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Note:  Ha Seong-Nan has been WINNER of five major literary awards in Korea, including the Contemporary Literature Award in 2009.

“There was a friend she’d been meeting for the past ten years.  Once every two years, sometimes even twice a week, they would meet for lunch or dinner, ask after one another, and joke and laugh together.  But once she said goodbye and returned home, she wouldn’t be able to visualize the friend’s face.  It was the same with her daughter.” – from “The Star-Shaped Stain.”

cover bluebeard's first wifeHa Seong-nan’s latest collection of stories, originally published in Korea in 2002, reflects the fresh, dynamic approach to writing which has made her writing so successful both in Korea and internationally over the past twenty years.  Famous for her sharp, penetrating imagery, the author creates stories that capture the small moments which make the lives of her characters so memorable for the reader.  At the same time, however, she often places these characters in circumstances which evoke unsettling thoughts and feelings, often close to horror, as the reader gains sudden new insights into what has happened in the past and what may happen in the future.

The bereaved parents wait for their buses in front of the Deoksu Palace entrance.

In “The Star-Shaped Stain,” the bereaved parents wait for their buses in front of the Deoksu Palace entrance.

The opening quotation from “The Star-Shaped Stain,” above, typifies Seong-nan’s style as she describes the ordinary get-togethers that long-time friends seem to have all over the world.  The suggestion at the end of the quotation that the main character of this story cannot visualize her friend’s face as soon as she returns home feels strange, however.  The further statement that this woman also cannot remember the face of her shy daughter, who died a year ago at the age of six, goes further – even entering the realm of horror – as the reader must suddenly imagine the implications of such a terrible fate, both for the child, when she was alive, and for the mother after her death.  In this story, the main character and other bereaved parents are leaving on a memorial trip to the overnight camp where her daughter and twenty-one other children died in a fire.  An alcoholic storeowner who lives a few miles away from the camp now claims  that on the night of the fire, he saw a small child in a camp uniform, walking on the road and crying for its mother.  Further horrors develop as each parent now wonders, guiltily, if that child was theirs, and then must anguish over what may have happened to that surviving child.

The bride in New Zeland brings a wardrobe made from her "Princess Tree" given by father the day she was born.

The Korean bride in New Zealand brings a wooden wardrobe made from her “Princess Tree.”

The title story, “Bluebeard’s Second Wife,” draws deliberate similarities to the old folktale about a serial wife-killer, as a thirty-two-year-old woman marries a man she has known for only three months and moves with him to New Zealand.  As the story opens, the new wife is trying to get a twelve-foot-wide wardrobe into their new apartment.  It is something she has had made from her “princess tree,” a tiny tree given to her by her father in Korea when she was born, and harvested and made into a wardrobe many years later for her marriage.  Her family orientation and cultural assumptions are quickly challenged when her husband decides to use an English name, not his Korean name, and has his Chinese friend Chang spend most of his time with them as part of a threesome.  Eventually, the connection with Bluebeard becomes real as this story reaches a shocking conclusion.

Totem poles mark the boundaries of the small community in "Night Poaching."

Totem poles mark the boundaries of the small community in “Night Poaching.”

“Night Poaching” introduces additional violence.  A new detective begins work in a small, rural community, its borders emphasized by Korean totem poles. This detective has inherited a previous case involving a man who died from a “hunting accident” in an area in which nighttime hunts are common.  The detective cannot tell if the man’s death is the result of suicide, homicide, or accident, but gradually he makes connections as the story’s narrative reveals its surprises.  In “A Quiet Night,” a married couple moves to the countryside so the husband can stop being a banker and become instead a carpenter.  Though they enjoy their apartment, the people upstairs and their young children keep the husband awake at night.  When disasters begin to happen to the people upstairs, the wife suspects that her husband may be the cause of their problems.  In both of these cases, in addition to “Bluebeard’s First Wife, the violence happens externally.  The speaker/victim is not directly involved and has no control over it.

In "Joy to the World," a mystery man who is part of a mysterious organization wears a huge moonstone ring.

In “Joy to the World,” a mystery man who is part of a secret organization, wears a huge moonstone ring.

