Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s Chronicle of a Death Foretold, is a tidy little book. Its narrative wanders, but only in the most precise and deliberate ways. Its events are scattered unchronologically, but they have been placed by hand rather than flung indiscriminately. It is the kind of book that feels light at first but grows heavier the longer it is carried. It is short and deft and nimble and effortless, a lovely little book.
The death in the title is foretold in several ways. Structurally, much of the book is spent foretelling Santiago Nasar’s murder, announcing it in the first line and describing the events leading up to it, all before it ever takes place. The murder is also foretold within the narrative itself, as the murderers alert almost the whole town to their intention and the reasons for it, so that virtually everyone but Santiago is aware of the impending murder before it happens. Santiago also has a dream about his own death, though it is misinterpreted and ignored both by his mother and by himself.
The force of the book comes from the ways that these three kinds of foretelling come to inform each other. For example, the dream has a kind of inevitability about it. Dreams are the signs of fate. They can be interpreted, but they cannot be avoided. A death foretold in a dream is a death that will certainly come to pass. The novel itself moves according to a similarly unavoidable logic. Once the author has foretold that the death will take place, has written about it as if it has already occurred, the death must inevitably come. There is no escaping it. This sense of inevitability then comes to inform how the murderers themselves foretell the crime they will commit. Though it would normally seem impossible that a murder could be committed after the killers have alerted a whole town, the inevitability of the dream and of the novel seem to make their intentions equally unavoidable. They take on the quality of prophecies.
Yet, these foretellings also combine to undermine the very idea of foretelling as such. The dream had initially been interpreted as a good omen, and the warnings of the murderers were interpreted as mere drunken ravings, and both would have remained interpreted in this way had the murder not occurred. They are reinterpreted as true foretellings only after the fact, much the same way as the narrative of the novel itself is able to foretell the murder only because it has in a sense already been accomplished. The foretelling only becomes apparent, perhaps only becomes created, after the event that it foretells.
In this way, the novel recreates the structure and the problem of prophecy as such, and does so on several parallel levels. It embodies the paradox that a foretelling is only certain after the fact, only once it has come to pass, only when it is no longer a foretelling, only at a time when it has the inevitability of history. Perhaps this is a function that the supernatural sign, the social movement, and the literary work all have in common: they all prophesy something that has already come. They all foretell, but only after the fact.