Big Little Book

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa
Knopf, 120 pp., $10.95

Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez; drawing by David Levine

The reputation of Gabriel García Márquez, which brought him the Nobel prize in 1982, stems very largely from the immense, seriocomic phantasmagoria of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Since that epic fantasy was published in 1970, Señor García Márquez has continued to ply his trade, bringing forth two shorter works of fiction (The Autumn of the Patriarch and In Evil Hour) as well as three collections of short stories. None, however, has come close to making the same sort of impression as the original novel; and quite a few of the short stories are frankly published as pulled from the writer’s files—they are works of as much as thirty years ago. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a small book, hardly more than a novella (as Henry James would call it), but in no sense is it minor work. Without rehashing materials used before, it harks back again and again to the grand ironies and sinuous fantasy of the big novel, adapting them to a narrow scene and limited time scale. It feels, to a remarkable degree, heavy and strong.

The Chronicle deals with a single, simple, inevitable action in a Colombian riverside town of utter squalor. The time is about a quarter century ago, but the formal action is compressed into less than eight hours. The events of that brief time are retrospectively reconstructed in the novel by a journalist who was a young man in the town, and who now returns to interview the actors and to reassemble his disjointed memories. About the murder that is the central act of the narrative there is no mystery, nor any suspense. Everyone in the little town, with the possible exception of the victim, knows it is going to happen, and when, and where. Most even know why, or think they do, though perhaps the reader will be less sure of this matter at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. For in fact, though the action itself is plain, raw, and open, an element of doubt surrounds not only its origins but its consequences, a haze that thickens as the reporter traces and retraces the events of that distant morning.

At the root of the action is the marriage of Bayardo San Román with Angela Vicario. On the wedding night the groom (a relative stranger in town) discovers his bride is not a virgin; he instantly returns her to her family, and she, amid cuffs, slaps, and tears, confesses that her lover was Santiago Nasar. As family honor requires, her elder brothers Pedro and Pablo set out to murder Santiago. There is reason to hesitate, for he is very rich and they are humble pig butchers; besides, they have been celebrating the wedding, and are very drunk as well as exhausted from lack of sleep. It seems they do not much want to kill Santiago,…

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