 “Joy to the World” offers a grim twist on the Christmas story when a young woman, who has become engaged after “our relationship started to feel a little boring,” plans a birthday party for her fiancé.   Three men she does not know have been invited by her fiancé, including a silent man who works for a mysterious organization and wears a huge moonstone ring.  Friends for more than fourteen years, all of the men, it develops, share a long-time secret, and while they speak of it, they do not share any details with her.  After many drinks, she passes out.  When she discovers a month later that she is pregnant, she has no way of knowing who the father is, and must make some sudden decisions.

All of these vibrant stories “start small,” and gradually develop strong themes related to marriage, family, sin, secrets, innocence, guilt, and sometimes new beginnings. The role and responsibilities of women, very carefully circumscribed in most cases, may or may not be reflective of current Korean culture, since the collection was originally written twenty years ago. Still, the sense of obligation and the sense of failure when obligations cannot be met are human characteristics, regardless of culture, and Ha Seong-nan manages to convey the inevitability of these without any sense of resentment or anger.  Provocative and and often exhilarating with its surprises, this collection is high on my Favorites List for the year.  Artfully translated by Janet Hong.

Author Ha Seong-Nan has won many prizes in Korea for disciplined and exciting stories.

Author Ha Seong-Nan has won many prizes in Korea for her disciplined and exciting stories.

Photos.  In “The Star-Shaped Stain,” the bereaved parents wait for their buses in front of the Deoksu Palace entrance.   http://english.visitseoul.net

In “Bluebeard’s Second Wife,” the recent bride in New Zealand brings a wardrobe made from her “Princess Tree” (Paulownia tomentosa), given to her by her father on the day she was born.  https://en.wikipedia.org/

In “Night Poaching,” totem poles mark the boundaries of the small community. https://en.wikipedia.org

In “Joy to the World,” a mystery man, who is part of a secret organization, wears a huge moonstone ring.  https://www.indiamart.com

The author’s photo appears on  https://inews.co.uk

BLUEBEARD'S FIRST WIFE
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, Korea, Literary, Short Stories
Written by: Ha Seong-Nan
Published by: Open Letter
Date Published: 06/16/2020
ISBN: 978-1948830171
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  Joseph O’Connor was WINNER of the Irish Book Award, Eason Novel of the Year in 2019, for SHADOWPLAY.  He was also WINNER of the Irish PEN Award for his Outstanding Contributions to Irish Literature, 2012.

“Out of the gathering swirls of mist roars the hot black monster, screeching and belting its acrid, bilious smoke, a fetor of cordite stench.  Thunder and cinders, coalman and boilerman, black cast iron and white hot friction, rattling on the roadway of steel and olden oak as dew-drops sizzle on the flanks.  Foxes slink to lairs.  Fawns flit and flee.  Hawks in the yews turn and stare.”

cover shadowplayFrom the sensual and fully imagined opening paragraphs of this extraordinary work to the intensely personal characterizations of the people who share their stories here, Irish author Joseph O’Connor creates worlds so vibrant that many readers will feel as if they, too, have become part of this novel, its period, and its subjects.  O’Connor does not hold back here, creating three artists of the literary and theatrical worlds of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries  whose very lives reflect the Gothic intensity of the age with all its private hopes and failures. Henry Irving, world famous actor;  Bram Stoker, theatre manager and frustrated writer; and Ellen Terry, highest paid and most beloved actress in England, all speak to the reader so intimately that their often difficult lives, with all the aches and longings one usually holds inside, begin to emerge in what feel like “private” confidences between the characters and the reader.  Sharing the characters’ lives from their early adulthood until, in two cases, their deaths when they are in their sixties, the author allows the reader to share even their self-judgments and their judgments of each other when their public lives are at an end, which gives a broader perspective to their stories.

joseph o'connor

Author Joseph O’Connor

Though this is a “Gothic” novel, with all the emotional intensity and romance of that genre, most of the action which occurs in this novel actually happened, and the characters were real, living humans.  By toggling the time frames back and forth among events from the early 1900s, to some from the late 1880s, and eventually the conclusion in 1912, author O’Connor allows the reader to see the long-term effects of many happenings and decisions.  At the same time, however, O’Connor also suggests “unknown forces” lurking beneath the surface of those events.  Theater manager Bram Stoker, the creator of the Dracula story, spends his whole life working on it.  Because he was casual about getting it copyrighted, however, parts were occasionally stolen and published by other authors, and Stoker himself never lived to enjoy its success.  Author O’Connor acknowledges the Dracula story here by including two named characters from Stoker’s Dracula story within this novel:  The first, Jonathan Harker, works for Bram Stoker at the theatre.  The other, Mina, the ghost of “Mina’s Lair,” occupies a secret hideout in the attic above the theatre where a murder took place thirty years ago.  

