Foretelling, After the Fact

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.

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5 comments
  1. This gives me much to think about- however I wish to ask a question- in many stories of what seem to be, by your description a similar nature, in myth and folklore also, there’s that classical tragic moment, where aware of the impeding possibility the victim innitiates their demise, because they prepare for the event, adjust for it, confront their future assailant and precipitate the unfortunate events, they leave the path of their quest and create a place of truth and almost give birth to the Crisis. Does this emphasise the indifference and oblivious displays as being those very actions? I am very curious about it.

  2. Curtis,

    I am not certain what you mean by your final question, but there are only two possibilities with prophesy: either it is true, or it is not. Because the judgment of this truth always comes after the fact, however, the prophesy only becomes recognized as true once it is already passed, once it is already history. This is the paradox of prophesy.

  3. what I was asking, if I can sum it up concisely, which would be convenient for both of us, is that in folklore and myth, there exist the idea of approaching prophesy not from whether or not it is true or false, but whether your actions are formed from precipitous actions. The idea of chance and choice builds a difference between absolute certainty and possibility. For instance, at Galardriel’s pool in LOTRs, which is a convenient example, she warns the hobbits not to read the visions and depart back to the shire- because concluding that the vision is true actually brings it into being and makes it certain, rather than a chance of certainty. There is this sense esp in Irish and Celtic myth that an action or judgement of truth impacts or creates supreme consequences in the world, leaving the path is an action of truth, they feared for their home because of a vision that is or is not true, for them to leave the path in truth, something must become true or decided to be true enough, and sets it in motion to happen. This is of course another paradox, that prophecy creates itself, which is a common element in science fiction time travel most definitely, my question was wether or not the book demonstrated that even doing nothing is a kind of this precipitous action, or did he touch on the idea, even though no one really does anything, like for instance, has a dream, confronts his attackers whom he dreamt about and inspires them to kill him because of that confrontation? I am not being concise but maybe I have been more thorough and direct in this description of what I mean. That doing nothing is still the same as leaving the path, or addressing the idea that leaving the path creates the events of the prophesy etc.

  4. Curtis,

    You are posing an entirely different question than I am. Your question assumes that a prophesy is indeed true, and then asks whether acting according to this prophetic truth can or will avoid or accomplish the prophesy. My conclusion almost precludes this question, suggesting that the truth of untruth of the prophesy is something that is known and even constructed after the fact, and that any action inspired by prophesy can only be justified after the fact, if then.

    d,

    Thanks for the link.

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