Investigating a Murder and a Culture: Marquez as Writer-Journalist in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
A study on the crossing, dimming and blurring of lines between Marquez’s fiction and journalism.
In the same Winter 1981 interview (Stone) to Paris Review, in which he famously declared his conviction that he was going to write the greatest book of his life (Chronicle of a Death Fortetold released the same year), Marquez described what he felt was the ideal way for a journalist to conduct an interview. The most effective method, he said, was “to have a long conversation [with the subject] without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed.”
This is the exact way he took with writing Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
Only a little later in the conversation, the interviewer (Peter H. Stone) points to Marquez an interview of a shipwrecked sailor (1955) that he’d conducted himself, about which he had this to say: “The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing.”
A major import from this interview excerpt emphasises the importance of reminiscence, rewriting, or retelling in Marquez’s brand of journalism, besides his tendency to create a sense of a fictional narrative in his political and social commentaries. Since he was journalist first and author next, and since by his own admission, his true profession was that of a journalist (Stone), his literary works see a powerful influence of his experience as a journalist in their writing, narration and organisation.
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the journalist side to Marquez’s personality not only influences the narrative, but also inspires it, as well as the narrator, who’s been interpreted as a journalist by many litterateurs. The incident of honour killing on which Marquez based his story occurred three decades before Marquez finally “chronicled” it (he wanted to take up the project immediately, but was prevented by his mother). In those thirty years, Marquez found enough time to reflect over the killing and what he probably would’ve written as a crime report then, now began shaping up to him as a novel on “the literary theme of collective responsibility”, which he further transmogrified into a tragic-comic love story.
The subject matter for the novella, thus, was of interest to first, Marquez the journalist, and then to Marquez the author, the lines between which crossed, blurred and dimmed in the novel’s narrative.
The genre of the “chronicle” had been a particular favourite for Marquez in his journalism. In fact, chronicles were exactly what he was writing in journals like El Espectador in Bogota and El Pais in Madrid. (Martin) The works he wrote during this period (1980) are referred to as “memoirs”, “a kind of public diary”, and a “fragmentary autobiography” by Gerald Martin. (Martin)The novella, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, quite accurately fits all these descriptions applied to his journalistic oeuvre.
The honour killing central to the novel is given a particularly journalistic treatment: all the pre-requisites are answered almost right at the outset. What was to happen? Santiago Nasar was “going to be” killed. Why? Because Angela Vicario had named him as her perpetrator. When? The very next morning after Angela had been returned. How? The Vicario brothers would use their slaughterer’s knives to kill him.
Like a good journalist, Marquez provides this information in a rather direct fashion.
But the unique twists and the problems in the narrative are introduced through the deft infusion of his trademark Garciamarquian magic realism into the chronicle:
“Consider the speed and hallucination. The fragmented realities. The things partially glimpsed. The events witnessed but not understood. The welter of meanings and signs and auguries. Consider the loss of belief.” (K.Nayar) Here, Ben Okri in talking about the magic realist state of mind summarises most skilfully the post-colonial and post-modern sensibilities that insert the magic in the reality of the unnamed Latin American town of Chronicle, where Santiago Nasar is killed in a paradoxical, unplanned controversy.
“They [the Vicario brothers] didn’t hear the shouts of the whole town, frightened by its crime”.
“Never was there a death more foretold.” (Marquez)
As many as 37 characters are assigned speech in the novella, which amounts to a total of 102 quotations and nine written records gathered by the narrator/journalist. (L.Williams) Considering this overwhelming amount of information and certitude over the fact that “they were going to kill him”, there clearly could not have been a death more foretold. And yet, it is not prevented. Marquez as a conscience-keeper of Columbian society leaves no room for doubt that the murder wasn’t prevented because it was in fact, contrived (at worst) or sanctioned (at best), by the entire town. In that, perhaps, even Pablo and Pedro are shown as victims and tools of a fundamentally medieval, patriarchal, conservative social order that necessitated them to shed blood, even at their most unwilling, to seize their honour from a man who is paradoxically, once again, most likely (being an outsider) and the most unlikely (owing to his class position) to have corrupted it.
What is then, the motivation behind forging the chronicle of a foretold death? The irony in the statement answers the question. The thrust of the investigation is not so much to find out why it wasn’t prevented, but to piece together evidences and statements from all involved (because everyone was, indeed, involved) to chronicle how it transpired that the whole town joined hands to enable the murder that violated their private consciences.