Lyceum Theatre

Lyceum Theatre

Despite the supernatural references and images, O’Connor focuses primarily on the lives of the three main characters and their roles in developing London’s theatre. Actor Henry Irving, theatre manager Bram Stoker, and actress Ellen Terry all work at the Lyceum theatre, which is owned by Henry Irving.  An architectural wreck when Irving buys it, the theatre is slowly being restored from the days when tramps slept in the alcoves, the portico was used as a latrine, and feral cats occupied virtually every other space.  The costs of restoring this theatre are incredible.  A difficult man with a monstrous ego, Irving, often called “Chief,” has hired Bram Stoker to manage and run the theatre but does not give him the power to control major issues, especially financial ones.  Some obvious cost-cutting issues are rejected by the Chief, even though they frequently put the theatre in debt. He insists on running the show and on controlling every aspect – even the selection of plays – in which he, of course, will be the star. Often cruel to his employees, he also mocks them and belittles their efforts, considering himself above everyone else at the theatre. It is no surprise that modern critics often consider Henry Irving to have been the inspiration for Stoker’s Count Dracula.

Bram Stoker

Theatre manager and author Bram Stoker

Ellen Terry, married at sixteen, mother of two by two different fathers, and the most popular and most beautiful actress in England, is sometimes a peacemaker, saying of Irving, that “Everyone has a Mr. Hyde, another version of the self,” and that we all carry our choices around with us.  She adds that “there is, too, a kind of shadowland where the Other always lives.  Or at least never dies…Hard to stumble into happiness if you don’t leave your shadowland behind.  Harry [Irving] never did, quite.  Neither did Bram.”  As for Bram Stoker, he needs a place to work on his writing, and when he hears about “Mina’s Lair” in the theatre’s  attic, he demands to see it.  Inside he finds trunks, caskets, carpets, old props, and, surprisingly, a long box with odd symbols on top, a box which he discovers is filled with dirt.  He is so inspired by the site that he decides he will do his writing there, but he falls asleep, and in his nightmare he is confronted by a hooded figure with a diamond crown, scepter, and orb.  The figure screams at the people present in the dream to go “back to their tombs,” and announces, ominously, “This man belongs to me.”

Ellen Terry as a young girl,, by George Frederic Watts. She later became Dame Alice Ellen Terry.

Ellen Terry as a young woman, by George Frederic Watts. She later became Dame Alice Ellen Terry.

Despite all the thick, rich, and sensual details, most of the action itself is more ordinary, and there is surprisingly little over-arching plot.  None is needed or wanted, however.  These characters are actors, living a busy “shadow” life, as if in a “shadowplay.”  All are uncertain about their sexuality, living in an environment in which no one talks about it or knows what is “normal.”  Jack the Ripper is haunting Whitechapel and surrounding areas.  Henry Irving’s friend Oscar Wilde has been sentenced to two years at hard labor in prison for being gay, and the ghostly Mina observes Bram Stoker as “One who burns fires.  Everything in him dried up and shouldered out by anger, an arid Arizona of the heart.”  Every character here is living with shadows, even including the author, an Irishman who tells stories from England about real people he never knew and true events he never lived.  Fortunately, the author allows the reader to become part of this special shadowplay, feeling the sadness and loneliness of living, enjoying the rare triumphs, and experiencing on the highest level, all the aches, longings, hopes, dreams, and disappointments of shadow-puppets much like ourselves.  Truly unforgettable.

Sir Henry Irving: (c) Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Sir Henry Irving: (c) Museum of London; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://en.wikipedia.org

The Lyceum Theatre is from https://www.timeout.com

Theatre manager and author Bram Stoker:  http://revistaunica.com.mx

Ellen Terry, later Dame Alice Ellen Terry, as a young woman.  http://revistaunica.com.mx/

Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be granted a title.  https://en.wikipedia.org

 

SHADOWPLAY
REVIEW. PHOTOS. England, Ireland, Literary, Gothic, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Joseph O'Connor
Published by: Europa Editions
Date Published: 06/16/2020
ISBN: 978-1609455934
Available in: Ebook Paperback Hardcover

Megha Majumdar–A BURNING

Note:  This debut novel, released on June 6, 2020, was already on the New York Times bestseller list by June 20, 2020.

