Lilburn, a graduate student at McGill University, is the author of a study guide on Margaret At-wood's The Edible Woman and of numerous educational essays. In the following essay, he discusses the narrator's attempt to construct a chronicle that recaptures the past.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a seemingly simple story about the murder of a young man in a small Colombian town. Written in a factual, journalistic style, the novel is told by an unnamed narrator who returns to his hometown twenty-seven years after the crime to "put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards." Assuming the role of detective, or investigative reporter, the narrator compiles and reports the information that he collects from the memories of the townspeople he interviews. What he finds, however, is a town full of people with varying and often conflicting memories of the events he is investigating. Consequently, what begins as an attempt to fill the gaps, to find out once and for all what really happened that dark and drizzly morning--or was it bright and sunny?--becomes instead a parody of any attempt to recapture and reconstruct the past.
At first glance, the narrator does what appears to be a very thorough job of finding and compiling information relating to the crime. He speaks to a great many people who knew Santiago Nasar, who were present on the evening of the wedding celebrations, and who were out to greet the bishop on the morning of the murder. Still, new information contradicts and undermines more often than it clarifies. Throughout the narrator's chronicle, for example, we hear varying accounts of the weather on the morning of the crime. According to some, it was a beautiful sunny morning; to others, the weather was drizzly and funereal. To the individuals reporting this information, the memory of that morning's weather is a fact--it is the reality they remember Or it may simply be the reality they choose to report at that time since facts, or the reporting of facts, change over time. Victoria Guzman, for example, initially reports that neither she nor her daughter knew that the Vicario brothers were waiting to kill Santiago, yet "in the course of her years" admits that both of them did, in fact, know about the twins' plans.
Memories are problematized further by the fact that the entire town was, on the night before the murder, celebrating Angela Vicario and Bayardo San Roman's wedding. To begin, the narrator, before deciding to "rescue" the events of the festival "piece by piece from the memory of others," has "a very confused memory" of those events. Yet there is no indication that the memories of the individuals on whom the narrator relies to construct his narrative are any more reliable than his own. On the contrary, most of the townspeople seem equally confused. The narrator's brother, for example, who returns home in the early hours of the morning and falls asleep sitting on the toilet, also has "confused" memories of an encounter he has with the Vicario brothers on his way home. Similarly, the narrator's "sister the nun" has an "eighty-proof hangover" on the morning of the crime and doesn't even bother to go out to greet the bishop. These fuzzy, alcohol-drenched memories of events that happened twenty-seven years earlier not only help explain the varying reports about the weather, but they cast doubt on the entire narrative that uses these memories as its foundation.
According to Mary G. Berg, the narrator's failed attempt to find consensus among the varied accounts of the past reveals both the subjectivity of memory and the "inherent fallibility of journalistic report or written history." In short, it demonstrates the "insufficiency of words to depict (or reflect) human experience." It also, as John S. Christie writes, undermines the notion of a single narrative authority, since the ambiguity that results from the multiple perceptions and points of view reveals that no one version of the truth exists. Within the world represented in the novel, however, ambiguities and uncertainties are not so closely scrutinized. Santiago Nasar is murdered not because it is proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he was the man responsible for stealing Angela Vicario's honor, but because he is accused of doing so. It is the telling, Christie argues, that "creates the reality " The same might be said about the narrator's chronicle- by telling the story, by selecting and carefully arranging the conflicting versions of events into a highly structured narrative, the narrator creates the illusion that his version of the events succeeds in recapturing the reality of the past.
It is, however, only a temporary illusion. The narrator himself suggests that written reports can conceal more than they reveal when he mentions that the original report prepared by the investigating magistrate left out certain key facts. The fact that the twins started looking for Santiago at Maria Alejandrina Cervantes' house, for example, where they and Santiago had been just a short time earlier, is not reported in the brief. If this event is not reported, one must therefore ask what other information was also left out. Similarly, information that could significantly alter how events are understood and interpreted is also missing from the narrator's chronicle; he was only able to salvage "some 322 from the more than 500" pages of the original, incomplete brief from the flooded floor of the Palace of Justice in Riohacha. Moreover, some of the people whose testimony might have proven enlightening either refused to talk about the past, as did Angela's mother, or were unable to do so because they were dead, namely officer Leandro Pornoy.
