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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 64
Año: 1998
Autor: Isabel Rodríguez Vergara
Título: Haunting Demons: Critical Essays on the Works of Gabriel García Márquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Menippean Satire

In its narrative technique, Chronicle of a Death Foretold belongs, like The Autumn of the Patriarch, to the dialogical genre since it constructs a narrative in the form of a dialogue to find the truth. This is the opposite of the monological technique, which assumes an established truth. In Chronicle of a Death Foretold the dialogical principle appears through a juxtaposition of a number of points of view, inciting the reader to form his own opinion. The text is also that of satire. A carnival-like text, a theatrical spectacle in which there is no distinction between actors and spectators, Chronicle makes all its characters actors who are guilty of the crime and participants in it, and culminates with their attendance at Santiago Nasar’s murder in the square shown as a public act. To comprehend this theater of symbolic signs, we must interpret the names of the characters, the place of sacrifice, and the role of the community in the novel.

The “characters” and events in the novel are presented, as in a parody, from different points of view, like a house of mirrors that lengthens and compresses them in several directions and degrees. All the elements of the text are in opposition, shaping themselves into an extended dialogue. Let us, then,  study the assembled mosaic that is Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

The first intertextual element represents a parody of Christ’s passion: the way it happened, the geographical setting, the youth and innocence of the victims, and the omens. As in The Autumn of the Patriarch, the central scene in our novel is that of the human sacrifice: Santiago Nasar is communally sacrificed in a carnival atmosphere (the community admits its sins, up to a point). René Girard, commenting on the phenomenon of the sacrifice, says of this institution:

There is no object or enterprise in whose name a sacrifice cannot be offered, especially from the moment when the institution’s social character begins to vanish. There is, however, a common denominator of sacrificial efficacy, the more visible and preponderant while the institution remains more alive. This denominator is internal violence: it is the dissensions, the rivalries, the jealousies, the fights among close ones that the sacrifice seeks above all to eliminate, for it restores the harmony of the community and strengthens social unity.27

According to Girard, death is “the worst act of violence that a living being can suffer...the person who dies finds himself in a relation analogous to that of the sacrificial lamb.”28  Santiago Nasar is indeed that “sacrificial lamb” who pays the price so that collective life can go on, so that the community can be born again to the fecundity of a new order. Let us observe the environment in which Santiago Nasar’s sacrificial ceremony takes place.

The wedding preparations, the animal sacrifices, the amount of food and money consumed, the extravagance of the party, the music, the drinks and dance: it all suggests a carnival.29 For example, Santiago calculates the costs of the spree:

He recounted that they had sacrificed forty turkeys and eleven hogs for the guests, and four calves which the bridegroom had set up to be roasted for the people on the public square. He recounted that 205 cases of contraband alcohol had been consumed and almost 2,000 bottles of cane liquor which have been distributed among the crowd. There was not a single person, rich or poor, who had not participated in some way in the wildest party the town had ever seen. (19-20)

This carnival is prolonged by the preparations for the arrival of the bishop:

. . . the people were too excited with the bishop’s visit to worry about any other news. They’d placed the sick people in the archways to receive God’s medicine, and women came running out of their yards with turkeys and suckling pigs and all manner of things to eat, and from the opposite shore came canoes bedecked with flowers. But after the bishop passed without setting foot on land, the other repressed news assumed its scandalous dimensions. (23)

And it is precisely in the midst of the town’s emotional frenzy that Santiago Nasar’s sacrifice takes place, right after the great “banquet” suggested by the exuberance of the wedding and the preparations for the arrival of the bishop. Ironically, the holy envoy does not disembark; he merely pauses for a few minutes to bless the town (a signal of approval of the sacrifice) and keeps on going. At the end of Santiago’s autopsy the idea of a banquet is reiterated (the “massacre,” as the narrator labels it) when the chronicler goes to the house of María Alejandrina Cervantes, who is:

. . . awake as always at dawn, and completely naked as always when there weren’t any strangers in the house. She was squatting like a Turkish houri on her queenly bed across from a Babylonic platter of things to eat: veal cutlets, a boiled chicken, a pork loin, and a garnishing of plantains and vegetables that would have served five people. (89)

We are witnessing a representation of a ritual of life and death, implicit in the perception of the carnivalesque world. “The party itself is nothing but a preparation for the sacrifice that signals at one and the same time a paroxysm and its conclusion.”30 Chronicle dramatizes a symposium, a dialogue within the banquet that is both ambivalent and familiar. This extraordinary situation within the banquet has, as its purpose, to end the violence on the one hand, but on the other, to seek the truth, the encounter with an authentic and fulfilling way of life. The grotesque scene of the murder and the slaughter (autopsy) of the corpse have their philosophical justifications in these purposes. The corpse, for its part, is a metaphor of the text (culture), which must be submitted to a massacre to comprehend and renew it. In Chronicle the ritual appears as follows: “It was a massacre, consumed in the public school’s lot...it was as if we had ‘killed’ him all over again after he was dead” (83, 86).

