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crónica de una muerte anunciada

10 march 2010

When Gabriel García Márquez's novella Crónica de una muerte anunciada appeared in Vanity Fair (with illustrations by Fernando Botero) in the early 1980s, I instinctively avoided reading it. Out of pure ignorance, mind you. It seemed to be just another Latin American tale, full of elementally mysterious women and men with serious testosterone poisoning – and all of them, thanks to Botero, several hundred pounds overweight.

I avoided the book for another few years, and then read it at last in 1990. It was the first book-length fiction I had ever read in Spanish, and it took me weeks to get through. But I adored Crónica de una muerte anunciada, which pulled me into a severe García Márquez phase, during which I picked up (at a now-long-defunct Bookstop in Arlington, Texas) lovely editions of all his then-extant works, printed in Madrid by Mondadori.

When one's reading abilities in a language are limited, one always has to wonder whether a given book is a work of genius, or just seems like it from the depths of one's own illiteracy. My Spanish is a little better nowadays, and I just re-read Crónica de una muerte anunciada in five days. And I think I've read enough hundreds of literary works since 1990 to be able to say, yes, this is a masterpiece. It is taut, written with great energy, confidence, and control.

And it is full of García Márquez's virgins and whores, his machismo-befuddled men, his impossible valetudinarians, and his irrepressible over-the-topness. It is set in the same universe as his great novel Cien años de soledad. There are probably students of that epic novel who think of Crónica as just a pendant to Cien años, and perhaps with reason. But Crónica offers something more, something self-contained, sure, and precise: an exercise, as the title portends, in how to tell a story when you know exactly what's going to happen.

I opine elsewhere that a certain paragraph by Proust is the greatest ever written in Western literature. But one from Crónica de una muerte anunciada is close. Ángela Vicario, the rejected bride of Bayardo San Román, has written her nominal husband a letter a week "durante media vida," for half a lifetime (94). He's never answered; he's never come to see her. One day, Bayardo shows up on her doorstep.

Llevaba la maleta de la ropa para quedarse, y otra maleta igual con casi dos mil cartas que ella le había escrito. Estaban ordenadas por sus fechas, en paquetes con cintas de colores, y todas sin abrir. (96)

[He was carrying a suitcase with his clothes, and another suitcase, the same size, with almost two thousand letters that she had written him. They were arranged by date, in packets tied with colored ribbon, and none of them had been opened.]

The paragraph is the more marvelous because the (embedded) story ends there. We learn nothing of what either of them said, or did, or how long Bayardo stayed, or really anything whatsoever. The whole mystery of existence is locked in those two sentences, as well as a whole narrative theory that depends on knowing when to stop talking.

I read a lot of contemporary fiction that feels it must explain everything that ever happened to its characters. A whole school of fiction editing seems to work on the principle that everything must be backstoried, exposited, and resolved. Some of this fiction is good stuff, for instance the crystalline obsessive-compulsive detective fiction of Stieg Larsson. But most of it is hard work, requiring lots of coffee and a legal pad for taking notes.

Crónica de una muerte anunciada, by contrast, is a murder mystery without any mystery at all about its murder. Paradoxically, it develops great suspense despite (and because) it ends with that "foretold" murder itself. And it develops enormous beauty by being mysterious about practically everything else.

The narrator of Crónica insists that Santiago Nasar's murderers have killed the wrong man. Nobody believes that Santiago could have been Ángela Vicario's lover. But at the same time, there's no good suspect for the role of her lover.

I like the narrator himself for that role. (Being innocent of all critical commentary on the novella, I am probably just reinventing a common perspective.) There are no other possible suspects, after all. The narrator and Ángela are cousins, but that never stopped anybody from following their heart in a García Márquez story. The secret is well-hidden, partly because Ángela insists – even to the narrator (though all we have is his word for it) – that Santiago Nasar was her lover.

I suspect the narrator precisely because he is so adamant about specifying every detail of the murder. It's as if he is staring aghast into his own death, the death that randomly seized Santiago Nasar instead.

But the wonder of the novella is that my suspicion is unverifiable, lost in the mysteries of what we can never know about other people. All we really know is what's seen, what is in the "dominio público" of the plaza and the street (108). Crónica de una muerte anunciada is the great story of how an utterly public event can remain completely unknown.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Crónica de una muerte anunciada. 1981. Madrid: Mondadori, 1987.