The narrator's chronicle is complicated even more by the fact that he was himself a resident of the town. He grew up with Santiago and, in later years, they along with other friends spent their vacation time together. Moreover, he was with Santiago on the evening before his murder and, at the moment the crime was committed, was in the arms of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes, a woman with whom Santiago was once obsessed and whom the narrator was seeing without Santiago's knowledge. What's more, the narrator is related to Angela Vicario. According to Carlos Alonso, these ties between the narrator and the community put "in check the objectivity that his rhetorical posturing demands" and may even serve to "nurture the secret at the core of the events." At the very least, they add yet another layer of uncertainty to an already questionable narrative.
Central to an investigation of the events surrounding the crime is the code of honor which leads the Vicario brothers to arm themselves with pig-killing knives and take the life of a man with whom they were drinking and singing just a few short hours before. The code of honor is one which, Christie explains, derives from a paternal authority associated with the "mythic past of some religious or moral order which has now dissipated." Still, the code remains sufficiently relevant in the community that an entire town stands by and watches as Pedro and Pablo brutally kill Santiago Nasar in the street. Years later, the townspeople who could have done something but didn't turn to the code for consolation, believing that "affairs of honor are sacred monopolies, giving access only to those who are part of the drama." The comment made by Prudencia Cotes, Pablo Vicano's fiancee, is also suggestive of the pressure the Vicario brothers were under as a result of the code: "I knew what [Pablo and Pedro] were up to and I didn't only agree, I never would have married [Pablo] if he hadn't done what a man should do."
The structure of the narrative seemingly supports this code by giving the impression that Santiago's death was inevitable. His imminent demise is announced on the very first page of the novel and is announced several times again throughout the chronicle. Even the Vicario brothers are said to think of the murder "as if [it had] already happened." Yet opportunities to prevent the crime are plentiful By die time Santiago reaches the pier to greet the bishop, for example, very few of the townspeople do not know that the Vicario brothers are waiting for him to kill him. Even the town's mayor and priest are aware of the twins' intentions and do nothing. In the end, William H. Gass writes, "one man is dead, and hundreds have murdered him." And indeed, everyone who knew of the twins' intentions and did nothing to stop them shares responsibility for the crime.
One of the few characters who does try to intervene and prevent the twins from carrying out the duty that has befallen them is Clotilde Armenia. That she fails in her attempt, Mark Millington writes, emphasizes the difficulty that female characters have in trying to move out of the passivity enforced by the male-dominated society. Indeed, the community is very much one characterized by a gender divide. In Angela Vicario's family, for example, boys are "brought up to be men" and girls are "reared to get married." Of her daughters, Angela's mother says that any man would be happy with them because "they've been raised to suffer." Moreover, it is not Angela who chooses to marry Bayardo San Roman but rather her family who, like the widower Xius, falls prey to Bayardo's charm and money and obliges Angela to marry him.
Millington argues that the murder of Santiago Nasar encapsulates much of the structure of power in the town. The murder, he writes, involves only male characters who act in defense of an honor code that "safeguards the dominant position of male characters " Female characters, Millington continues, are "peripheral to the main actions of the narrative just as they are peripheral to the structures of power in the society represented." Yet Millington offers a reading of the novel that focuses on what he describes as "the untold story," namely that of the marginalized and powerless Angela Vicario. Her story, Millington contends, would trace her relationship with Bayardo and culminate with their reconciliation--a reconciliation that undermines the dominant system by annulling their separation. Millington's reading not only draws attention (once again) to the selective nature of the information used to construct the chronicle (the narrator chooses to focus on Santiago's story, rather than Angela's), but also to the multiple truths lurking behind and within it. This reading also highlights the subversive power implied by Angela's refusal to feign her virginity on her wedding night. To do so, Millington explains, would have acknowledged the importance of the honor code.
More importantly, Angela's refusal to feign her virginity provides her with a way out of an arranged marriage to a man that she does not love and eventually allows her to break free of the authority that forced her into the marriage. Later, when Angela discovers that she does indeed have feelings for Bayardo, she begins to write him letters and discovers that she has become "mistress of her fate for the first time." In the version of events constructed by the narrator, however, the details of her story remain largely untold. Trapped and represented in another's chronicle, she is once again subjected to male authority by a narrator who uses pieces of her story to tell the inevitable-seeming story of a death foretold.
