Chronicle of a Death Foretold
A Literature of the Senses
Though Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes an investigative form, there is no sense of a question behind the text, and no question within the text either. One offers this observation with no sense of criticism, but only to better understand the nature of Garcia Marquez's talent. He is a writer who conjures up worlds much more than a writer who happens to be commenting on the one we happen to live in. If numerous writers want to explore an aspect of the real, Garcia Marquez looks to find a universe that seems to be taking place in another dimension, and then insistently gives texture and detail to the manifestation of that world. A brilliant example of this descriptive nuance comes early on in this study of an honour killing in a small Latin American town by the coast. "'There he was", she told me, "dressed in white linen that had been washed in plain water, because his skin was so delicate that it couldn't stand the noise of starch." It is a description of what the murder victim Santiago Nasar is wearing, but it is also a synaesthetic image, where the starch indicates a problem of touch but is revealed as a problem of noise. It is the sound that impacts on the skin. Throughout Garcia Marquez's novella, as elsewhere, the writer insists on accessing as many of the senses as he can. The book's purpose isn't chiefly to investigate a murder, but to generate an atmosphere, to take us into a world. Another passage, near the conclusion, that captures this vividly is the description offered after Santiago Nasar has been multiply stabbed. "They were sitting down to breakfast", the narrator says, "when they saw Santiago Nasar enter, soaked in blood and carrying the roots of his entrails in his hands. Poncho Lanao told me: 'What I'll never forget was the terrible smell of shit.'" Though the killing has just been described in some detail, there has been much more descriptive exactitude earlier in this yoyoing book when Santiago is subject to an autopsy. "He had four incisions in the stomach, and one of them so deep that it went completely through and destroyed the pancreas. He has six other lesser perforations in the transverse colon and multiple wounds in the small intestine." These are the wounds that lead to the horrible stench, and Garcia Marquez's brilliance resides in managing to match visual description of the eye, with the other senses of touch, smell, hearing and taste.
In The Fives Senses, F. Gonzales Crussi says, "could it be that the senses overlap, and that colors are apprehended by sight as well as by touch, or that the eyes have a way of seizing sound, albeit different from the ears? Here is an idea that is naturally repugnant to the Western mind. Our orientation is analytic, and thus favorable to the scheme that cleaves the senses asunder...To deny this would be to deny centuries of scientific effort. The eyes are separate from the ears. Our organs of perception are separate windows." It is in passages like the ones above that Garcia Marquez gives us flashes of one sense being invaded by another: by touch interrupted by sound, by sight intruded upon by smell. When people talk about Garcia Marquez as a sensual writer, it resides in this capacity to introduce one sense and evoke another at the same time. Obviously writers frequently invoke senses other than sight, but they often do so through the sort of clear demarcation Crussi proposes. A book famous for its olfactory dimension, Perfume, nevertheless doesn't surprise us when it introduces to the reader the strong odours of eighteenth century Paris. "The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots....people stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth." Perfume is a book that focuses on smell as it takes its olfactory obsession from the perfumier central character, but it rarely surprises us with the senses as Garcia Marquez often does. When Suskind's narrator says the central character "was no longer smelling mere wood, but kinds of wood: maple-wood, oakwood, pine-wood, elm-wood, pear-wood, down to single logs, chips and splinters" this is still consistent with how Crussi sees the Western mind. But when Garcia Marquez says, discussing Santiago Nasar's autopsy, "the priest had pulled out the sliced-up intestines by the roots, but in the end didn't know what to do with them, and he gave them an angry blessing and threw them into the garbage pail...colonel Lazaro Aponte, who had seen and caused so many repressive massacres, ended up being a vegetarian as well as a spiritualist", Garcia Marquez moves from the vividness of sight to the sudden disgust of taste. The images are vivid enough to cause loss of appetite, but who could have expected the passage to end on the future eating habits of the colonel?
However we also opened here by saying that we don't see Garcia Marquez as a writer investigating the real but instead creating a world, and this is perhaps partly what makes his novella perfect, perfect in the sense that Ian McEwan believes the novella form can be and to which few novels can finally aspire. As McEwan says, "the architecture of the novella is one of its immediate pleasures. How often one reads a contemporary full-length novel and thinks quietly, mutinously, that it would have worked out better at half or a third the length." ('Some Notes on the Novella', the New Yorker). By contrast Doris Lessing in The Fifth Child offers an 'imperfect' novella around the same length as Gacria Marquez's, a fable about a child born into a comfortably off family, and does so to explore the question of where we might all have come from as we occasionally produce a throwback. Lessing also insistently asks questions of the world, of parenting, of social responsibility, of a mother's love for a child; even if he barely passes for a child at all. Lessing's novella opens itself to the world; Garcia Marquez's closes his fable down by generating very much his own universe. Lessing's brilliant book could easily have been twice as long; Chronicle of a Death Foretold feels just right. Of course we might say this creation of a universe is true of Garcia Marquez's bigger books as well, including One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, but taking into account McEwan's comments, perhaps the shorter book offers this self-enclosed universe even more precisely. Chronicle of a Death Foretold is after all the chronicling of one event, and goes backwards and forwards in time all the better to weave a tight narrative knot. It offers the architecture of a building, rather than the necessary sprawl of a full conurbation. Like A Heart of Darkness, Animal Farm and The Dead (if, like McEwan, we choose to define it as a novella rather than a long short story) the novellas are manageable works, readily contained.