“The night before, I had been at the railway station, no more than a fifteen-minute walk from my house.  I ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train.  But all I saw were carriages, burning, their doors locked from the outside and dangerously hot.  The fire spread to huts bordering the station…More than a hundred people died.”

Becover nprlieve all the good things you see, hear, and read about this dramatic, totally involving, and thematically insightful novel about three young people and their families living in and around Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. Author Megha Majumdar’s story is so vibrantly alive that she makes the reader care desperately about her main characters as they face crises which they could not have predicted and which they often have little opportunity to resolve on their own.  Her people live in overcrowded conditions and must deal with broken systems, in addition to trying to stay alive, sometimes making the reader feel as helpless as they are. Otherwise kind and generous characters often take advantage of opportunities which can change their own futures and those of their own families for the better, even lifting some of them out of extreme poverty, if they “only” change the facts a little bit when they testify about events they may (or may not) have witnessed.  Honesty becomes a negotiable commodity.  As a result, the novel not only evokes the sympathies of readers, it also creates anger, forcing each reader to question whether compromise is ever justified and whether “the greatest good for the greatest number” and “the greatest good for me” are ever valid approaches to life in a desperate, overcrowded, and uncertain environment.

Author Megha Majumdar

Author Megha Majumdar

The huge train fire and its resulting spread to a neighborhood of huts, with over a hundred deaths, described in the opening quotation, is the event around which the novel revolves.  Author Majumdar begins the novel with the first of her three main characters, the sympathetic Jivan, a young woman living in a slum area near the railway station who, according to a witness, “ought to have seen the men who stole up to the open windows and threw flaming torches into the halted train.”  All she saw, however, were carriages burning.  Getting more information from Facebook, Jivan also sees video clips, one of a bereft woman who testifies that a jeep full of policemen were there at the time, watching while the woman’s husband tried and tried – and failed – to open the locked door of the burning train to save their daughter.  When Jivan shares this post on her own Facebook page, she adds a caption, “Policemen paid by the government watched and did nothing while this innocent woman lost everything.”   A fellow reader questions the woman’s motives, leading Jivan to comment, “if the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean that the government is also a terrorist?”  A few nights later, she is awakened in the middle of the night by a policewoman who grabs and hurries her off to prison in a police van. Significantly, her reaction to how she might get out of her predicament is, “Whom did I know?”

Girls' Republic Day Parade

Girls’ Republic Day Parade

The second main character, Lovely, is a “hijra,” a transgender person who is taking acting lessons and drawing applause for her performances in class.  Her “husband” Azad, who is a successful salesman of electronics, is someone she would like to spend her life with, but she is also aware that his family believes she is a witch who has cursed Azad, whom they want to have marry and produce children like a “normal” person.  Lovely lives in the same slum as Jivan, who has been teaching her English in the evening so that she can “move up” and have better chances at acting roles.  The third character, PT Sir, a teacher of physical-training at a girls’ school, has been training his students for the annual Students’ Parade as part of Republic Day, a national holiday celebrating the country’s constitution.  He also knows Jivan because she had been a scholarship student whom he once helped.  He is watching TV when it announces news about Jivan: “This Muslim woman is charged with assisting terrorists who plotted the [train] attack…and she has been booked under a very serious crimes against the nation charge and a sedition charge…[because] she allegedly made contact with a known recruiter for a terrorist cell on Facebook.”  Jivan will be in jail until she faces trial in a year for those seditious statements and the fact that she confessed to the crime while being severely beaten in the lockup.