Source: Jeffrey M Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 2000
Critical Essay #2
Critical Essay #2
According to Gass, "Chronicle of a Death Foretold, like Faulkner's Sanctuary, is about the impotent revenges of the impotent.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold does not tell, but literally pieces together, the torn-apart body of a story: that of the multiple murder of a young, handsome, wealthy, womanizing Arab, Santiago Nasar, who lived in the town where Gabriel Garcia Marquez grew up. The novel is not, however, the chronicle of a young and vain man's death, for that event is fed to us in the bits it comes in. It is instead the chronicle of the author's discovery and determination of the story and simultaneously a rather gruesome catalogue of the many deaths--in dream, in allegory, and by actual count--that Santiago Nasar is compelled to suffer. Had he had a cat's lives, it would not have saved him.
It is his author who kills him first, foretelling his death in the first (and in that sense final) sentence of the novel: "On the day they were going to kill him ..." We are reminded immediately of Garcia Marquez's habit of beginning his books in an arresting way, perhaps a by-product of his long journalistic practice. "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad ..." One Hundred Years of Solitude commences, and The Autumn of the Patriarch is no less redolent with death or its threats. "Over the weekend the vultures got into the presidential palace by pecking through the screens on the balcony windows." Santiago Nasar's death is first foretold in the way any fictional fact is, for the fact, of whatever kind, is already there in the ensuing pages, awaiting our arrival like a bus station.
Santiago Nasar also dies in his dreams-- dreams that could have been seen to foretell it, had not his mother, an accomplished seer of such things, unaccountably missed "the ominous augury." Before the day is out, his mother will murder him again. Unwittingly, and with the easy fatality we associate with Greek tragedy, Santiago dons a sacrificial suit of unstarched white linen, believing that he is putting it on to honor the visit of a bishop, just as he has celebrated the day before, along with the entire town, the wedding that will be his undoing. So attired, he stands before his mother with glass and aspirin and tells her of the dreams she will misunderstand. Santiago Nasar is then symbolically slain and gutted by the cook as he takes a cup of coffee in her kitchen and has another aspirin for his hangover. His father has mounted this woman, and she is remembering Santiago's father as she disembowels two rabbits (foretelling his disembowelment) and feeds their guts, still steaming, to the dogs.
The cook's daughter does not tell Santiago that she has heard a rumor that two men are looking to kill him, for he continually manhandles her, and she wishes him dead; the town, it seems, knows too, and participates in the foretelling. Attempts to warn Santiago are halfhearted: People pretend that the threats are empty; that the twin brothers bent on his death are drunk, incapable, unwilling; that it is all a joke. But Orpheus has his enemies in every age. Dionysus was also torn to pieces once, Osiris as well. The women whose bodies Santiago Nasar has abused (the metaphor that follows him throughout, and that appears just following the title page, is that of the falcon or sparrow hawk) await their moment. They will use the duplicities of the male code to entrap him. The girl whose wedding has just been celebrated goes to her bridegroom with a punctured maidenhead, and he sends her home in disgrace, where she is beaten until she confesses (although we don't know what the real truth is) that Santiago Nasar was her "perpetrator." And had not her twin brothers believed that the honor of their family required revenge, Nasar would not have been stabbed fatally, not once but seven times, at the front door of his house, a door his mother, believing him already inside, had barred.
The coroner is out of town, but the law requires an autopsy--the blood has begun to smell--so Santiago Nasar is butchered again, this time while dead The intestines he held so tenderly in his hands as he walked almost primly around his house to find a back door he might enter in order to complete the symbolism of his life by dying in the kitchen he had his morning aspirin in--those insides of the self of which the phallus is only an outer tip--are tossed into a trash can; the dogs who wanted them, and would have enjoyed them, are now dead, too.
Santiago Nasar's mother's last sight of her son, which she says was of him standing in her bedroom doorway, water glass in hand and the first aspirin to his lips, is not, we learn, her last Her final vision, which she has on the balcony of her bedroom, is of her son "face down in the dust, trying to rise up out of his own blood."
