Sunday, October 04, 2015

Chronicle of a Death Foretold - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Bayardo San Roman, a visitor in this town in the Caribbean, comes in search of a prospective bride, one fine day chooses Angela Vicario to marry, out of a whim.

On his wedding night, he discovers that his bride is no virgin and immediately brings her back to her mother’s house and leaves her there.

When questioned by her brothers who her violator is, she takes the name of Santiago Nasar.

Her brothers Pablo and Pedro Vicario set out to murder Santiago Nasar with their butcher’s knives to avenge their family honour and thus the story is all about Santiago Nasar and his death.

Though un-put-down-able, the story remains a mystery until the end and unfortunately, even after the end.
For, there is a strong suggestion that Santiago is not Angela’s violator.
Although he has relieved many girls of their virginity as if it were a matter of drinking water, he has never been interested in Angela, the two have never been seen together, and when told about the slur that has been cast against him, his reaction is one of ‘confused bewilderment’.
He has attended Angela’s wedding and made merry like others in the party and there was no sign of the presence of guilt or a hidden secret in his chest.
The mystery is: who was the real violator of Angela’s honor and why did she take his name when questioned by her brother about the matter?

The death is mentioned in the very first line. It’s no secret. But it’s a mere mention. The description is kept for the end.
The story, all along, hovers about and around the death, approaching it at a fast pace, almost racing towards it, each chapter from a different angle, revealing the characters and the circumstances as it unfolds.

When it finally reaches the scene and moment of death, you read with bated breath and eyes wide open.
It’s a very gory death. Butcher’s knives. Two men attacking one unarmed fellow pinned against the door of his own house. A dozen stabs and slashes. The spilling out of purple intestines. Santiago’s falling to the ground but picking himself up, dusting his intestines, dragging himself to his house through the back door, going into death throes and dropping dead.

For all that, I wouldn’t call it a touching, moving story. I would call it powerful.

Santiago’s fate evoked very little pity in me (though I wish that door had remained open for just a few seconds and he had been saved)
This is partly because the character is a stranger to the reader except for the few events, incidents, facts about him that the author acquaints the reader with. As a reader, I am not given the opportunity to know what he is as a person or to grow fond of the character.

But this must also be because of a few mentions in the book about the way he lusted after women, the first one being about his cook’s daughter, whom he grabs by arm in front of her mother and declares his intention to ‘tame’ her. He thinks nothing of such treatment of women.
Perhaps he is living in a land and culture where this is commonplace and the author did not intend to evoke such a feeling in the reader with his character sketch.
But my own present circumstance - this suddenly heightened awareness of the attitude of men towards women – in the wake of some brutal crimes against them in recent times, caused at once, the classification of the character in my mind into the wrong side of the line that divides good and bad.
(Our circumstances colour all our perceptions.)

However, just for once, the story becomes touching. This is when Santiago’s mother Placida Linero shuts the front door of her house seconds before her son reaches it, thinking he is already inside and becomes the immediate cause of her son’s death; it’s touching again to think what knowing her role in it must have meant for her after the gruesome tragedy.
What happened was this: from the place where she stood inside the house, Placida Linero could see the Vicario brothers running toward the house with their knives out but she couldn’t see her son who was running toward the door from a different angle. She ran to the door and slammed it shut!

Again it is saddening, when it is revealed that Bayardo San Roman had been in Angela’s life (her heart) ever since he had left her. To know that she went crazy over him, that the blaze of his body in bed would awaken her at midnight...that she began writing a weekly letter to him and did it for over half a lifetime, not having received a single reply but content knowing that he was receiving them. One day, 17 years later, he arrived with a suitcase full of her letters, two thousand of them, arranged by date in bundles tied with coloured ribbons, and all unopened!

Given the chain of many chance events that had made the absurdity possible, it is stomach wrenching (without being poignant) to think how each one of the many characters who could have done something to prevent the crime had missed it, some by a hair’s width, others by more. The sheer avoidability of the crime leaves scars on most of the characters to the extent of changing the life of an entire town and throwing all its inhabitants into a penitential crisis.

As I have already said, that part of the story which you begin eagerly looking for, after being told the charge is a false one, evades you till the end, and even afterwards – the truth behind the charge Angela made against Santiago.
But perhaps that’s not the most important point.

Perhaps the point here is how amazing it is that the death actually took place, the possibility of it’s plan reaching completion being so low, almost impossible, with the whole town having been told about it beforehand including the mayor, the priest, Santiago’s friends, acquaintances, strangers, shopkeepers, his cook, his mother, and Santiago himself.
Perhaps the point here is, how for the sake of honour, nay, ‘the notion of honour’, the twins were forced to kill against their own will and their best efforts not to.