Victoria Memorial Gardens, Kolkata

Victoria Memorial Gardens, Kolkata

With main characters who are female, male, and transgender, author Majumdar is able to provide broad commentary on the city, its values, the difficulties of finding good work, the lives and decisions made by her acquaintances, and Jivan’s own “crime.”  As Jivan’s lawyer continues to investigate, he draws out more information about Jivan’s life, including the “fact” that she has a record of throwing “bombs” at the police.  Teacher PT Sir eventually becomes involved in a political party, “the biggest opposition party in the state,” one led by a woman who befriends him after he fixes the microphone in the auditorium so that a movie star can speak.  He goes on to become a witness who testifies in many court cases of interest to the political party – regardless of his ignorance or knowledge.  As for Lovely, she begins to attract attention for her acting talent, and she promises Jivan’s mother she will testify in court on Jivan’s behalf regarding the contents of the “suspicious” box Jivan was carrying at the scene of the crime.  Lovely’s testimony and televised appearance affect her chances with casting directors, however, so she takes matters into her own hands.  Entering Victoria gardens and seeing the crowd, she walks around offering blessings to all the people there, hoping for changes in her own life.  After a full year of delay, the imprisoned Jivan’s case ultimately tests the will of everyone involved, raising questions regarding innocence and guilt, honesty vs. expediency, and loyalty vs. betrayal.    

PT Sir, after all his testifying and is connections to a political party, finally acquires a top floor apartment in Kolkata.

PT Sir dreams of acquiring a top floor apartment in Kolkata.

Megha Majumdar writes so efficiently, descriptively, and intelligently, that I cannot imagine a reader not becoming caught up in every aspect of this astonishing novel.  Moving at top speed throughout, A Burning will tempt readers to read it in one sitting, but the thematic development is so thoughtful that many others will prefer a more moderate approach.  With a debut novel like this one, Megha Majumdar will have many fans waiting expectantly for her future novels. 

Photos.  Book cover:  https://www.npr.org

Author photo:  https://www.startribune.com

The Girls’ Parade, as part of the Republic Day celebrations, is from  https://www.firstpost.com

The Victoria Memorial Gardens,  where Lovely offers blessings to the patrons as a gift:  https://www.facebook.com/victoriamemorialhall

PT Sir dreams of owning a top floor apartment after all his work for his political party:  https://www.squareyards.com

 

A BURNING
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Book Club Suggestions, India, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues
Written by: Megha Majumdar
Published by: Knopf
Date Published: 06/02/2020
ISBN: 978-0525658696
Available in: Ebook Hardcover

Magda Szabo–ABIGAIL

“You must tell absolutely no one,” [her father] said, addressing her not in his usual tones but as to a soldier receiving orders.  “I will take you to visit Mimó, but there will be goodbyes to no one else – not your girlfriends, not your acquaintances, not even the domestic staff.  You will never mention the fact that you are leaving Budapest.  We’ll shake hands on that.”

cover abigailDescribed by Culture Trip as “the most prominent female writer in twentieth century Hungary,” Magda Szabó (1917 – 2007) was almost unknown in the English speaking world until 2016, when The Door, translated into English for the first time by Len Rix for New York Review Books, won two translation prizes. Shortly after that, two more newly translated novels,  Katalin Street (2017) and Abigail (2020), were also published in English to rave reviews and resulting public attention in the media and on Amazon.  Szabo’s novels are dramatic, psychologically intense, and historically focused, emphasizing everyday life and its trials and complexities, often in particular historical moments. A resident of Budapest when the Nazis occupied the country in 1943, author Szabo writes from experience about that fraught time in Abigail.  Main character Georgina Vitay, an independent girl of fourteen, is secretly removed from her home and everyone she knows in Budapest and driven overnight by her father to a severe, almost cult-like boarding school in Arkod, eastern Hungary (now Serbia).  From the day she arrives, the school controls every aspect of her life, keeping her safe from any major conflicts or warfare to come.  Her father, a general in the Hungarian army, also works as a secret agent against the Nazi occupation, and he knows that if the enemy learns where Georgina (Gina) is living, that she could be captured and used as a pawn to force him into betraying his own goals of a free Hungary.

Author Magda Szabo

Author Magda Szabo

The novel which follows, full of mystery and personal crisis, depicts Gina’s life at the school and her coming-of-age during a traumatic time, including many crises of her own making. Strict, in the harshest sense of the word, the leaders of the Bishop Matula Academy require all the girls to participate in the same classes, attend group activities, wear the same uniforms, and even have the same severe haircuts.  Some students come from prominent families, and some are in residence on scholarships or because a parent works for the school.  No one, however, is allowed to challenge the word of the director, the religious prefects, or the teachers.  Within this atmosphere the students themselves set up their own private hierarchies and their own rules and codes of behavior.  As a newcomer in the fifth form, Gina finds difficulty making friends among those who have known each other for years, and she has problems learning to control her sense of independence, which served her so well in Budapest.  The worst part for Gina is that she will not see her father at all during her schooling there, and he will not write to her.  Instead, he will telephone once a week from wherever he is. 