One man is dead, and hundreds have murdered him. The consequences of the crime spread like a disease through the village. Or, rather, the crime is simply a late symptom of an illness that had already wasted everyone Now houses will decay, too, in sympathy. Those people--lovers, enemies, friends, family--who were unable to act now act with bitter, impulsive, self-punishing foolishness, becoming old maids and worn whores, alcoholics and stupid recruits, not quite indiscriminately. The inertias of custom, the cruelties of a decaying society, daily indignities, hourly poverty, animosities so ancient they seem to have been put in our private parts during a prehistoric time, the sullen passivity of the powerless, the feckless behavior of the ignorant, the uselessness of beliefs, all these combine in this remarkable, graphic, and grisly fable to create a kind of slow and creeping fate--not glacial, for that would not do for these regions, but more, perhaps, like the almost imperceptible flow of molasses, sticky, insistent, sweet, and bearing everywhere it goes the sick, digested color of the bowel....
Chronicle of a Death Foretold, like Faulkner's Sanctuary, is about the impotent revenges of the impotent; it is about misdirected rage; it is about the heart blowing to bits from the burden of its own beat; yet the author, Santiago Nasar's first murderer, goes patiently about his business, too, putting the pieces back together, restoring, through his magnificent art, his own anger and compassion, this forlorn, unevil, little vegetation god, to a new and brilliant life.
Source: William H Gass, "More Deaths Than One 'Chronicle of a Death Foretold,'" in New York, Vol 16, No 15, 1983, pp 83-84
Critical Essay #3
Critical Essay #3
In the following excerpt, Epstein examines if Garcia Marquez is as talented as popular opinion seems to think he is.
How good is Gabriel Garcia Marquez? "Define your terms," I can hear some wise undergraduate reply. "What do you mean by is?" Yet I ask the question in earnest. Over the past weeks I have been reading Garcia Marquez1 s four novels and three collections of stories--all of his work available in English translation--and I am still not certain how good he is. If I were to be asked how talented, I have a ready answer: pound for pound, as they used to put it in Ring magazine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez may be the most talented writer at work in the world today. But talent is one thing; goodness, or greatness, quite another.
Valery says somewhere that there ought to be a word to describe the literary condition between talent and genius. In writing about Garcia Marquez, most contemporary American literary critics have not searched very hard for that word. Instead they have settled on calling him a genius and knocked off for the day...
In sum, no novelist now writing has a more enviable reputation. His is of course an international, a worldwide reputation--one capped by the Nobel Prize, won in 1982 at the age of fifty-four The Nobel Prize can sometimes sink a writer, make him seem, even in his lifetime, a bit posthumous. But with Garcia Marquez it appears to have had quite the reverse effect, making him seem more central, more prominent, more of a force....
In Latin America, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has been a household name and face since 1967, when his famous novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was first published in Buenos Aires. This novel is said to have sold more than six million copies and to have been translated into more than thirty languages.... I thought it quite brilliant and stopped reading it at page 98 (of 383 pages in the paperback edition). A number of intelligent people I know have gone through a similar experience in reading the book. All thought it brilliant, but felt that anywhere from between eighteen to fifty-one years of solitude was sufficient, thank you very much. I shall return to what I think are the reasons for this..
Short of going to Latin American countries on extended visits, how does one find out anything about them? Whom does one trust? New York Times reporters capable of prattling on about fifty new poetry workshops in Nicaragua? American novelists--Robert Stone, Joan Didion--who have put in cameo appearances in one or another Latin American country and then returned to write about it? Academic experts, the kernels of whose true information are not easily freed of their ideological husks? Perhaps native writers? On this last count, I have recently read a most charming novel set in Lima, Peru, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, by Mario Vargas Llosa, which gives us a portrait of daily life--corrupt, incompetent, sadly provincial though it is--very different from that which Gabriel Garcia Marquez supplies. Whom is one to believe?
So many oddities crop up. How, for example, explain that Garcia Marquez had his famous novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book that he has claimed is an argument for change in Latin America, published in Argentina, universally regarded-- to hear Jacobo Timerman tell it--as the most repressive of Latin American countries? How for that matter explain the emergence of Latin American literature to a place very near contemporary preeminence? How does one reconcile these various paradoxes, contradictions, confusions? It may be that finally, in reading about Latin America, one has to settle for the virtue which Sir Lewis Namier once said was conferred by sound historical training--a fairly good sense of how things did not happen.