That there are numerous novellas closer to Lessing's (The Lives of Animals, By Night in Chile, Ignorance, Malady of Death) is for another debate, but what interests Garcia Marquez in Chronicle of a Death Foretold is the creation of a world made vivid not especially because he wants to replicate the real world, but because he wants to side-step it and then return to it in the immensity of his specificity. As he once said in the Paris Review, "if you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you." Garcia Marquez's purpose hasn't been to create real worlds but vivid ones, so that the language can take us into a different universe, whether the world he creates is premised on the plausible or not. Chronicle of a Death Foretold isn't Magic Realist but it does have the dimension of an other-worldly fable, an event that takes place outside of time and space. The village he describes feels like a place that time has forgotten, a coastal location that isn't found on a map, but a small town existing on its own terms, but existing more vividly than many a place described in books attending to the actuality of locale. As Garcia Marquez tells us that the narrator's house "was a good distance from the main square, in a mango grove on the river" he begins to immerse us in the atmosphere that goes beyond the geographically precise.
Garcia Marquez's interest in the personal depiction of space finds an echo in a comment he made in another remark in the Paris Review, and in remarks others have made about him that are mentioned in a lengthy article in a profile in the New Yorker. Talking of interviews in the former, Garcia Marquez says "the best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed." Though Garcia Marquez started out in journalism and has continued working in factual reporting (and wrote a fine book on Pablo Escobar, News of a Kidnapping, and an account of being Clandestine in Chile) Graham Greene once remarked the Colombian had the habit of "getting his facts wrong", while a fellow Columbian journalist and close friend laughs out loud when recalling a Garcia Marquez journalistic claim. Profile writer Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker reports how Garcia Marquez "once wrote that Yanqui pilots who had posed as stuntmen for an air circus to get into Chile flew the planes that bombed La Mondea palace during Pinochet's overthrow of Salvadore Allende". The friend adds: "It's the novelist in him, adjusting reality to fit his imagination."
It seems ironic that one of the world's most significant novelists is seen by some as a failed journalist, when there are no doubt many failed novelists who have worked perfectly well in journalism. However, this rarity perhaps also explains Garcia Marquez's originality. The story about yanks posing as air circus pilots to attack Allende might be absurd, but it possesses the qualities of good fiction even if it indicates the weakly journalistic. When Garcia Marquez says that writing is difficult because any job carefully executed is likely to be so, he adds, "I think that I'm excessively demanding of myself and others because I cannot tolerate errors." (Paris Review) This might seem contrary to what others have to say about his journalistic work, but few would deny its importance to the fiction. If journalism is in theory at least about telling prosaic truths, is fiction not often about generating plausible 'lies'? If Garcia Marquez isn't seen as much of a journalist, we might suppose it is for at least two reasons. One is that he is interested in the exaggeration of the real; the second that he is sensually vivid rather than investigatively concrete. It is not the truth that counts in his fiction, but the consistent elaboration of the lie. An error would be in the failure of this consistency, and in the failure to imagine vividly enough the environment he depicts.
There are many writers for whom truth is as close to a 'journalistic' aspect as to a descriptive demand, whether it happens to be Proust, Fitzgerald, Lawrence or Kundera. The immersive dimension is couched in an investigative problematic and the result is an enquiring tone over a delineating intensity. Proust predicates In Search of Lost Time on various images of the temporal, while Fitzgerald opens 'The Rich Boy' with a brief disquisition on the psychological impact of wealth. Lawrence was often accused of having axes to grind more than vivid detail to offer, and critics would propose that he was not "always convincing in his treatment of material facts, settings and milieu." (The New Pelican Guide to English Literature). Michael Wood, reviewing Immortality in the LRB, wondered whether Kundera's works were fiction or philosophy, announcing at one point that some of Kundera's remarks were more Descartes than Dickens. Garcia Marquez, in this formulation, would always be more Dickens than Descartes. Description is inevitably going to be more significant than ideas, and facts friable in the face of the imagination. The writer's purpose hasn't been to push a point but find the means by which to access the complexity of the senses.
