Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Chronicle of a Death ForetoldChronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"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."

I have just finished reading, consecutively, two translations of Crónica de una muerte anunciada - a magnificent novella, stunning in its design and literary form - first the English translation by Gregory Rabassa and then the Polish one by Carlos Marrodán Casas. I even checked out the original Spanish version from a library and asked my wife, who reads Spanish, to translate a passage that I found not quite clear in either English or Polish. This double reading feast has confirmed for me the greatness of Chronicle, yet I am not quite ready to round my rating up to five stars, for which I am apologizing later in this review.

This brilliantly structured and beautifully written novella tells a story of an inevitable killing, a killing which is a natural and expected consequence of events that take place in an inflexible world of rigid socio-cultural norms and traditions. Santiago Nasar gets up early to prepare for the expected visit of the bishop, but his fate has already been sealed and in just about an hour and a half he will be "carved up like a pig", slaughtered in an honor killing. No one can do anything about it in advance: "There is no way out of this, [...] It's as if it had already happened." Virtually all residents of the town know that the killing is about to take place: in fact many line up in a town store to get the latest news about whether the deed has already been done. Many others profess that they are trying to prevent the killing yet are powerless to carry out their intentions. Everybody is in a state of total incapacity to do anything about what must and will happen. The author - this is my reading - cannot allow anyone to prevent the deed: stopping it would be tantamount to violating the cultural praxis that regulates the society.

I am not qualified to discuss in any depth the main themes of this fascinating novella: the reader can easily find hundreds of web pages with reviews and analyses written by professional, learned literary critics. I am submitting just a few unorganized, amateurish thoughts. First, this is by no means a "magical realism" work. There is no magic at play: the story reflects the most objective reality. This is the world of a culture where honor is the pre-eminent category and the loss of honor can only be redeemed by death. In this world while the people who carry out the honor killing may be guilty before the state, they are certainly innocent before God, as having discharged their duty.

This is also the world of machismo, where men show off their masculinity by shaving with butcher knife, where the main qualification for a wife is to have been "raised to suffer", and where there is "no public misfortune more shameful than for a woman to be jilted in her bridal gown." The quote that for me absolutely stands out and - in a sense - summarizes the author's intent is an extraordinary paraphrase of purported saying by Archimedes:
"Give me a prejudice and I will move the world."
There is even a healthy dose of black humor in the novella: not only in the vapid excuses that various characters offer for not being able to prevent the killing, but most spectacularly in the early scene of preparing the rabbit stew: there is a Czekhovian purpose in the brutal imagery of throwing the rabbit intestines to the dogs.

The aspect of Chronicle that resonates with me the strongest is that the plot is like an ensemble play, written for so many characters: each of them just doing their part, each of them just an actor rather than an agent, speaking the words that have been written for them well in advance. The author tells us: "the other actors in the tragedy had been fulfilling with dignity, and even with a certain grandeur, their part of the destiny that the life had assigned them."

And finally, the hard part of this review: the rounding down of my four-and-a-half star rating. In my previous review I granted five stars to a mere police procedural ( The Laughing Policeman ) How do I have the cheek to rank a police crime novel higher than a distinguished work of literary art that Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novella unquestionably is? Well, had I not read One Hundred Years of Solitude - not just one of my all-time favorite books but undoubtedly one of the best books ever written - I would have rated Chronicle with the highest rating. But I had and so even if I dearly love this splendid novella, I do not think it is as superbly magnificent as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's most famous work. It has not taken my breath away. Maybe I have been hoping for a little magic?

Four and a half stars.

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