Forgach Manor, a Hungarian boarding school.

Forgach Manor, a Hungarian boarding school.

The one mitigating aspect at the school is a set of traditions involving “Abigail,” a statue of a young woman holding a stone pitcher, a “miracle worker.”  As one student says, “We don’t have guardian angels in this place, or carry amulets, nothing of that sort, and you can’t be pestering God over every trifle…Abigail is always there for us.  If you’re in trouble, serious trouble, she really will help you.  She always does.”  Gina, of course, regards all the magic regarding Abigail as silly “fairytales,” and reveals by her tone that she is “becoming bored” by stories of the statue, though she admires the “imagination these people have.”  She feels even less a part of the group for not believing what they do. “How on earth was she going to be able to put up with the childishness of her companions on top of the black-and-white rules of the fortress?” she wonders.  When she then challenges her companions regarding a long-standing and top secret tradition regarding future marriages, choosing not to participate in one of the activities the others enjoy as part of their free time, she violates the code.  Disciplined by a teacher for her behavior, she, in her fury, reveals “the biggest secret of the school.”  When the other students learn of this, they are unforgiving, telling her:  “I don’t know who you are.  You are not one of us, you simply don’t count.  For us you no longer exist.  You are a nobody.” Her only alternative, at this point, she believes, is to run away.

Monument to the Sorrows of Hungary, where a placard of revolutionary statement appears.

Monument to the Sorrows of Hungary, where a placard of revolutionary statement appears.

While all this is happening, anti-war messages attached to the Monument to the Sorrows of Hungary, a phone call from her father, and word of an active resistance movement broaden the subject matter, even as the personalities and supposed love lives of teachers and prefects are also revealed, and author Szabo keeps the tension high.  An anonymous, active dissident who works to save families manages to engage Gina in helping, and her own danger increases.  Filling the last seventy pages with dramatic action, plot twists, and surprises, Szabo creates a grand finale which will keep the reader actively involved and cheering for favorite characters.

Petofi's statue, where the dissident hung political statements around the neck.

Poet Sandor Petofi’s statue, where the dissident hung another political statement around the neck.

If Abigail sounds like a Young Adult novel, you are not wrong. The writing is so engaging and so carefully presented, however, that calling this novel “Young Adult fiction” need not be a disadvantage.  In fact, many parents will thoroughly enjoy it and want to share this book with teenage children because of the universality of its messages regarding individualism, responsibility, and the meaning of true love on all levels – not to mention its excitement.  Unlike The Door, which is a powerful and dramatic psychological study on many levels, Abigail uses a more casual point of view here, sometimes masking moments of insight within beautiful and vibrant description, even as very dramatic events are unfolding.  The author keeps the most spectacular revelations at the end from becoming banal by casually revealing some potentially dramatic conclusions during other events in the novel without calling great attention to them.  My only disappointment with this novel is that the two biggest “surprises” of the conclusion could be figured out ahead of time with careful study of details.

ALSO by Szabo:  THE DOOR

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://www.whosdatedwho.com

Forgach Manor, a Hungarian boarding school, is from https://www.alamy.com

The dissident hangs political statements around the necks of two famous Hungarian statues, the Monument to the Sorrows of Hungary, https://en.wikipedia.org

and around poet Sandor Petofi’s Statue at the military cemetery:  https://www.alamy.com

ABIGAIL
REVIEW. PHOTOS. Coming-of-age, Germany, Historical, Hungary, Literary, Psychological study, Social and Political Issues, Classic.
Written by: Magda Szabo
Published by: New York Review Books
Date Published: 01/21/2020
ISBN: 978-1681374031
Available in: Ebook Paperback

Note:  In 1982 Gabriel Garcia Marquez was WINNER of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“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.  He’d dreamed he was going through a grove of timber trees where a gentle drizzle was falling, and for an instant he was happy in his dream, but when he awoke he felt completely spattered with bird shit.” – opening lines.

