- Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Cape, 122 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 224 01990 2
We had suspected for a long time that the man Gabriel was capable of miracles, because for many years he had talked too much about angels for someone who had no wings, so that when the miracle of the printing presses occurred we nodded our heads knowingly, but of course the foreknowledge of his sorcery did not release us from its power, and under the spell of that nostalgic witchcraft we arose from our wooden benches and garden swings and ran without once drawing breath to the place where the demented printing presses were breeding books faster than fruit-flies, and the books leapt into our hands without our even having to stretch out our arms, the flood of books spilled out of the print room and knocked down the first arrivals at the presses, who succumbed deliriously to that terrible deluge of narrative as it covered the streets and the sidewalks and rose lap-high in the ground-floor rooms of all the houses for miles around, so that there was no one who could escape from that story, if you were blind or shut your eyes it did you no good because there were always voices reading aloud within earshot, we had all been ravished like willing virgins by that tale, which had the quality of convincing each reader that it was his personal autobiography; and then the book filled up our country and headed out to sea, and we understood in the insanity of our possession that the phenomenon would not cease until the entire surface of the globe had been covered, until seas, mountains, underground railways and deserts had been completely clogged up by the endless copies emerging from the bewitched printing press, with the exception, as Melquiades the gypsy told us, of a single northern country called Britain whose inhabitants had long ago become immune to the book disease, no matter how virulent the strain ...
It is now 15 years since Gabriel Garcia Marquez first published One Hundred Years of Solitude. During that time it has sold over four million copies in the Spanish language alone, and I don’t know how many millions more in translation. The news of a new Marquez book takes over the front pages of Spanish American dailies. Barrow-boys hawk copies in the streets. Critics commit suicide for lack of fresh superlatives. His latest book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, had a first printing in Spanish of considerably more than one million copies. Not the least extraordinary aspect of the work of ‘Angel Gabriel’ is its ability to make the real world behave in precisely the improbably hyperbolic fashion of a Marquez story.
In Britain, nothing so outrageous has yet taken place. Marquez gets the raves but the person on the South London public conveyance remains unimpressed. It can’t be that the British distrust fantasists. Think of Tolkien. (Maybe they just don’t like good fantasy.) My own theory is that for most Britons South America has just been discovered. A Task Force may succeed where reviewers have failed: that great comma of a continent may have become commercial at last, thus enabling Marquez and all the other members of ‘El Boom’, the great explosion of brilliance in contemporary Spanish American literature, finally to reach the enormous audiences they deserve. Already, John Fowles in a Guardian essay has used the Chronicle to great effect as a prism through which to see the battle for the Malvinas. No doubt the Sun will shortly advise its readers to do the same. No doubt Sandy Woodward is a fan of the tale of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, who organised 32 armed uprisings and lost them all. No doubt Mrs Torture (as an Indian politician once immortally referred to our beloved leader) is appalled that Mario Vargas Llosa’s enormous critical study of Marquez has never even been published here. Great forces are at work.
It seems that the greatest force at work on the imagination of Marquez himself is the memory of his grandmother. Many, more formal antecedents have been suggested for his art: he has himself admitted the influence of Faulkner, and the world of his fabulous Macondo is at least partly Yoknapatawpha County transported into the Colombian jungles. Then there’s Borges, and behind Borges the fons and origo of it all, Machado de Assis, whose three great novels, Epitaph of a Small Winner, Quincas Borba and Dom Casmurro, were so far ahead of their times (1880, 1892 and 1900), so light in touch, so clearly the product of a fantasticating imagination (see, for example, the use Machado makes of an ‘anti-melancholy plaster’ in Epitaph), as to make one suspect that he had descended into the South American literary wilderness of that period from some Dänikenian chariot of gods. And Garcia Marquez’s genius for the unforgettable visual hyperbole – for instance, the Americans forcing a Latin dictator to give them the sea in payment of his debts, in The Autumn of the Patriarch: ‘they took away the Caribbean in April, Ambassador Ewing’s nautical engineers carried it off in numbered pieces to plant it far from the hurricanes in the blood-red dawns of Arizona’ – may well have been sharpened by his years of writing for the movies. But the grandmother is more important than any of these. She is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s voice.
