This is a curious little book. First, it is a curious in that it is a fictionalized account of an actual murder in which dozens of people knew that the crime was about to occur, yet no one did anything to stop it. The events covered in the book happened in 1951 in Sucre, Colombia, and Marquez was friends with one of the families involved.
Second, the story is curious in that we know what’s going to happen from the first paragraph. There are no twists, no reveals, no surprises. Santiago Nasar is going to be murdered on his doorstep in the middle of town by Pablo and Pedro Vicario, who are seeking to avenge the honour of their sister.
Third, the book is curious in that I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. Until I set it down. Then I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The reason for my reaction arises from the fact that Marquez presents the story as a piece of reportage; it is an attempt at a factual summation of the events, as told by a friend of Santiago’s family. As such, it reads a bit like an extremely long newspaper article. Mind you, it’s an incredibly well-written newspaper article. But, still, it’s pretty much the antithesis of drama. Fundamentally, Marquez isn’t interested in telling a tale of murder and human emotion pushed to the extremes. Instead, he’s interested in examining the motives of each of the characters, even of the whole village itself.
And this is where it gets really interesting for, rather than a clear cut tale of blood-thirsty killers and a helpless victim, we get a study in shades of guilt and innocence. The murderers, for instance, are so vocal about their intentions and so slow in carrying out the act that it seems likely they hoped someone would stop them before they could do the deed. Their violated sister, on the other hand, names Santiago as the man who took her honour but refuses to give any other information. Everyone is surprised, as the two have never been seen together, and we are left with the suspicion that she named Santiago falsely, perhaps to protect someone else. And amongst the villagers, some seem to have legitimately believed that the murderous brothers weren’t serious about their threats, while others clearly failed to take strong enough action to prevent the murder. The result is a murder that no one, perpetrators included, wanted to happen. And yet no one felt able to step in and stop it.
Perhaps now you can see what I mean when I say that, though I didn’t really enjoy reading the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about it when I put it down. Marquez teases out questions about social perceptions of crime and guilt, for example in the attitude of the future wife of one of the murderers, and presents us with complex characters who struggle with conflicting emotions, not to mention family and social obligations.
This is a short read and, even if the style is not your usual cup of tea, it is well worth the effort. Follow it up with a little Hannah Arendt and a sprinkling of Stanley Milgram and you’ll be ready to wax philosophic about the human capacity for cruelty at your next dinner party.