The symbology of the Catholic religion in the works of García Márquez has been studied previously,31 and I myself have discussed it in Chapter II of my book El mundo satírico de Gabriel García Márquez (1991). Chronicle of a Death Foretold also makes use of this symbology in its construction, launching a camouflaged attack against Catholic principles and hypocrisy. Arnold M. Peñuel in his valuable study on the novel mentioned this aspect 32 His thesis focuses on the doctrine of renunciation of instincts promulgated by the Catholic Church. My interpretation, however, differs from Peñuel’s principally in proposing satire as the origin of this novel and all of García Márquez’s work. The most outstanding point, common to Peñuel’s thesis and to mine, is perhaps Santiago Nasar’s representation as an image of Christ, already present in The Autumn of the Patriarch and analyzed in my book. Evidence of this is found in the names of many of the characters, who together create a biblical ambiance: Pedro (Peter), Pablo (Paul), Poncio (Pontius), Magdalena (Magdalene), Escolástica (Scholasticism), Vicario (Vicar), Angela (Angel), Lázaro (Lazarus) Aponte, Cristo (Christ) Bedoya. Santiago Nasar’s own name evokes this biblical connection: Santiago Apóstol, or Saint James the Apostle, patron saint of Spain, invoked by the old Spanish Christians who fought against the Moors. According to Américo Castro, who devotes a whole chapter of his book España en su historia (1948) to a pilgrimage still practiced today:

At the beginning of the ninth century, a grave near the city of Iria Flavia was venerated. It was believed to contain the body of the Apostle James. The orthodox opinion always acknowledged that the apostle was James the Elder, son of Zebede, mentioned as such by Berceo in the thirteenth century in accordance with ecclesiastical Poem of Fernán González tradition; but popular belief, as opposed to the orthodox, venerated a James (Santiago) who included the Elder and was called ‘the brother of God’ in the Gospel, a description taken literally, as we shall see, by those who venerated the grave. This brotherhood, forgotten by orthodoxy, formed  the center of that belief over many centuries, and acquired considerable magnitude, especially because it referred to a brother of the Savior,  that is, a co-divinity.33

This popularized aspect of Saint James (decapitated in Palestine) may have been what interested García Márquez in creating a character for his novel: Santiago, brother of the Savior, a co-divinity, and at the same time a literary character. Santiago, like Christ, is of Semitic origin and his surname, Nasar, suggests the Nazarene. His constant companion and friend is Cristo Bedoya (Christ), his double (his brother). Various instances support this interpretation. Cristo Bedoya is said to know Santiago Nasar’s house “as well as he knew his own house”; before his death the people “were looking at us as if we had our faces painted” (121). Even the circumstances surrounding Santiago’s approach to his death are parodies of the crucifixion of the Christ.34  The people go to the plaza with them: “The people were breaking up and heading toward the square the same way they were. It was a thick crowd, but Escolástica Cisneros thought she noticed that the two friends were walking in the center of it without any difficulty, inside an empty circle, because everyone knew that Santiago Nasar was going to die and they didn’t dare to touch him” (120, 121). The name and figure of Santiago come from two texts: the one summarized by Castro, a product of Spanish popular religious tradition, already textualized, and the biblical one. We also know that Santiago Nasar, like Christ, is considered innocent by the majority. The details of his murder match those of Christ’s. “Actually, Santiago Nasar wasn’t falling because they themselves [the Vicarios] were holding him up with stabs against the door” (141); the fact that he did not bleed, like a divine being: “The strange thing is the knife kept coming out clean. . . . I’d given it to him at least three times and there wasn’t a drop of blood” (139). The details revealed by the autopsy complete this interpretation: “He had a deep stab wound in the right hand. The report reveals that, “It looks like a stigma of the crucified Christ” (87). Let us also remember that the cocks crow (announcing the death of Christ and Peter’s treachery) when Santiago Nasar walks toward the plaza:35 “It [the boat] appeared at the bend in the river, snorting like a dragon, and then the band of musicians started to play the bishop’s anthem, and the cocks began to crow in their baskets and aroused all the other roosters in town” (18). On Monday, Santiago Nasar routinely went to the ranch called Divino Rostro (“Divine Countenance,” 3), a name popularly given to the cloth Veronica used to wipe Christ’s face. When Santiago Nasar finishes calculating the cost of the wedding and asserts that his own will be just as luxurious, the chronicler says, “My sister felt the angel [of death] pass by. She thought once more about the good fortune of Flora Miguel, who had so many things in her life, and was going to have Santiago Nasar for Christmas that year” (20); the wedding was going to be held on the same day Christ was born. It is also important to notice that when Yamil Shaium bids goodbye to Santiago Nasar, he says, “See you Saturday” (122), the date of Christ’s resurrection.36  Santiago Nasar’s death had been announced everywhere: by the brothers themselves (apostles) to more than a dozen people, besides the omens, in the same way as we know that Christ’s death was announced in the Old Testament and by Christ himself in the New Testament. Both men died young in the midst of decadent values.