In an interview with Luis Harss and Barbara Dohmann, Marquez says clearly that his language is his grandmother’s. ‘She spoke that way.’ ‘She was a great storyteller.’ Anita Desai has said of Indian households that the women are the keepers of the tales, and the same appears to be the case in South America. Marquez was raised by his grandparents, meeting his mother for the first time when he was seven or eight years old. His remark that nothing interesting ever happened to him after the age of eight becomes, therefore, particularly revealing. Of his grandparents, Marquez said to Harss and Dohmann:
They had an enormous house, full of ghosts. They were very superstitious and impressionable people. In every corner there were skeletons and memories, and after six in the evening you didn’t dare leave your room. It was a world of fantastic terrors.
From the memory of that house, and using his grandmother’s narrative voice as his own linguistic lodestone, Marquez began the building of Macondo.
But of course there is more to him than his granny. He left his childhood village of Aracataca when still very young, and found himself in an urban world whose definitions of reality were so different from those prevalent in the jungle as to be virtually incompatible. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, the assumption into heaven of Remedios the Beauty, the loveliest girl in the world, is treated as a completely expected occurrence, but the arrival of the first railway train to reach Macondo sends a woman screaming down the high street. ‘It’s coming,’ she cries. ‘Something frightful, like a kitchen dragging a village behind it.’ Needless to say, the reactions of city folk to these two events would be exactly reversed. Garcia Marquez decided that reality in South America had literally ceased to exist: this is the source of his fabulism.
The damage to reality was – is – at least as much political as cultural. In Marquez’s experience, truth has been controlled to the point at which it has ceased to be possible to find out what it is. The only truth is that you are being lied to all the time. Garcia Marquez (whose support of the Castro Government in Cuba may prevent him from getting his Nobel) has always been an intensely political creature: but his books are only obliquely to do with politics, dealing with public affairs only in terms of grand metaphors like Colonel Aureliano Buendia’s military career, or the colossally overblown figure of the Patriarch, who has one of his rivals served up as the main course at a banquet, and who, having overslept one day, decides that the afternoon is really the morning, so that people have to stand outside his windows at night holding up cardboard cut-outs of the sun.
El realismo magical, ‘magic realism’, at least as practised by Garcia Marquez, is a development of Surrealism that expresses a genuinely ‘Third World’ consciousness. It deals with what Naipaul has called ‘half-made’ societies, in which the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’, where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on. In the work of Garcia Marquez, as in the world he describes, impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun. It would be a mistake to think of Marquez’s literary universe as an invented, self-referential, closed system. He is not writing about Middle Earth, but about the one we all inhabit. Macondo exists. That is its magic.
It sometimes seems, however, that Marquez is consciously trying to foster the myth of ‘Garcialand’. Compare the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude with the first sentence of Chronicle of a Death Foretold: ‘Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice’ (One Hundred Years). And: ‘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’ (Chronicle). Both books begin by first invoking a violent death in the future and then retreating to consider an earlier, extraordinary event. The Autumn of the Patriarch, too, begins with a death and then circles back and around a life. It’s as though Marquez is asking us to link the books. This suggestion is underlined by his use of certain types of stock character: the old soldier, the loose woman, the matriarch, the compromised priest, the anguished doctor. The plot of In Evil Hour, in which a town allows one person to become the scapegoat for what is in fact a crime committed by many hands – the fly-posting of satiric lampoons during the nights – is echoed in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which the citizens of another town, caught in the grip of a terrible disbelieving inertia, once again fail to prevent a killing, even though it has been endlessly ‘announced’ or ‘foretold’. These assonances in the Marquez oeuvre are so pronounced that it’s easy to let them overpower the considerable differences of intent and achievement in his books.
