Violence in Marquez’s Chronicles of a Death Foretold

“Out of every hundred children born alive in Guatemala or Chile, eight die. Eight also die in the poor outskirts of San Pablo, the richest city in Brazil. Accident or assassination? The criminals have the keys to the jails. This is violence without bullets… This violence appears frozen into statistics, when it does appear. But the real wars are not always the most spectacular and it’s well known that the fire from bullet shots has made more than one person deaf and blind.”

– Eduardo Galeano, ‘Days and Nights of Love and War’ 1983

Marquez’s texts are inhabited by such impaired and crippled people as are described above; his narrative, idiom and motivation, all derive from his intimate understanding and sympathy for such a people, ravaged by centuries of exploitation and oppression. Any discussion of the nature of violence in his novella therefore, will only be superficial without acknowledging this socio-political and cultural reality of the Latin American people, for whom violence has over centuries become an accepted and dominant aspect of lived reality.

Latin America was the first location of colonial conquest and expansion, and still remains in the clutches of neo-colonial powers. A major part of its modern and pre-modern history is therefore, a narrative of plunder and pillage; from the draining of the gold and silver to fuel European bullionism, to the massive exploitation of agriculture in the region for sugarcane and cotton cultivation for the markets of Europe. The usurpation of natural and human resources of the country did not come without the use of extremely violent methods of repression, used against the natives and the black slaves working on the sugar and cotton plantations. Columbia itself has seen enormous civil strife and guerilla warfare, with brutal state repression and massive collateral damage of civilian life and property.

The very title of Marquez’s novella, ‘Chronicles of a Death Foretold’ foregrounds a preoccupation of the author with the nature of violence and the way it functions in the reactions and daily lives of the community. At the same time the words ‘chronicles’ and ‘foretold’ also locate that violence in the larger structure of a historical- socio-political narrative. The novella’s understanding of violence thus seamlessly extends beyond the body of the text into that of Latin American political history, fraught with colonial and neo-colonial oppression, racial discrimination and conflict. This in conjunction with the unfortunate and almost ubiquitous yoke of patriarchal domination becomes the structure within which violence is shown to manifest itself in the text and the society it describes.

The multidimensional re-creation of the event of Santiago Nasar’s murder—the central incidence of violence in the novella— located vis-à-vis the lives and situations of the entire community, endows it with a significance much beyond that of an individual’s tragedy, extending it to be symptomatic of the failure of an entire community to take positive and decisive action. This is the way in which a whole town reacts to a blatant and totally avertable act of violence—the murder of an innocent young man. Yet, the burden of such failure looms large over each of them, as each character tries to justify and come to terms with such a personal and collective failure. There exists however no unifying narrative of justification, no substantial alibi, as the polyphony of individual voices reinforce, contradict and cancel each other, successful only in upholding at best a feeling of complete absurdity and senselessness towards such violence.

The murder of Santiago Nasar becomes therefore a symptom of a larger problem, played and replayed as a spectacle throughout the novel in the minds and memories of the characters, as well as first in the act of murdering Santiago and then his autopsy which leaves him totally mutilated. It is significant that the event is reconstructed from the memories of the different characters who witnessed it happening, establishing all of them as audience to the “performance” and by extension also participants. The setting of the scene is also suggestively dramatic; the marriage revels of the previous night and the festivities surrounding the visit of the bishop in the morning create a background of sustained public festivity, of which, the murder of Santiago Nasar becomes the culmination and climax. The first two events, tragic and self-defeating and hollow in themselves also become precursors of the hollowness and absurdity of the murder, making it part of a progression in an exposé of the violence inherent in the institution of civil society, as established in Latin America.