Garcia’s specialty is his strange surreal characters with strange surreal attributes in strange surreal circumstances.
And there are some very unexpected and original insights. The use of language strikes you too.

It is rightly said of him that “Marquez is a master of the evocation of place, of atmosphere”.

The first surreal character is Santiago’s mother Placida Linero because she can accurately interpret people’s dreams if she is told about them before eating.

And then, the narrator’s mother. She has this quality of knowing about everything before anyone else in the house in spite of the fact that for years she hasn’t stepped out into the street, not even to go to the mass. She has her secret threads of communication with other people in the town and at times has news that’s ahead of time which she could have known only through powers of divination.

Bayardo San Roman himself is mysterious: he lands in this town looking for someone to marry. No one knows his antecedents. He tells people he is a track engineer, he is familiar with telegraph and worn out batteries; he is a mediator of fights and a skilful swimmer.
He had been napping in a rocking chair in the parlor of a boarding house when he saw two women in mourning, dressed in black, cross the square. He enquired after the younger one and upon learning her name to be Angela Vicario, he observed that she was well named and went back to his nap saying ‘when I wake up, remind me that I am going to marry her’!

Some lines I noted...

‘He always got up with the face of a bad night’

Divina Flor, her daughter, who was just coming into bloom,...

She had so much repressed rage ... that she went on feeding the dogs with the insides of the other rabbits, just to embitter Santiago Nasar's breakfast.

Sometimes she would surprise us with news so ahead of its time that she could only have known it through powers of divination. That morning, however, ‘She didn’t feel the throb of the tragedy that had been gestating since three o clock in the morning’.

Bayardo San Roman was not a man to be known at first sight.

‘He had a way of speaking that served him rather to conceal than to reveal’

In those days it wasn't permitted to receive communion standing and everything was in Latin

“He seemed more serious to me than his antics would have led one to believe, and with a hidden tension that was barely concealed by his excessive good manners. But above all, he seemed to me like a very sad man...”

“The girls had been reared to get married. They knew how to do screen embroidery, sew by machine, weave bone lace, wash and iron, make artificial flowers and fancy candy, and write engagement announcements. Unlike other girls of the time, who had neglected the cult of death, the four were past mistresses in the ancient science of sitting up with the ill, comforting the dying, and enshrouding the dead. The only thing that my mother reproached them for was the custom of combing their hair before sleeping. "Girls," she would tell them, "don't comb your hair at night; you'll slow down seafarers."”
(Not just in India...)

“...there were no better-reared daughters. "They're perfect," she was frequently heard to say. "Any man will be happy with them because they've been raised to suffer."”

“She had been born like the great queens of history, with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck”

“She had a helpless air and a poverty of spirit...”

“Angela Vicario only dared hint at the inconvenience of a lack of love, but her mother demolished it with a single phrase: "Love can be learned too."”

“"The only thing they believe is what they see on the sheet," they told her. And they taught her old wives' tricks to feign her lost possession, so that on her first morning as a newlywed she could display open under the sun in the courtyard of her house the linen sheet with the stain of honour.”

“She had refused to get dressed as a bride until she saw him in the house. "Just imagine," she told me. "I would have been happy even if he hadn't come, but never if he abandoned me dressed up." Her caution seemed natural, because there was no public misfortune more shameful than for a
woman to be jilted in her bridal gown.”

“...the fact that Angela Vicario dared put on the veil and the orange blossoms without being a virgin would be interpreted afterwards as a profanation of the symbols of purity.”

“...the hail of raw rice with which they received us at the wedding party...”

“...she had gone to bed at eleven o'clock at night after her older daughters had helped her clean up a bit from the devastation of the wedding...”

"They were three very slow knocks," she told my mother, "but they had that strange touch of bad news about them."

“She only took the time necessary to say the name. She looked for it in the shadows, she found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other, and she nailed it to the wall with her well-aimed dart, like a butterfly with no will whose sentence has always been written. "Santiago Nasar," she said.”

“I was to ask the butchers sometime later whether or not the trade of slaughterer didn't reveal a soul predisposed to killing a human being. They protested: "When you sacrifice a steer you don't dare look into its eyes." One of them told me that he couldn't eat the flesh of an animal he had butchered. Another said that he wouldn't be capable of sacrificing a cow if he'd known it before, much less if he'd drunk its milk.”

“He asked him jokingly why they had to kill Santiago Nasar since there were so many other rich people who deserved dying first.”

"They looked like two children," she told me. And that thought frightened her, because she'd
always felt that only children are capable of everything....

“She was certain that the Vicario brothers were not as eager to carry out the sentence as to find someone who would do them the favour of stopping them...”

