Friday, June 4, 2010

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five thirty in the morning to wait on the boat the Bishop was coming on.

Spoilers, such as they are.

I realize that, for most people, the best place to start with an author is one of their most acclaimed works. You wouldn’t read Youth for your first Tolstoy, The Original of Laura for your first Nabokov, or The Short Second Life of Bree Tanner for your first Meyer. Still, there is something to be said for starting with a lesser work, particularly if the works upon which an author’s reputation has been built are massive, and you happen to stumble across a much shorter, lesser-known work by a well-regarded author at Goodwill for 50 cents. It gives you a chance to check out an author’s style and themes without investing hours and hours of reading; however, the downside is that some works are minor for a reason. All of which is a long way of saying that Chronicle of a Death Foretold was my first Marquez, and I really didn’t like it.

The story opens by introducing us to Santiago Nasar, a young Arab who, we learned in the first line of the book, has been murdered. The day of his death immediately follows the biggest wedding in his town’s history, that of Bayardo San Roman and Angela Vicario. As it goes, Bayardo San Roman returns Angela Vicario to her parents’ house the night of the wedding after learning that she isn’t a virgin. When her brothers find her the next morning, laying in the living room bruised from the beaten her mother gave her upon her return, they demand the name of her love, intending to kill him and thus preserve Angela Vicario’s honor. She gives them the name of Santiago Nasar, even though the narrator tells us that he couldn’t possibly have been her lover, and the twins make preparations for the kill. While doing so, they tell virtually everyone they come into contact with that they are preparing to kill Santiago Nasar, and soon everyone in the town knows, except Santiago Nasar himself. The murder becomes a sort of spectator sport, with no one intervening even as the twins brutally murder Santiago.

I don’t know where to start with the things that bothered me about this book. By the time I finished the first ten pages, I was tired of the writing style, which is, I guess, magical realism. The narrator, unnamed but certainly a resident of the town, delivers the story, injecting asides about dreams and mystical occurrences that seemingly have nothing to do with the story. He also repeats himself, over and over. Indeed, the book would be half its length if he didn’t spend time meeting every resident of the town and telling us that they all knew that Santiago Nasar was going to be killed, and didn’t do anything about it. By the end of the first chapter, I already felt like I was being bludgeoned over the head with the point. I get it—everyone in town is complicit in the murder because they did nothing to stop it. What’s this a reference to? World War II? The Catholic purge in Mexico? Rwandan genocide? Basic human nature? We’re left to speculate, which is fine.

Less fine: throughout the book, we’re introduced to dozens of characters—indeed, Chronicle may have the highest character-to-page ratio I’ve ever seen—but we never learn enough about anyone to much care what happens to them. Even if we did, everyone here seems pretty terrible, or at least terribly apathetic. Again, I get it, that’s the point, but without any sort of relatable or sympathetic characters, the blurb on the back of the book is almost as impactful as the book itself. Angela Vicario probably gets the most development of anyone, and yet, when the narrator speaks to her years after the murder, she laughs about the things that happened, and admits that she picked Santiago Nasar’s name out of thin air. Intended or not, this makes her seem just as terrible as everyone else in her stupid town.

I’m not glad I read this book. It was awful and pointless and the writing style bothered me, although I can’t put my finger on why (although always using everyone's full names probably contributed). Can anyone who’s read any of Marquez’s major works tell me if they’re better, or am I better off staying far away?

Jim's One Hundred years of Solitude review, in which Jim is also bludgeoned with themes.

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