Chronicle of a War Foretold

by SHYAM OBEROI

“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”

This is how it begins. From the very first page, from the very first sentence, we know that they are going to kill him. Yet we continue reading. Why do we continue reading?

“He always slept the way his father had slept, with the weapon hidden in the pillowcase, but before leaving the house that day he took out the bullets and put them in the drawer of the night table.”

Santiago Nasar has been charged with a crime that can only be atoned through blood. That his guilt can be neither proved nor disproved doesn’t matter. That the only evidence against him is the word of his accuser doesn’t matter. The crime has been committed. Someone must be punished.

“They only thing they believe is what they see on the sheet,” they told her.

Angela Vicario has been returned to her family on her wedding night by her husband, Bayardo San Roman. “Her satin dress was in shreds and she was wrapped in a towel up to the waist.” Her husband doesn’t say a word. Her mother beats her for hours with a silent, relentless fury. When her twin brothers arrive they demand to know the name of her “perpetrator.” “The only thing I wanted was for it all to be over quickly so I could flop down and go to sleep,” she says. She produces a name. Her brothers collect their “pig-killing” knives and go back out to look for Santiago Nasar.

“We thought it was drunkards’ baloney,” several butchers declared.

On the day they killed him, almost everyone in the town of Riohacha knew that the Vicario twins were looking for Santiago Nasar. Some of them agreed that the price of honor had to be fulfilled. Others doubted that the twins were serious in their intentions. A policeman takes away their knives and sends them home. The twins return with two more knives and resume telling anyone who will listen that Santiago Nasar is a dead man.

“There’s no way out of this,” he told him. “It’s as if it had already happened.”

Later, a visiting magistrate will attempt to reconstruct the events of that fateful day. His inconclusive report runs for more than five hundred pages. The hasty trial is unable to produce a single witness who can corroborate Angela Vicario’s charge. “She told us about the miracle, but not the saint,” her friends testify. No one in the town is able to explain why the twins weren’t stopped before they killed Santiago Nasar. In the margin of one of the pages of the report the magistrate scribbles a handwritten note: “Give me a prejudice and I will move the world.”

“Everything that happened after that is in the public domain. The people who were coming back from the docks, alerted by the shouts, began to take up positions around the square to witness the crime.”

Why do we continue reading? Why do we continue to speak of it at all? Why, when we’ve known from the start that the outcome has been so clearly, so unequivocally, foretold? Perhaps there is some part in us that holds fast to the belief, knowingly founded on nothing but the faint hope of a respite from fate, that Santiago Nasar might somehow escape the inexorable hands of his executioners. Perhaps the sounds of our voices distract us while we attempt to unravel this “infinitely minute web” of motivations, propositions, intentions, conspiracies. Perhaps it comforts us, somehow, to imagine that by perceiving a pattern in events that we can somehow change them. Perhaps it is enough to repeat, along with the narrator’s mother, that there are “animals that can’t do anything that isn’t awful.” Perhaps that’s why we continue to read, why we refuse to stay silent.

In the end, it changes nothing.

All quotations from “Chronicle of a Death Foretold,” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. English translation by Gregory Rabassa. Alfred A Knopf, 1982.

SHYAM OBEROI lives in New York and can be reached at shyam_oberoi@yahoo.com

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