“Pedro Vicario always seemed more sentimental to me, and by the same token more authoritarian.”

Maria Alejandrina Cervantes (prostitute), about whom we used to say that she would go to sleep only once and that would be to die...

She taught us above all that there's no place in life sadder than an empty bed...

They were still linked by a serious affection, but without the disorder of love...

Luis Enrique, who played the guitar like a professional at that time, improvised a song with matrimonial double meanings in honour of the newlyweds...

From the other side of sleep he heard the first bellows of the bishop's boat without awakening.

The abdominal cavity was filled with large clots of blood, and in the midst of the morass of gastric contents appeared a medal of the Virgil of Carmel that Santiago Nasar had swallowed at the age of four.

The encephalic mass weighed sixty grams more than that of a normal Englishman, and Father Amador noted in the report that Santiago Nasar had a superior intelligence and a brilliant future..

We tropical people have larger livers than greenhorn Galician Spaniards...

The last onlookers ranged about the schoolhouse windows lost their curiosity, the helper fainted, and Colonel L zaro Aponte, who had seen and caused so many repressive massacres, became a vegetarian as well as a spiritualist...

She was squatting like a Turkish houri on her queenly bed across from a Babylonic platter of things to eat: veal cutlets, a boiled chicken, a pork loin, and a garnishing of plantains and vegetables that would have served five people. Disproportionate eating was always the only way she could ever mourn and I'd never seen her do it with such grief...

I was thinking about the ferocity of Santiago Nasar's fate, which had collected twenty years of happiness from him not only with his death but also with the dismemberment of his body and its dispersion and extermination...

Not just I. Everything continued smelling of Santiago Nasar that day. The Vicario brothers could smell him in the jail cell where the mayor had locked them up until he could think of something to do with them. "No matter how much I scrubbed with soap and rags, I couldn't get rid of the smell’, Pedro Vicario told me.

"It was like being awake twice over." That phrase made me think that what must have been most unbearable for them in jail was their lucidity.

Pablo Vicario, for his part, ate a little bit of everything they brought him, and fifteen minutes later unloosed a pestilential diarrhoea...

“ was Susana Abdala, the centenarian matriarch, who recommended the prodigious infusion of passion flowers and absinthe that dried up Pablo Vicario's diarrhoea and unleashed at the same time his brother's florid flow...

“the widower Xius told the mayor that he'd seen a phosphorescent bird fluttering over his former home, and he thought it was the soul of his wife, who was going about demanding what was hers...”
So surreal!

“They came on a cargo boat, locked in mourning up to their necks because of Bayardo San Roman's misfortunes, and with their hair hanging loose in grief...”
Familiar sentiment – hair hanging loose in grief...

I watched them pass from Magdalena Oliver's balcony, and I remember thinking that distress like theirs could only be put on in order to hide other, greater shames... night it occurred to him to hold a spiritualist seance in order to clear up the mystery, and the soul of Yolanda Xius confirmed in her own handwriting that it was in fact she who was recovering
the knick-knacks of her happiness for her house of death. The house began to crumble. The
wedding car was falling apart by the door, and finally nothing remained except its weatherrotted

...My sister the nun had been going about the upper Guajira for some time trying to convert the last idolaters...

...she had bought a solid house with a large courtyard with cross ventilation, the only problem being that on nights of high tide the toilets would back up and fish would appear flopping about in the bedrooms at dawn...

I couldn't bring myself to admit that life might end up resembling bad literature so much...
She had gone beyond what was possible to make Angela Vicario die in life...

He went about alone, just like his father, nipping the bud of any wayward virgin who began showing up in those woods...

...for the first time since her birth, Angela Vicario saw her as she was: a poor woman devoted to the cult of her defects...

...hate andlove are reciprocal passions...

...he had to ask for troop reinforcements to control the crowd that was pouring in to testify without having been summoned...

500 pages of brief... it was obvious that he was a man burning with the fever of literature... he kept falling into lyrical distractions that ran contrary to the rigour of his profession...
That’s me.

...he never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden in literature, so that there should be the untrammelled fulfilment of a death so clearly foretold... that’s the summation of the book.

“Give me a prejudice and I will move the world”

...underneath his worldly airs he was as subject as anyone else to his native prejudices...
(true in the case of most of us)

...he died without understanding his death...
(most of us do)

...his serenity wasn't innocence but cynicism...

"He thought that his money made him untouchable,..Just like all Turks...”

Pedro Vicario...His manner was too insolent to be natural, and yet it wasn't the only final or the most visible pose that he'd assumed in the last moments so they would stop him from committing the crime...

Santiago Nasar accepted the engagement...he had the same utilitarian concept of matrimony as his father...

Fatality makes us invisible.

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