Such a sense becomes especially useful in reading a writer like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who is continually telling us how things did happen. What he is saying is not very new. He speaks of the depredations upon the poor by the rich, upon the pure by the corrupt, upon the indigenous by the colonial--standard stuff, for the most part. But how he says it is new and can be very potent indeed. So much so that Fidel Castro is supposed to have remarked of him, "Garcia Marquez is the most powerful man in Latin America." ...
None of this power would exist, of course, if Garcia Marquez were not a considerable artist. Literary artists make us see things, and differently from the way we have ever seen them before; they make us see things their way. We agree to this willingly because in the first place they make things interesting, charming, seductive, and in the second place they hold out the promise of telling us important secrets that we would be fools not to want to know....
Sweep and power are readily available to Garcia Marquez; so, too, are what seem like endless lovely touches, such as a man described as "lame in body and sound in conscience." In "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World," a charming tale about a time when people had hearts capacious enough for the poetic, the way is prepared for a man "to sink easily into the deepest waves, where fish are blind and divers die of nostalgia." The movements of a woman in the story " There Are No Thieves in This Town" have "the gentle efficiency of people who are used to reality." A man in the story "One Day After Saturday" is caught at an instant when "he was aware of his entire weight: the weight of his body, his sins, and his age altogether." Garcia Marquez's stories are studded with such charming bits: a woman with "passionate health," a man with a "mentholated voice," a town "where the goats committed suicide from desolation," another man with "a pair of lukewarm languid hands that always looked as if they'd just been shaved." Garcia Marquez, as Milton Berle used to say of himself, has a million of them.
This fecundity of phrase was not always so readily available to Garcia Marquez. Today his fame is such that his very earliest works are being reprinted and translated--most of them are in the collection Innocent Erendira and Other Stories-- and these early stories are dreary in the extreme: dryly abstract, bleak, cut-rate Kafka, without the Kafkaesque edge or the humor. As a novelist, Garcia Marquez seems to have come alive when he began to write about the coastal town he calls Ma-condo and--the two events seem to have taken place simultaneously--when, by adding the vinegar of politics to his writing, he gave it a certain literary tartness.
Garcia Marquez has claimed William Faulkner as a literary mentor, and the two do have much in common. Each has staked out a territory of his own--Yoknapatawpha County for Faulkner, Ma-condo and its environs for Garcia Marquez; each deals lengthily with the past and its generations; and finally, each relies on certain prelapsarian myths (Southern grandeur before the American Civil War, Latin American poetic serenity before the advent of modernity and foreign intervention) to bind his work together. There is, though, this decisive difference between the two writers: Faulkner's fiction is almost wholly taken up with the past, while that of Garcia Marquez, as befits a politically minded writer, generally keeps an eye out for the future.
Immersion in the work of such writers provides one of those experiences--perhaps it might be called moral tourism--exclusive to literature. By reading a good deal about a place rendered by a powerful writer, in time one comes to feel one has walked its streets, knows its history and geography, the rhythms of its daily life. Only certain writers can convey this experience through the page: Balzac did it both for Paris and French provincial towns; Faulkner did it; Isaac Bashevis Singer does it for Jewish Poland; and Garcia Marquez does it, too.
Viewed in retrospect, the Macondo stories-- they are found in Leaf Storm and Other Stories and No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, and the town is also the setting for the novel In Evil Hour--appear to be an elaborate warm-up for the novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, They seem to be sketches, trial runs, dress rehearsals for the big novel ahead. In these stories names will appear in passing--like Colonel Aureliano Buendia, one of the heroes of One Hundred Years--almost as if they were coming attractions. Then, working the other way around, incidents occur in One Hundred Years that have been the subjects of whole stones in the earlier volumes. To know fully what is going on in Garcia Marquez one has to have read the author in his entirety. In these stories the stages in Garcia Marquez's literary development are on display, rather like specimens inside formaldehyde-filled jars showing progress from zygote to fully formed human. One reads these stories and witnesses his talent growing, his political ardor increasing. In these stories, too, Garcia Marquez shows his taste for that blend of fantasy and hyperbole, exhibited in a context of reality, that is known as magic realism....