What is the meaning of all this sacred parody? Some critics have mentioned in their studies of the novel a criticism of communal values that involve the primitive code of honor.37  To violate this code implies a guilty party, and guilt is ambiguous in the novel. This enables us to see the novel not as a text that judges, but as a polemic text (a satire) that seeks to review and analyze those communal values (moral and institutional), including violence. The judicial system which is destroyed is also questioned–destroyed. Girard comments in this connection: “There is no principle of justice in the penal system that really differs from the principle of vengeance.”38  Implicit in Santiago Nasar’s death and in the twins’ trial, the central values that are examined (satirized) are honor and virginity. In The Autumn of the Patriarch a similar procedure exposes Latin American culture to a profound analysis.

The cult of virginity is inherent in the Catholic religious code of behavior. The best expression of that code is the virginity of the mother of God, who at the same time is called his wife. The condemnation of the cult is made in the text through a parody of the death of Christ. This time Santiago Nasar is the “sacrificial lamb” who must die to renew the values of an entire community. The difference in values for men and women is criticized; this is why Divina Flor is destined for Santiago Nasar’s bed as her mother had been for his father’s. Related to the cult of virginity are other decadent values, such as marriage without love: in Bayardo San Román and Angela Vicario and in Santiago Nasar’s parents: “He was the only child of a marriage of convenience without a single moment of happiness” (6).39

Besides the symbology of the central scene of the novel, there are symbolic names that form part of the same net; they reveal an intertextual relation. Let us see their significance in the context of the novel. Except for Angela Vicario, humanized at the conclusion of the novel and shown as a “new” person who is in command of her own destiny, the characters in Chronicle of a Death Foretold lack any psychological development. This suggests to us that the central character is the community, as it is in The Autumn of the Patriarch. While Peñuel claims that the main interest of the novel lies in exploring the collective psyche or the communal values, 40 Jorge Olivares sees it as a “metafictional narrative” that guides the reading and comments on the dynamics of reading and writing in general. For Olivares, attention is focused on the act of deciphering texts.41 These two positions, the most significant in relation to the novel, are not opposed in my theory of satire; on the contrary, they complement each other. Hence the relevance of this theory to the analysis of all Gabriel García Márquez’s works. The characteristics of Chronicle are, as I said above, those of carnivalized literature: incompatible narrative elements, parodies, anecdotes (with biographical facts about Garcia Marquez himself), biblical allusions, and multiple voices that give testimony on Santiago Nasar’s death, all juxtaposed, in polyphony, in an environment of festivity, hidden under an apparent linearity and transparency of the text. Its artistic principle is not that of evolution, but of coexistence of all its unequal elements at one point in time.

The names of the characters also look like the result of a disorderly juxtaposition: some surnames appear to belong to other first names and it is only through an analysis of the whole that we manage to interpret them. I have mentioned the symbology of Santiago Nasar’s name, and alongside it that of Cristo Bedoya’s is obvious. The former is defined in name by his double (Santiago, Saint James, and Nasar, from Nazareth). The Vicarios, intermediaries of the Church, serve as such in Chronicle; Angela is portrayed as a saint and her family life as sacred. Her father, Poncio Vicario (it was Pontius Pilate who handed Christ over to the Romans), fulfills his function as an intermediary: through his daughter he offers Santiago Nasar to be sacrificed.42 The twins, Pedro y Pablo, (Peter and Paul) are of a double interest: first as the “generators of violence” that ends with the sacrificial rite and second as components of the sacred parody. On the phenomenon of mediation, Girard comments, “In numerous primitive societies, twins inspire great fear. It may happen that one of them is eliminated or, even more frequently, both are eliminated.”  Later he adds, “As soon as the twins of violence appear, they multiply with extraordinary speed, producing the sacrificial crisis.”43  In the text, the twins kill Santiago Nasar violently to avenge their sister’s loss of honor. To stop their “maleficent contagion,” as Girard puts it, the twins must be isolated or one of them must disappear according to the laws of sacrifice; but before this takes place, a number of members must be submitted to “purifying rites” to cleanse themselves of the contagion caused by the twins.44  In Chronicle, people show a certain concern for the twins: “The twins’ fear was in response to the mood in the streets” (93). The twins are arrested (94), and, later, one of them dies (96), completing the purifying rite and cleansing the society. They purify themselves:

