicted; it's announced (anunciada) in advance to virtually everyone the killers come across. The victim is one of the few people not to get the message.

For a book that runs to only 193 generously spaced pages in its Spanish text (120 in Gregory Rabassa's translation), there are an astounding number of named characters. That's a key to the nature of the book, which is not simply about a tragic series of events involving a few key participants, but about how an entire community witnessed, participated in, and remembered those events, which the narrator reconstructs years later. Here, from my notes, is a by no means complete dramatis personae:
Santiago Nasar; the victim
Plácida Linero; his mother
Victoria Guzmán; their cook
Divina Flor; her daughter

Angela Vicario; the bride
Pablo Vicario; her brother
Pedro Vicario; Pablo's twin, six minutes his junior
Pura (Purísima) Vicario; their mother
Poncio Vicario; their father
Prudencia Cotes; Pablo's girlfriend

Bayardo San Román; the groom
Gen. Petronio San Román; his father
Alberta Simonds; his mother

María Alejandrina Cervantes; a prostitute
Clotilde Armenta; the proprietress of a grocery store
Rogelio de la Flor; her husband
Flora Miguel; the victim's fiancée
Nahir Miguel; her father
Cristo Bedoya; a friend of the victim
Carmen Amador; a priest
Lázaro Aponte; the mayor of the town
Dionisio Iguarón; a physician
Leandro Pornoy; a policeman
"the widower Xius"; the former owner of a house purchased by the groom

The narrator
Luis Enrique; his brother
Margot; his sister
Another sister; a nun
Jaime; another brother
Wenefrida Márquez; the narrator's aunt (who makes an appearance even though her namesake was already dead at the time of the events)
Mercedes Barcha; the narrator's future wife (and the author's wife's real name)

And on and on through to the very last pages; various townspeople:

Yamil Shaium
Indalecio Pardo
Sara Noriega
Celeste Dangond
Meme Loiza
Polo Carillo
Fausto López
Hortensia Baute
Faustino Santos
Aura Villeros
Próspera Arango
Poncho Lanao
Argénida Lanao

Plus a bishop, an unnamed judge, and present only by allusion, the ghosts of Col. Aureliano Buendía and Gerineldo Martínez.

The delight that García Márquez felt in inventing names is evident. It will be noted that several of them, including that of the victim, are Arabic in origin; these are members of the town's population of second- or third-generation Arab immigrants, sometimes referred to as "the Turks," a reminder of Latin America's complex ethnic heritage.

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