The murder happens on the street in view of the entire town, with every one calling out to Nasar from different directions, participating in the creation of the chaos and confusion that the murder is embedded in. The method used is also particularly brutal and absurd, as the Vicario brothers continue stabbing Nasar’s body long after he is beyond the scope of survival. The elaborate list of his wounds supplied to the reader by the autopsy report only drives home the point that Santiago’s body isn’t just the site of revenge and redemption of lost honour by murder, but the victim of violence that could only be the expression of deeper social tensions. His death becomes the pivot which holds together the various aspects and experiences of aggression and violation together in the novella. The literal spilling out of his intestines reminds one of the early morning episode with Victoria Guzman, and appears almost to be a fulfillment of her wish to see Nasar killed, stemming from her experience of violation by his family. Angela’s pinning him down as her “perpetrator” though not following from a simple causal logic also suggests that men are together responsible for the subjugation of women in the society. Santiago Nasar is a rich man and a migrant, his murder thus also threatens the town with communal violence, though that never precipitates. The event thus becomes a point of rupture in the society, where all these varied concerns play themselves out in an exhibit of brutal violence and abject impotence searing through the veneer of normalcy.

The fact that absolutely none of them take any definite steps to prevent the act is significant keeping in mind that the murderer’s themselves are reluctant about killing Santiago and keep trying to get someone to prevent them from doing it. The entire town lapses into a limbo, implicated in the murder, standing stupefied, “frightened by its own crime”. Everyone, including Santiago’s own mother contributes to the creation of the situation that makes the murder possible, and the few isolated instances of resistance as that of Cristo Badoya or Clotilde Armenta too become lost and impotent in this overwhelming failure of the society as a collective to act. No authorities, either that of the state, the church or Santiago’s community are able to take any constructive decision, failing completely in their roles as the custodians of the social and legal systems of justice and order. In fact they all in their own ways contribute to the violence and the gore.

The autopsy comes like the second act, after the original show of killing Nasar is over. “It was as if we killed him all over again after he was dead.” the narrator is told by the father more than two decades latter. The audience is still in place though now the show is run not by plebeians like the Vicario brothers but by the priest and the mayor. The priest shirks all responsibility for the disaster with the easy excuse, “But it was an order from the mayor, and orders from that barbarian, stupid as they might have been, had to be obeyed.” at the same time its evident that the mayor is completely unqualified for taking any responsible decision in the situation—“The mayor was a former troop commander with no experience in matters of law, and he was too conceited to ask any one who knew where to begin.” What we witness here is a complete failure of both the state and religion to offer any leadership to a community in a moment of crisis. Both the Mayor and the priest are made aware of the impending crisis of Santiago’s murder, however the steps taken by them to address the situation not only remain insufficient but extremely moronic and obviously superficial, the priest does not know what to do and even forgets to take the basic measure of informing Placida Linero while the mayor merely takes away their knives and sends them home. The state and the church instead are revealed as vehicles for further violence and mutilation and conflate in their roles in the presence of the Bishop at one end of the spectrum and the mayor, “Colonel Lazaro Aponte, who had seen and caused so many repressive massacres” and the family of General Petronio San Roman, “the glory of the conservative regime” at the other.

The bishop even in his mere appearance on the horizon complete in his glory with a Spanish retinue becomes a figure of superficiality and disappointment. Further more there is a feeling of mutual disinterest in his relationship with the people, bordering on hostility on the side of some of the village folks specially the women, for example Angela, or Nasar’s mother who do not buy the Bishops visual rhetoric. Catholicism historically would also be the religion of the colonial powers, the oppressors; the presence of the Spanish retinue in the backdrop of the Bishop’s tableau suggests as much. Also what seems to be the accepted mode of interaction between the church and the people is that of material exploitation where the entire town brings out offerings of roosters and wood, i.e. the most important resources of food and fuel, replicating the exploitative model of interaction between the people and the colonial state. It is easy to see religion as it functions here to be reflecting its larger role in the colonial process as the social-spiritual base for winning people’s complicity in their own exploitation. The arrival of the Bishop also serves as an excuse for many to not try and intervene in the murder, particularly the priest. The hullabaloo around the event creates the situation of confusion impedes Cristo Badoya from locating Nasar; religion thus becomes an abettor in the murder at the same time fulfilling its role as what Marx calls the “opium of the masses”.

