BAS Senior Editor Robin Wallis revisits an unforgotten masterpiece.
The trouble with Crónica de una muerte anunciada is that it’s perfect: exciting, brilliantly structured, with a heady mix of sex and violence driving the plot. And it’s short. Put it on an exam syllabus and nothing else will get a look-in. Other masterpieces neglected for decades. Slam dunk for Crónica.
Its author, Gabriel García Márquez (GM), vies for consideration as the twentieth century’s greatest novelist. He regarded Crónica as the work in which he most fully achieved his authorial intentions. Its publication in 1981 nudged the Nobel Committee into awarding him their Prize for Literature the following year.
The unnamed town of Crónica is banjaxed by its geography and lack of social cohesion. GM’s insights into its shortcomings complement his 1967 masterpiece Cien Años de Soledad – a fantastical allegory of the history of Spanish America on a biblical scale. By contrast, Crónica is based on a real-life crime which distills GM’s vision of Spanish America as eloquently as the 2020 murder of George Floyd illustrated centuries of oppression in the United States.
I read Crónica the year it was published, and since then it has provided me with an easy answer to the question ‘what’s your favourite book?’. It made such an impression that I couldn’t resist referring to it when answering the GM question in my Tripos exams in 1984. By that stage there hadn’t been much published on it, so I was expressing my own responses rather than citing those of erudite critics – a precocious strategy at Tripos level. Perhaps I carried that Crónica-inspired audacity into the Pre-U syllabuses of recent years, which have invited candidates’ intuitive responses to works too recent to have a Critical Guide published on them.
One subtlety of Crónica is that, on first reading, it is possible to miss that the novel’s protagonist (in my view, at least) is the unnamed narrator. Although the action is apparently divided between an inexplicable murder and an ill-starred marriage, the story is only being told because something has impelled the narrator, after 27 years, to return to este pueblo olvidado tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria [this forgotten town, trying to piece together the broken mirror of memory from so many scattered shards].
On the novel’s fortieth anniversary I have also returned to Crónica, piecing together passages that encapsulate why this novel stands out. Below I offer ten examples, with my own square-bracketed translations for non-Spanish speakers. The selection ends with my hypothesis about the core mystery of the narrative: who was Ángela’s lover?
1. Structure of first chapter
The first chapter flows in non-linear fashion from the opening El día en que lo iban a matar [the day they were going to kill him] to the closing Ya lo mataron [they just killed him]. It is as though the chapter were structured as a spiral, from the centre of which various spokes reach out to the edge. These spokes represent recurring images and phrases, eg the bishop’s boat, the cockerels’ crowing, Santiago Nasar (SN) grabbing Divina Flor, etc, that give the chapter its haunting atmosphere and sense of inevitability. As the chapter gathers pace our spiral spins in towards the centre, heading to the fatal moment when Luisa Santiaga rushes towards the plaza only for news of the tragedy to resound back at her through the anonymous voice of doom.
This crónica is anything but chronological. Some of the characters seem to live outside linear time. Thus Luisa Santiaga, who can foretell the ending of any story she hears, refers to SN as el muerto [the dead man] even before his death. The narrator finds SN’s mother Plácida Linero trapped in time, marooned in the same position in the same hammock as when she last saw SN 27 years earlier. The implication: a society in which time is not linear will continue to commit the errors of the past.
The narrative is a battleground between predestination and free will. Many of the characters overtly consider themselves predestined, eg Divina Flor se sabía destinada a la cama furtiva de SN [Divina Flor knew herself destined for SN’s furtive bed], or the brothers contemplating their inescapable duty to murder SN: Es como si ya nos hubiera sucedido [It’s as though it had already happened to us]. When Ángela names SN, the narrator likens him to a butterfly pinned to the wall, sin albedrío cuya sentencia estaba escrita desde siempre [with no free will, whose fate has been written for all time]. A belief in predestination saps the will to take responsibility and shape a better future. Moreover, those who are predestined lose the capacity to choose between right and wrong.
4. Town and authority
GM allows readers to draw their own conclusions about the nature of authority in this society. The mayor’s bumbling response to the crisis is one illustration of this, but perhaps the best example is in chapter 1, when the bishop’s boat can’t be bothered to stop to collect the people’s offerings or hold mass. Instead, el silbato del buque soltó un chorro de vapor a presión al pasar frente al puerto, y dejó ensopados a los que estaban más cerca de la orilla…: el obispo empezó a hacer la señal de la cruz en el aire frente a la muchedumbre del muelle, después siguió haciéndola de memoria, sin malicia ni inspiración, hasta que el buque se perdió de vista y sólo quedó el alboroto de los gallos. [The boat’s horn blew out a pressurised jet of steam as it passed in front of the port, soaking those closest to the shore…: the bishop began making the sign of the cross in the direction of the jetty, continuing to do so automatically, with neither ill will nor inspiration, until the boat disappeared from sight, leaving only the crowing of the cockerels.]. The hierarchy is alienated from and indifferent to the people over whom it holds sway.