In this he functions like a continuation of Joyce, taking further, or in a different direction, the notion of epiphany as sensuously elaborated sensibility. Joyce's narrator says in the posthumously published Stephen Hero: "by an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself." As Hero himself says, "imagine my glimpses at that clock as the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus. The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised." This search for the epiphanic in literature would allow Joyce to spend hours over a couple of lines, as Arnold Kettle notes when discussing a famous Joyce anecdote. Joyce is explaining to a friend that he has been working all day on a couple of sentences and trying to find the perfect order of the words when describing a woman's silk petticoat in a shop window. "Perfume of embraces all him assailed. With hungered flesh obscurely, he mutely craved to adore." Joyce concludes, "You can see for yourself in how many different ways they might be arranged." Here Joyce is attempting to find the most appropriate means by which to capture the image impacting on the senses, and Garcia Marquez's work is full of these sensually epiphanic descriptions. In One Hundred Years of Solitude there is the passage: "The rotten tiles broke with a noise of disaster and the man barely had time to let out a cry of terror as he cracked his skull and was killed outright on the cement floor. The foreigners who heard the noise in the dining room and hastened to remove the body noticed the suffocating odour of Remedios the Beauty on his skin. It was so deep in his body that the cracks in his skull did not give off blood but an amber-coloured oil that was impregnated with that secret perfume, and then they understood the smell of Remedios the Beauty kept on torturing men beyond death, right down to the dust in their bones." Love in the Time of Cholera offers: "She sank into the hot clamor of the shoeshine boys and the bird sellers, the hawkers of cheap books and the witch doctors and the sellers of sweets who shouted over the din of the crowd: pineapple sweets for your sweetie, coconut is dandy, brown-sugar loaf for your sugar." From Leaf Storm: "He was silent. The crickets filled the surrounding space, beyond the warm smell which was alive and almost human as it rose up from the jasmine bush I had planted in memory of my first wife." There isn't here Joyce's fascination with arrangement and sound that would of course be pushed furthest in Finnegans Wake, but there is nevertheless this search for the sense within another sense. The silence leads to sight which suggest smell in Leaf Storm, for example. In the passage from Love in the Time of Cholera, "hot clamor" brings together two senses to generate an image, that of noise and heat. It is a synaesthetic observation that doesn't make 'sense': how can a noise be hot? But it nevertheless gives us a vivid sense of place. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez leaves sense behind altogether as he gives us an exemplary passage of Magic Realism, which according to Angel Flores, involves the fusion of the real and the fantastic, "an amalgamation of realism and fantasy." Garcia Marquez generally holds to the novelistic rather than the poetic description, where Joyce's example has all the compact grammatical intensity of a poem, but he seems no less interested than Joyce in wondering what sense can invoke another, even if he is more fascinated than Joyce in pushing, on occasion, the senses into the fantastic.
However, this is a measured version of the fantastic: "I see dreams as part of life in general," Garcia Marquez says, "reality is much richer." (Paris Review) Life cannot ignore the oneiric but it can't succumb to it either. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the environment is removed from the world, but that means images have to be both consistent and consistently vivid. There may be asides like, "the policeman according to the brief, was named Leandro Pornoy, and he died the following year, gored in the jugular vein by a bull during the national holidays", but it is followed by the narrator adding, "So I was never able to talk to him." Like the earlier aside concerning Lazaro Aponte, the digressive returns us more strongly to the point. The Aponte comment makes us all the more aware of the horrors of the autopsy. The approach to dream is also frequently offered all the better for pointing up aspects of the real, including the one that all but opens the novella. "He'd dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy with his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit." The previous and opening sentence is: "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." Garcia Marquez's interest in the commingling of senses is also part of a broader project of strong and unpredictable juxtapositions.
Whether it is dreams and reality, the real and the fantastic, a sound invoking touch, or the casual remark proving vital to text and context, Garcia Marquez writes not so much like a dream but a combination of the oneiric and the nightmarish, the vividly sensual and the casually brutal. Perhaps Garcia Marquez's work can be summed up by a line in Chronicle of a Death Foretold that goes: "Any man will be happy with them [with particular young women] because they've been raised to suffer." It is the surprising combination of suffering and happiness in the same sentence. If Garcia Marquez's book is perfect in McEwan's definition of the novella, it lies chiefly in the writer's capacity to explore a subject without at all feeling obligated to ask questions beyond the immediacy of the work to hand. Numerous writers refer beyond the form to a question they're addressing, the question of speed in Slowness, the problem of an unwanted son in The Fifth Child, the ambiguous pity a writer feels for their creation in The Hour of the Star, the complete crisis of self in Notes from Underground. Equally, numerous novellas refer to a world that exists beyond the parameters of the work because the writer has invoked a strong sense of an actual place, as in The Dead, Quiet Days in Clichy, Death in Venice and Seize the Day. This isn't to claim any of the above are not 'perfect' - The Dead and Seize the Day, for example are by most reckonings close to it - but that part of Garcia Marquez's perfection here resides in refusing to allow the boundaries to spill out beyond the text by eschewing questions and denying a geographical specificity. It attends to the five senses on its own terms, and tells us a great deal about being alive without at all telling us anything about where we are living and why. It is a fascinating form of incuriosity, and yet all the more capable of illumination by the narrowness of its interests.
© Tony McKibbin