GABRIEL GARCIA MARQUEZ is a virtuoso performer and 2 Chronicle of a Death Foretold is, in miniature, a virtuoso performance: a tour de force that occupies a place in his life's work roughly comparable to that occupied by As I Lay Dying in William Faulkner's. By contrast with his two masterworks, One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch, it is slight; it is generously described as a novella--long short story is more like it--and its action is tightly concentrated on a single event. But in this small space Garc,ia M,arquez works small miracles; Chronicle of a Death Foretold is ingeniously, impeccably constructed, and it provides a sobering, devastating perspective on the system of male "honor."
In this as in many other respects, the tale is heavily Faulknerian. Garc,ia M,arquez has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Faulkner, going so far in his speech accepting the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature as to refer to him as "my master." In certain subtle but important respects, Chronicle of a Death Foretold seems to be a deliberate tribute to Faulkner. It is probably far from insignificant that a central character is called Bayardo, the Spanish for Bayard, a name that recurs frequently in Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County. Of greater consequence are the novella's structural parallels to As I Lay Dying--each tells, from varying viewpoints, the story of a death, the fact of which is known to the reader from the outset--and its consideration of what Garc,ia M,arquez calls "the broken mirror of memory," an image and theme central to Faulkner's world.
The story takes place in the fictional Central America that is to Garc,ia M,arquez what Yoknapatawpha was to Faulkner, his "tiny postage stamp of native soil." A young woman, Angela Vicario, is married to Bayardo San Roman, who discovers on their wedding night that she is not a virgin. He returns her at once to her family, where one of her twin brothers angrily confronts her:
" 'All right girl,' he said to her, trembling with rage, 'tell us who it was.'
"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."
And so it becomes, "before God and before men," a "matter of honor." The twins, Pablo and Pedro, set forth in drunken fury to do "what a man should do." The code gives them no choice: "There's no way out of this. . . . It's as if it had already happened." Eventually everyone in town except Santiago knows about his impending murder, yet because it has been "foretold" no one makes more than a perfunctory effort to stop it: "most of those who could have done something to prevent the crime and did not consoled themselves with the pretext that affairs of honor are sacred monopolies, giving access only to those who are part of the drama." So it is that, after an elaborate sequence of "fatal coincidences," the brothers Vicario accost Santiago Nasar and brutally stab him to death. In the life of the town, it becomes a historic event, a legend, a cause of communal guilt:
"For years we couldn't talk about anything else. Our daily conduct, dominated then by so many linear habits, had suddenly begun to spin around a single common anxiety. The cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren't doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate."
Thus it is that the narrator, a friend of Santiago Nasar and a witness to the events leading up to his death, decides to return to the town many years later and assemble a chronicle "from the memory of others." In prose that is spare yet heavy with meaning, he gives us not merely a chronicle but a portrait of the town and its collective psyche. Consider, for example, this description of the family of the bride:
"Angela Vicario was the youngest daughter of a family of scant resources. Her father, Poncio Vicario, was a poor man's goldsmith, and he'd lost his sight from doing so much fine work in gold in order to maintain the honor of the house. Puris,ima del Carmen, her mother, had been a schoolteacher until she married for ever. Her meek and somewhat afflicted look hid the strength of her character quite well. 'She looked like a nun,' my wife Mercedes recalls. She devoted herself with such spirit of sacrifice to the care of her husband and the rearing of her children that at times one forgot she still existed. The two oldest daughters had married very late. In addition to the twins, there was a middle daughter who had died of nighttime fevers, and two years later they were still observing a mourning that was relaxed inside the house but rigorous on the street. The brothers were brought up to be men. 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 art 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.' Except for that, she thought 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.' "
Dissertations could be written about that passage and, alas, doubtless they will be. Suffice it to say that in remarkably few words Garc,ia M,arquez gives us not merely a family but an entire culture: its machismo, its self-destructive observance of honor, its contempt for women and their own complicity in that contempt, its deference to rigid community standards of morality and behavior, its rituals, its superstitions, its obeisance to fate, its wry humor. In varying degrees these have been the subjects of all his fiction, but only in his two great novels has he explored them with as much subtlety and depth as he does here. It is a novella, as Garc,ia M,arquez remarked in his recent interview with Playboy magazine, "structured as carefully as clockwork," and each tiny piece is exactly in place; this structural perfection is what makes it a tour de force, but the great vision and heart of Garc,ia M,arquez are what make it as large in spirit as it is small in size.
Need it be said that Gregory Rabassa has once again done Garcia Marquez the honor of a brilliant, shimmering translation? Perhaps not, since this has long been acknowledged as a given. But let the fact once more be recorded. CAPTION: Picture, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Copyright (c) 1981 by Eva Rubunstein