5. Communal responsibility
The narrator reflects, 27 years later, that SN’s was a death cuyos culpables podíamos ser todos [of which we could all be considered guilty]. The townspeople’s inability to assume responsibility for averting the tragedy contrasts with their keenness to declare to the judge su propia importancia en el drama [their own importance in the drama]. Excuses given range from the admission of a lack of nerve (se me aflojó la pasta) to the belief that matters of honour are estancos sagrados a los cuales sólo tienen acceso los dueños del drama [sacred pools accesible only to the main players in the drama]. Fate and poor governance play a part, but individual responsibility also comes under scrutiny in the Crónica world.
The visiting judge is the only hope for a rational assessment of events, but he is a whimsical figure with a penchant for popular fiction, philosophical musings and doodling. The archive of the provincial capital is un estanque de causas perdidas [a sink of lost causes] which floods regularly and has más de un siglo de expedientes amontonados en el suelo [more than a century of paperwork in heaps all over the floor]. The implication is that the state cannot rise to the challenge of the issues addressed in the novel.
The townspeople’s inability to forewarn SN is the dominant example of the breakdown of communication. In addition, Bayardo San Román’s manera de hablar que más bien le servía para ocultar que para decir [way of speaking that was better at allowing him to hide things rather than state them clearly] is a telling description of how communication becomes subverted in the society of the novel. Without clear communication rational action is undermined.
Crónica abounds in striking and evocative images that, while not essential to the narrative, deeply enrich it. One such is the depiction of the bride’s father at the wedding reception: Poncio Vicario, the blind goldsmith, sentado solo en un taburete en el centro del patio, respondiendo saludos fugaces que nadie le hacía, feliz en su cerco de olvido [sitting alone on a stool in the middle of the patio, happily forgotten, responding to salutations not addressed to him] – a poignant image of individual solitude that complements the collective isolation of Cien Años de Soledad.
9. Ángela fights back
Ángela transforms herself into the dueña de su destino [master of her own destiny] after her exile from the town. Her love for Bayardo asserts itself as she volvió a ser virgen para él [became once again a virgin for him] – a phrase that redefines the terminology of oppression. Conversely, her esteem for her mother plummets: as her mother wipes her mouth on her sleeve and grins at her through her new glasses, por primera vez desde su nacimiento Angela Vicario la vio tal como era: una pobre mujer consagrada al culto de sus defectos [for the first time in her life Ángela Vicario saw her for what she really was: an unfortunate woman dedicated to the cult of her defects]. For the reader it is ever so satisfying to see such a withering assessment of Pura Vicario after her abusive treatment of her daughter, and to cheer on Ángela as she outwits the system and champions free will over fatalism.
The narrator repeatedly asserts the improbability of SN being responsible for Ángela’s loss of virginity. At the same time, we know that even 27 years on from the event the narrator remains transfixed by SN’s death – hence his narration of the novel. We also glimpse that, 23 years after the murder, the narrator found himself en una época incierta en que trataba de entender algo de mí mismo [in a period of uncertainty, trying to understand something about myself], about which no further details are offered.
Against this background we find a telling passage at the mid-point of the text that describes SN’s consuming passion for María Alejandrina Cervantes (MAC). In mundane terms, MAC is the madame of the town brothel, but the narrator depicts her as much more than this: una bestia de amor whose animal magnetism strips the male townsfolk of their reason and their virginity. The long paragraph setting out her powers concludes with a description of her hold over SN. The closing sentence sets out how, in the small hours after the wedding, MAC sent everyone home while quietly leaving her door unbolted for the return of…. The reader has been primed to expect the returning male to be SN, and is therefore brought up with a jolt to read that the returning male is in fact… the narrator himself (para que yo volviera a entrar en secreto – my underlining).
This thunderbolt is immediately followed by a surreal passage describing SN’s ‘almost magical talent’ for disguising people so that they can no longer even recognise themselves: su diversión predilecta era trastocar la identidad de las mulatas. Saqueaba los roperos de unas para disfrazar a las otras, de modo que todas terminaban por sentirse distintas de sí mismas e iguales a las que no eran. [his favourite pursuit was muddling up the identities of the girls [in the brothel]. He would ransack some girls’ wardrobes to dress up other girls, so that each one ended up feeling different from the person she truly was and identical to someone she was not.]
This revelation of SN’s artificios de transformista [transformational skills] sits alongside the recurrent testimony during the novel that (i) SN had neither the opportunity nor inclination to be intimate with Ángela, and (ii) the narrator remains obsessed with SN’s death.
The alignment of these passages offers a plausible hypothesis to resolve the core mystery of the novel: to wit, that Ángela may have had sexual relations with the narrator at a moment while he was ‘magically’ disguised to look like SN, leading Ángela in all sincerity to regard SN as her autor and the narrator to suffer life-long remorse that his friend SN died in his place.