"What I like about you," says one character to another in the Garcfa Marquez story "The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Erendira and Her Heartless Grandmother" "is the serious way you make up nonsense." Serious nonsense might stand as a blurb line for One Hundred Years of Solitude. E. M. Forster remarked that at a certain age one loses interest in the development of writers and wants to know only about the creation of masterpieces. Certainly One Hundred Years of Solitude has everywhere been so acclaimed. The novel is a chronicle of six generations of the Buendia family, founders of the village of Macondo. It recounts such extraordinary happenings as Macondo's insomnia plague, its thirty-two civil wars, banana fever, revolution, strikes, a rain that lasts five years, marriages, intermarriages, madness, and the eventual extinction of the Buendia line with the birth of an infant who has a pig's tail and who is eventually carried off by ants.
"One Hundred Years of Solitude is not a history of Latin America," Garcia Marquez has said, "it is a metaphor for Latin America." With that quotation we are already in trouble. What can it mean to say that a novel is a metaphor for a continent? Before attempting to ascertain what it might mean, tribute must be paid to the sheer brimming brilliance of One Hundred Years of Solitude. "Dazzling" does not seem to me in any way an imprecise word to describe the style of this novel, nor "epic" any less imprecise a word to describe its ambitions. Its contents cannot be recapitulated, for in its pages fireworks of one kind or another are always shooting off. Disquisitions on history, memory, time wind in and out of the plot. Yellow flowers fall from the sky marking a man's death; a heart-meltingly beautiful girl ascends to heaven while folding a sheet, a girl whose very smell "kept on torturing men beyond death, right down to the dust of their bones." Everything is grand, poetic, funny, often at once. A man suffers "flatulence that withered the flowers"; a woman has "a generous heart and a magnificent vocation for love." ...
And yet--why do so many readers seem to bog down in this glittering work? Part of the difficulty seems to me technical, part psychological. One Hundred Years of Solitude is peculiarly a novel without pace; it is, for its nearly four-hundred pages, all high notes, service aces, twenty-one-gun salutes. In a novel, such nonstop virtuosity tends to pall. To use a simile to describe a novel that its author describes as a metaphor, reading One Hundred Years is like watching a circus artist on the trampoline who does only quadruple back somersaults At first you are amazed to see him do it; then you are astonished that he can keep it up for so long; then you begin to wonder when he is going to be done, frankly you'd like to see something less spectacular, like a heavy-legged woman on an aged elephant.
Unless, that is, you sense a deeper meaning beneath all this virtuosity. And here it must be said that there has been no shortage of deep readings of One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel which, if critics are to be consulted, has more levels than a ziggurat. There are those who think that the true meaning of the novel is solitude, or, as Alastair Reid puts it, "We all live alone on this earth in our own glass bubbles." There are those who think that the novel is about writing itself... There are those who are fascinated with the book's allusiveness.... There are those who believe that the stuff of myth ought not to be looked at too closely.... Then there is Garcia Marquez himself, who has given a clear political reading to his own novel, commenting, in an interview, "I did want to give the idea that Latin American history had such an oppressive reality that it had to be changed--at all costs, at any pricel" ...
Along with magic realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez has given us another new literary-critical label, "political realism," which, in its own way, is itself quite magical.
If One Hundred Years of Solitude leaves any doubt about the political intent of Garcia Marquez' s mature work, The Autumn of the Patriarch wipes that doubt away. When Garcia Marquez says that One Hundred Years is a metaphor for Latin America, he is of course putting a political interpretation on his own novel. But The Autumn of the Patriarch is neither metaphor nor symbol but a direct representation of a strong political point of view....
The dictator in The Autumn of the Patriarch lives for more than two hundred years, his demise, a la Mark Twain, being often reported but much exaggerated. He has been in power--he has been the power--longer than anyone can remember, and his is the greatest solitude of all: that of the unloved dictator perpetuating his unearned power. This man, who himself can neither read nor write, is described, examined, and prosecuted with the aid of a novelistic technique as relentlessly modernist as any in contemporary fiction.