However what concerns the chronicler/narrator and even the other characters of the story most, even after the passing of twenty three long years since the incident, is the failure of just everybody to act. “For years we couldn’t talk about anything else…the cocks of dawn would catch us trying to give order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible…”. ‘Absurdity’ becomes the key to describing the incidence, and the various attempts to build a rational argument around the event fail repeatedly, the public prosecutor responds by scribbling down what does not fit into a rational framework in the margins of his report, while the rest of the townsfolk all spend years trying to negotiate the truth in their own minds. The tragedy of Santiago Nasar is thus not only confined to his life, instead the violence plays it self out in the lives of the other characters in as vicious and bizarre ways—

“Hortensia Baute, whose only participation was having seen two bloody knives that weren’t bloody yet, felt so affected by the hallucination that she fell into a penitential crisis and one day, unable to take it any longer, she ran out naked into the street.”

Flora Miguel, Santiago Nasar’s fiancée, ran away out of spite with a lieutenant of the border patrol, who prostituted her among the rubber workers on the Vichada.”

Rogelio de la Flor, Clotilde Armenta’s good husband…got up for the last time to see how they had hewn Santiago Nasar to bits against the locked door of his own house, and he didn’t survive the shock.”

— The above mentioned are just a few from amongst the many who are seen as living out the legacy of the violence of Nasar’s murder in the text, however it is not difficult to see that this legacy goes further back and beyond just that one incidence. Violence in Latin America appears to have become institutionalized and internalized in a way that no one seems to be immune to its ravages. As argued above, all aspects of civil and political life reinforce the status quo, which is an oppressive one, motivated by colonial interests and thus allowing the people no agency and no avenue to break out of the vicious system of domination, oppression and unjustifiable violence. At the same time, the people themselves get implicated in the larger process, by the very virtue of their silence; the claim in the Revolutionary Proclamation of the junta Tuitiva, La Paz, “We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity” thus becomes crucial in understanding the deadlock that the entire community seems to be caught in.

The development of violence in the society described, as an idiom for interaction and perpetuation of oppressive social systems is evident in the nature of the violence as inflicted on women and its role in the formation and function of the familial and domestic setup within the text. Particularly significant for this discussion would be the entire episode spanning Angela Vicario’s marriage, her return to her filial home and the response of her family to the matter. “Angela Vicario was in the shadows, so she only saw her when Bayardo San Roman grabbed her by the arm and brought her into the light. Her satin dress was in shreds…” This first description of the Roman couple after marriage is central to the depiction of marriage in the book. Angela has obviously been beaten up and abused before she is returned to her parents with a gesture of unveiled aggression in the way Bayardo grabs her by the arm and pulls her forward in view. This abuse is only meted with further abuse of the bride by her mother for tarnishing family name, and the domestic violence of the husband towards the wife is seen as totally acceptable, if not appropriate. “The only thing  I can remember is that she was holding me by the hair with one hand and beating me with the other with such rage that I thought she was going to kill me.” The Vicario sisters have been ‘raised to suffer’; as is the demands of society on women. The family in this case is an instrument of repression, of forcing, particularly women to conform, inculcating in them the virtue of being subjugated, exploited and silent and unquestioning in the face of violence. Also it falls as a natural bounden duty on the Vicario brothers to avenge the imaginary dishonouring of their sister by Nasar and is even glamourized and upheld by the likes of his fiancé. This kind of moral custody by the men of the family, of the women’s honour is also socially sanctioned and is used as an excuse to justify the lack of action by the community, “Most of those who could have done something to prevent the crime and still didn’t do it consoled themselves with the pretext that affairs of honour are sacred monopolies with access only for those who are part of the drama”, to the extent of serving almost the role of vigilantes, who take upon themselves to sanction punitive action against moral defaulters, like Pedro’s fiancé. Seeing the family as a location for social production, might in this case be of some help in understanding the process of the internalization and social sanctioning of arbitrary violence on the unarmed and the innocent on socio-cultural grounds such as honour, pride and machismo.

A different kind of sexual violence pervades the household of the Nasars, where Victoria Guzman has a history of being sexually used and then disposed off by Ibrahim Nasar, Santiago’s father and where her daughter Divina Flor is seen as destined to be Santiago’s mistress. Santiago is repeatedly seen as imposing himself on Divina, using a vocabulary of control and subjugation as is evident in his comment, “The time has come for you to be tamed”. The tension and indifferent aggression that characterizes Guzman in her treatment of Santiago and her conscious decision to not intervene in the plot of his murder can be seen as direct manifestation of being subjected to such humiliation and exploitation.