For not only is Marquez bigger than his grandmother: he is also bigger than Macondo. The early writings look, in retrospect, like preparations for the great flight of One Hundred Years of Solitude, but even in those days Marquez was writing about two towns: Macondo and another, nameless one, which is more than just a sort of not-Macondo, but a much less mythologised place, a more ‘naturalistic’ one, insofar as anything is naturalistic in Marquez. This is the town of Los Funerales de la Mama Grande (the English title, Big Mama’s Funeral, makes it sound like something out of Damon Runyon), and many of the stories in this collection, with the exception of the title story, in which the Pope comes to the funeral, are closer in feeling to early Hemingway than to later Marquez. And ever since his great book, Marquez has been making a huge effort to get away from his mesmeric jungle settlement, to continue.
In The Autumn of the Patriarch, he found a miraculous method for dealing with the notion of a dictatorship so oppressive that all change, all possibility of development, is stifled: the power of the patriarch stops time, and the text is thereby enabled to swirl, to eddy around the stories of his reign, creating by its non-linear form an exact analogy for the feeling of endless stasis. And in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which looks at first sight like a reversion to the manner of his earlier days, he is in fact innovating again. The Chronicle is about honour and about its opposite – that is to say, dishonour, shame. The marriage of Bayardo San Roman and Angela Vicario ends on their wedding night when she names the young Arab, Santiago Nasar, as her previous lover. She is returned to her parents’ house and her brothers, the twins Pedro and Pablo Vicario, are thus faced with the obligation of killing Santiago to salvage their family’s good name. It is giving nothing away to reveal that the murder does in fact take place. But the oddness and the quality of this unforgettable short fable lie in the twins’ reluctance to do what must be done. They boast continually of their intention, so that it is a sort of miracle that Santiago Nasar never gets to hear about it; and the town’s silence eventually forces the twins to perform their terrible deed. Bayardo San Roman, whose honour required him to reject the woman with whom he was besotted, enters a terrible decline after he does so: ‘honour is love,’ one of the characters says, but for Bayardo this is not the case. Angela Vicario, the source of it all, appears to survive the tragedy with more calm than most.
The manner in which this story is revealed is something new for Garcia Marquez. He uses the device of an unnamed, shadowy narrator visiting the scene of the killing many years later, and beginning an investigation into the past. This narrator, the text hints, is Garcia Marquez himself – at least, he has an aunt with that surname. And the town has many echoes of Macondo: Gerineldo Marquez makes a guest appearance, and one of the characters has the evocative name, for fans of the earlier book, of Cotes. But whether it be Macondo or no, Marquez is writing, in these pages, at a greater distance from his material than ever before. The book and its narrator probe slowly, painfully, through the mists of half-accurate memories, equivocations, contradictory versions, trying to establish what happened and why; and achieve only provisional answers. The effect of this retrospective method is to make the Chronicle strangely elegiac in tone, as if Garcia Marquez feels that he has drifted away from his roots, and can only write about them now through veils of formal difficulty. Where all his previous books exude an air of absolute authority over the material, this one reeks of doubt. And the triumph of the book is that this new hesitancy, this abdication of Olympus, is turned to such excellent account, and becomes a source of strength: Chronicle of a Death Foretold, with its uncertainties, with its case-history format, is as haunting, as lovely and as true as anything Garcia Marquez has written before.
It is also rather more didactic. Garcia Marquez has, in the past, taken sides in his fictions only where affairs of state were concerned: there are no good banana company bosses in his stories, and the idea of the masses, ‘the people’, is occasionally – for instance, in the last few pages of The Autumn of the Patriarch – romanticised. But when he has written about the lives of ‘the people’, he has thus far forborne to judge. In Chronicle, however, the distancing has the effect of making it clear that Garcia Marquez is launching an attack on the macho ethic, on a narrow society in which terrible things happen with the inevitability of dreams. He has never written so disapprovingly before.
He gets away with that, too, because he never makes the error of allowing his characters and their motives to become one-dimensional. And there is, of course, the sheer beauty of his sentences and of his images (helped into English, once again, by Gregory Rabassa, who, along with Grass’s translator Ralph Manheim, must be the very best in the business), the dry wit, and the unequalled talent for rooting his fabulous imagination firmly in the real world. Chronicle is speech after long silence. For a time Garcia Marquez abjured fiction: whatever the reasons for his return to the form, we can only be grateful that he is back, his genius unaffected by the lay-off.