The Autumn of the Patriarch is divided into six chapters, but that is the only division in the novel, and the only concession to the reader's convenience. The book has no paragraphs, and while the punctuation mark known as the period may show up from time to time, the novel's sentences are not what one normally thinks of as sentences at all. A sentence might begin from one point of view, and before it is finished include three or four others.
One of the small shocks of this novel is to see the most complex modernist techniques put to the most patent political purposes. Now it must be said that Garcia Marquez did not invent the Latin American dictator. Trujillo, Batista, Peron, Hernandez Martinez, Duvalier (dare one add the name Fidel Castro?)--one could put together a pretty fair All Star team, though these boys are bush league compared with what Europe and Asia in this century have been able to produce.
Garcia Marquez's portrait of the dictator in The Autumn of the Patriarch is an amalgam of Latin America's dictators, minus ... Fidel and with a touch or two of Franco added. As a picture of squalor, rot, and bestiality, it is devastating. The devastation is in the details, of which the endlessly inventive Garcia Marquez is never in short supply....
The Autumn of the Patriarch is about more than politics alone--time and the nature of illusion are motifs played upon artfully throughout--but politics give the novel its impetus and are finally its chief subject. These politics are highly selective, predictable, more than a trifle cliche'd Octavio Paz has said that Garcia Marquez, as a political thinker, "repeats slogans." As a novelist, he can make these slogans vivid, even funny, but they remain slogans. For example, the attacks on the United States in this novel come through the dictator's continuous dealings with a stream of U.S. ambassadors of perfectly Waspish and quite forgettable names--Warren, Thompson, Evans, Wilson--who in the end succeed in swindling him out of the very sea. Americans, the Catholic Church, politicians, all, in the mind and in the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, are swindlers. Liberals or conservatives, it does not matter which, they are crooks, every one of them. Which leaves--doesn't it?--only one solution: revolution.
So talented a writer is Garcia Marquez that he can sustain a longish tale on sheer storytelling power alone, as he does in his most recent book, Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It has been said of Garcia Marquez that he combines the two powerful traditions of Latin American writing, the left-wing engage" tradition of the Communist poet Pablo Neruda and the modernist mandarin tradition of Jorge Luis Borges. In this slender novel it is the Borges side that predominates. The book is about a plot on the part of twin brothers who are out to avenge their family's honor against a young man who they mistakenly believe has deflowered their sister, thus causing her husband to return her in shame to her family the morning after the wedding night...
The tale is told with such subtle organization and such complete fluency that Garcia Marquez can insert anything he wishes into it; and indeed the narrator does insert mention of his marriage proposal to his own wife and a brief account of his youthful dalliances with prostitutes Such is the easy mastery of this novel that the reader is likely to forget that he never does learn who actually did deflower the virgin Chronicle of a Death Foretold is a handsomely written and inconsequential book of a kind that offers ample leeway for deep readings, and one that could have been composed only by a hugely gifted writer. "Intellectuals consider themselves to be the moral conscience of society," Garcia Marquez is quoted as saying in the New York Times Magazine, "so their analyses invariably follow moral rather than political channels. In this sense, I think I am the most politicized of them all." Yet, oddly, in Garcia Marquez's fiction morality is rarely an issue; Garcia Marquez himself seems little interested in moral questions, or in the conflicts, gradations, and agonies of moral turmoil. The reason for this, I suspect, is that for him the moral universe is already set--for him, as for so many revolutionary intellectuals, there are the moral grievances of the past, the moral hypocrisies of the present, and, waiting over the horizon, the glories of the future, when moral complexity will be abolished. The moral question is, for Garcia Marquez, ultimately a political question. Outside of his politics, Garcia Marquez's stones and novels have no moral center; they inhabit no moral universe. They are passionate chiefly when they are political; and when they are political, so strong is the nature of their political bias that they are, however dazzling, flawed.
Thus, to return to where I set out, a short answer to my question--how good is Gabriel Garcia Marquez"--is that he is, in the strict sense of the word, marvelous. The pity is that he is not better.
Source: Joseph Epstein, "How Good is Gabriel Garcia Mar-quez?," in Commentary, Vol. 75, No 5, May, 1983, pp. 59-65