Another dimension of this kind of sexual aggression in the Nasar household is the evidently lower class position of Victoria Guzman and her daughter. We can find more than one incident throughout the narrative to illustrate the fact that violence against the working class is not only most readily tolerated (not instigating any such soul searching as the murder of Nasar), but also invisiblised in the milieu described, and thus gets annealed into the very fabric of its social life. Santiago Nasar’s collection of guns described in such detail is just a signifier of his social position and wealth, a latent threat and statement of power which by the very fact of its possession raises the possessor in social stature.

The central figure of class based superiority and authority in the novella however is Bayardo San Roman. Essentially an outsider, located in a completely foreign socio-cultural order, Bayardo epitomizes the euro-oriented, industrialized, bourgeoisie of Marquez’s country and continent. His appearance is that of the bourgeois ‘body beautiful’: complete and powerful. His overflowing wealth and Spanish affiliations align him with the interests of the colonial powers. He therefore comes into the village with the design to plunder as an individual as well as a figure of political influence, representing the corporate-colonial project of constructing the railways, to enable the sucking out the resources of the country-side. His father having fought as a general in the civil wars is a part of the repressive neo-colonial and conservative state and its history of oppression, representing a military ethic and political position antagonistic to that of the people as “one of the major glories of the Conservative regime”. The political significance of the violence that is associated with him is evident in the narrator’s mother’s refusal to greet him. Bayardo’s political location vis-à-vis this community is also informed by the legacy of his father.  His predatory hunt for a wife, with no regard for the woman’s choice is a blatant act of violation of woman’s dignity and is solely backed by his confidence in his class position. In fact it can be argued that his aggression and haughty predation of Angela Vicario is the fruit of his class position and colonial background. With him he brings a different kind of aggression to the community, one that feeds into the already existing structures of domination and violence, which is that of big capital.

The violence of capital works in more circuitous and subtle ways than the physical abuse of Angela by her mother, Pura Vicario. This is best exemplified in the tragic death of Xius, the Chinese widower whose house Bayardo acquires by pure financial force, the shock of which brings on his demise. “The widower Xius explained to him with the good breeding of olden days that the objects in the house had been bought by his wife over a whole lifetime of sacrifice and that for him they were still a part of her.” This kind of violence tears apart not just an individual, as in the case of Santiago’s assassination, but also the emotional fabric of a community, as embodied in Xius’ house where he had been happy with his wife. The commodification of an essentially personal emotion and experience thus leads not just to the loss of human life but also that of a certain kind of socio-cultural ethic. Another manifestation of this violence would be the forcing of Angela into marriage with Bayardo by her family against her wish. The rationale given for this is a typical one, “a family of modest means had no right to disdain that prize of destiny.” A whole world of personal emotions and aspirations therefore get subsumed under the force of such overwhelming capital. The enormous pressure on the Vicario brothers to avenge the loss of their sister’s honour seems to be only compounded by the loss they must have themselves suffered at the loss of such a rich relation—the prize of destiny.

Marquez in bringing to life the social texture of Santiago Nasar and the narrator’s home town allows the reader an insight into the complexities of the nature of a society in which violence plays itself out as a daily lived reality. He at the same time also develops the conception of such aggression to encompass the social and historical contradictions of contemporary Latin American life complete with its heritage of plunder and oppression. The confusion of Santiago Nasar at the realization of his impending doom is definitely symptomatic of the failure of the individual to understand his/her location and function in the larger historic-political power dynamics, however his final acceptance of the violence and his movement away from the sets of the spectacle to the domain of stronger communal relationships, as that he is seen sharing with the narrators aunt suggests a comprehension and the possibility of also negotiating with the violence in more enabling ways.


4 Responses to “Violence in Marquez’s Chronicles”

  1. Heena Sharma Says:

    Thanks a lot for this wonderful article. It really helped me a lot in my exams.

  2. Shanley, JP Says:

    damnnnn this is amazing. thanks man!

  3. rahmalita Says:

    thanks. it helps me in making a review of the story.

  4. Arta Says:

    I haven’t started my essay yet, but found many ideas very interesting and helpful. Thank you in advance.

    By the way, I think this is the first time I have actually taken time to thank someone for an article. You totally deserved that.

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