The ultimate significance only belongs to the one moment of truth (Martin) that occurs towards the close of the novel: Santiago Nasar is brutally butchered, and it has been allowed to happen.
A lot of the he/she/they said (Aghae)- narrative in the novel is only full of a lot of incidental fluff, but as readers we are swept away, and entertained, in fact, by everything we read because of Marquez’s adeptness at providing engaging journalistic detail (the Marquian equivalent of Agatha Christie’s red-herrings?). Marquez himself admits, “That’s a journalistic trick which you can also apply to literature. For example, if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.” (Stone) His brand of journalism, therefore, is that which is “completely true and real, but which sounds fantastic”, much like his magic realist work One Hundred Years of Solitude, and the Chronicle in question. It is also because of this excessive importance to incidental detail that ambiguity, foreboding, and uncertainty is maintained in the narrative, beginning from the first sentence itself:
“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.”
The fact that “they” were out to kill him is rendered enigmatic by the rest of the sentence that follows. The careful choice of words puts emphasis on the action (“they were going to kill him”), the details of which the narrator is going to put together, as opposed to the murder described at the end which the whole town saw.
A similar note of reminiscence and eerie foreboding is found in the opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
There are two temporal timelines in the narrative of Chronicle. On the one hand are related the events leading up to the murder and on the other, their reconstruction, or chronicling. What makes the novel gripping is that the two narrative structures appear in alternation. Here also can be found the parallel voices of the writer-narrator and the journalist-narrator (who is documenting the narrative) coming together to recount the fable of Santiago Nasar’s death. Truth and mystery become unite and become inseparable to reinforce Marquez’s belief that “life is determined by inexplicable forces and irrational acts” (L.Williams) even as the narrator’s attempts at a rational explanation fall short. The narrator says “My personal impression is that Santiago died without understanding his death”, which echoes the 1951 news report of the incident carried by Al Dia magazine. The journalist-litterateur complex in the novel functions at the levels of fact/fiction, mystery/truth, shame/honor, and medieval-Hispanic/post modernist: all that helps to forge a chronicle when no authoritative version of the story really exists. (except perhaps Angela’s, who’s quoted the most in the book. However, one needs to view her statements with a good degree of scepticism). However, Marquez embodied in narrator-journalist is also a friend to Santiago Nasar, as well as Pablo and Pedro Vicario. Therefore, the narrative is prevented from being a completely dispassionate journalist account, and the narrator provides personal touches that render the circumstances surrounding Angela’s defilement and Santiago’s death much more immediate to the reader.
Even the characters that have nothing to do with Santiago or Angela per se contribute to his killing. Pablo Vicario’s fiancée, Prudencia Cotes, says, “I never would’ve married him [Pablo] if he hadn’t done what a man should do.” Even his mother-in-law in convinced that “honour cannot wait”. Could Santiago’s own mother closing the door on him also be symbolic of her sharing the ethos of the society that enabled the murder? Perhaps.
We see that Marquez grounds his journalism (and fiction) in political and social realities of the Columbia of his time, and it is imperative to understand the importance of his journalistic concerns to study the Chronicle. The honour-killing incident of Sucre stands out from the other crimes of the same nature in Latin American history because of the brilliant fictional treatment given to it by Marquez. On the other hand, the fact that the novella is based on a real incident benefits it in the same way a horror movie benefits from the line “ Based on true events” that appears in bold white letters against a black backdrop, before the movie begins.
Marquez in writing Chronicle of a Death Foretold redefines the genre of “chronicle” itself: it isn’t strictly chronological, but it’s distinctly Garcia Marquian, spiked with fantasy and magic. It is fitting to quote Garcia Marquez from his Paris Review interview once again, as he speaks of the potency of journalism as a genre at par with the novel:
Interviewer: Do you think the novel can do certain things that journalism can’t?
Nothing. I don’t think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and the language, all are the same.
Aghae, Mohammad B. Application of Journalistic Style of Narration in Marquez’s Novels. November 2015 <http://www.cscanada.net/index.php/sll/article/viewFile/5102/6450>.
K.Nayar, Pramod. Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction. New Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2008.
L.Williams, Raymond. “Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Journalism.” Seth, Jayanti. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. New Delhi: Doaba, 2002. 136.
Marquez, Gabriel Garcia. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Mumbai: Penguin, 1982.
Martin, Gerald. Cambridge Introduction to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Stone, Peter H. Paris Review. 1981. 10 November 2015 <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3196/the-art-of-fiction-no-69-gabriel-garcia-marquez>.