They asked for a lot of water, soap and rags, and they washed the blood from their arms and faces, and washed their shirts; but they could not rest: Pedro Vicario asked also for his laxatives and diuretics, and a roll of sterile gauze so he can change his bandage. (91)

His symptoms are described in detail (91). The effects are also seen in the other characters. The text says, “Hortensia Baute, whose only participation was to see the two bloody knives that weren’t bloody yet, felt so affected by the hallucination that she fell into a penitential crisis” (114). “Lázaro Aponte, who had seen and caused so many repressive massacres, became a vegetarian as well as spiritist” (88). “Aura Villeros, the midwife who had helped bring three generations into the world, suffered a spasm of the bladder when she heard the news, and to the day of her death had to use a catheter in order to urinate” (114).

As can be seen, the symbology of sacrifice, the presence of the twins, and the purifying rituals against contagion, as described by Girard, form a code within which the novel can only be understood by interpreting it in its entirety. On the one hand, under the symbolism of religious parody, Pedro and Pablo, biblical names given to two of Christ’s apostles,45 take the initiative in the novel to avenge their sister’s honor. Their mother, Purísima del Carmen, is the person who embodies the Church doctrines in their purest form (41, 42). Her daughter, Angela Vicario, is considered an angel in the community, the fruit of her mother’s teachings; hence her name. The bishop, unnamed, appears as the first person guilty of Santiago Nasar’s death, by blessing it and by changing the order of things with his short visit.

The name of Dionisio Iguarán has a double significance in the fiction: one  intertextual (the namesake of the character in One Hundred Years of Solitude), the other related to Dionysus, an element in the novel to which great importance is attached because it represents the instinctive and unconscious part of human vitality.46  In relation to the Dionysiac, Peñuel evokes the presence of Nietzsche, who sees Christianity as the main cause of the repression of instincts and uses it to interpret two components of human nature, Dionysiac and Apollonian, with positive and negative aspects that are found throughout the novel. The text calls to the need for expressing instincts freely. This is the merit of the character María Alejandrina Cervantes, who, “did away with my generation’s virginity” (74),  a symbol of fertility, tenderness, and comfort whom the novel presents as an ancient goddess. “María” expresses virginity, maternity, love; “Alejandrina” (Alexander), the name given to seven popes; and “Cervantes,” a tribute to the author of Don Quixote.

The name of Father Amador, on the other hand, is defined by its opposite: he does not love, neglects his duty to human beings in order to welcome the bishop, receives the Vicario brothers in church after the crime, and performs the autopsy, destroying the body that the Church so much rejects as the source of sin. Completing the symbology of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Peñuel suggests that Xius’s name derives from Zeus, the Greek god of Olympus, and the house on a hill with a view of a heavenly landscape signifies a glorification of the past (like Yolanda Xius) and of the body. Finally, Peñuel also notes that Petronio, Bayardo San Roman’s father, is associated with the Satyricon (Trimalchio’s banquet) through the lavish wedding celebration.47  Indeed, we can identify a parody of this work through Bayardo San Román’s trying to impress his friends with the cost of the  wedding.

Santiago Nasar’s communal sacrifice as a parody of Catholicism and as a  Dionysiac rite (expressed by the delirium upon seeing his blood) merely signifies that the community values are dying and will lead to the extermination of culture. The intertexuality of Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes place through symbolic clues associated with the names of the characters and, principally, the central scene. In this sense, the originality of the novel resides in the parody of journalistic mechanisms (just beginning to emerge in “Big Mama’s Wake”) so subtly treated that it can easily deceive the reader. In this respect it is the complete opposite of The Autumn of the Patriarch, whose presentation at once aroused suspicion and forced the reader to read it looking for clues to its interpretation.