book coverWritten in 1981, Chronicle of a Death Foretold tells the story of a killing which took place twenty-seven years before the novel opens.  An unnamed narrator has returned to the unnamed town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia where he was a participant in actions which culminated in the killing of Santiago Nasar.  As the novel opens in flashback, Nasar, the twenty-one year-old victim of this old crime, has only about an hour left to live as he dreams happily of a grove of timber trees, then awakens to the fact that he is “completely spattered with bird shit,” a darkly humorous parallel to the action which is about to unfold.  He has awakened with a headache, a result of the “natural havoc of the wedding revels that had gone on until after midnight,” but he gets up to go to the harbor where he waits to see the bishop sailing into port early in the morning.  The narrator, too, is recovering from the wedding celebrations, “in the apostolic lap of Maria Alejandrina Cervantes.”  Shifting repeatedly from past to present and back again, the speaker’s recent return to the village almost three decades after the murder, is being done “to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.”

Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Dealing simultaneously with past and present, Chronicle of a Death Foretold appears at first to be a fairly straightforward and unpretentious murder mystery, but it is far more complex than it seems.  First, it does not follow the traditional structure of a mystery story, instead shifting back and forth over the course of twenty-seven years as one person who was present at the time of the murder returns to the town many years later to re-examine his memories and those of others. Further, for those familiar with the work of Garcia Marquez, this novel is different from what one usually associates with this author – the action here is neither surreal nor fantastical.  Except for a few women who always look for auguries in their everyday lives, the characters all appear to be firmly grounded in reality, leading the reader to question all their actions, relationships, and motives to see what it was that could have inspired the murder at all.  With the murder taking place after a three-day wedding celebration, the author keeps the mood upbeat, even humorous in places, as Santiago prepares to go to the port, naively going out the back door while the two men who plan to kill him wait for him at the front.  He is in such a hurry that neither he nor anyone else in his house sees a message that has been shoved under the door warning him that he is going to be killed and telling him the place, the motive, and other precise details.  All this because the groom, Bayardo San Roman, has returned the bride to her family on their wedding night, and Santiago is thought to be involved.

A steamer with two smoke stacks is carrying the bishop whom Santiago Nasar awaits when he is killed.

A steamer with two smoke stacks is carrying the bishop whom Santiago Nasar awaits when he is killed. The bishop does not leave the cupola on the top deck.

Bayardo San Roman, the groom, is a newcomer to town, about thirty years old, who claimed originally that he had been “going from town to town looking for someone to marry.” No one knows if what he says is true, however, “because he had a way of speaking that served to conceal rather than to reveal.”  His background is so “reserved” that “even the most demented invention could have been true.”  Bayardo’s choice of Angela Vicario as his bride, leaves her unimpressed because, she says, “I detested conceited men, and I’d never seen one so stuck-up.”  The son of a general who was a hero of the civil wars of the past century, no one knows much about Bayardo, but somehow Angela is encouraged to change her mind, and the wedding takes place. Later that night, Bayardo carries her back to her house – he has discovered she is not a virgin.  Angela is so traumatized that when challenged to name her lover, she is able to do it only after “looking for it in the shadows…among many, many easily confused names from this world and the other.”  The next morning Angela’s two brothers – Pedro and Pablo – murder Santiago Nasar, the supposed secret lover, as he awaits the bishop’s arrival at the port.

Riohacha Prison, where Pablo and Pedro spend three years for their crime.

Riohacha Prison, where Pablo and Pedro spend three years for their crime.

From here the narrative becomes farcical as the characters must use a substitute to do the autopsy, which becomes more like a massacre, one so messed up that a “helper fainted,” another became a vegetarian on the spot, and body parts were thrown in the garbage pail.  Ironically, the person everyone feels sorry for is Bayardo San Román, who remains in an alcoholic stupor after the wedding night, his family so dramatically upset that the narrator suggests that “their [horror] could only be put on, in order to hide other, greater shames.”  The Vicario brothers for their crime end up spending three years in the Riohacha jail, and their family moves from Riohacha to Manaure, with its salt mines. Over the ensuing years, the bride, Angela Vicario, discusses the “incident,” but the overall feeling of the community has been that she “was protecting someone who really loved her and she had chosen Santiago Nasar’s name as the traitor because she thought her brothers would never dare go up against him.” 

Angela and family move to Manure, famed for its salt mines, after the wedding and murder. Photo by Maria Angeica Gomez.

Angela and family move to Manaure, famed for its salt mines, after the wedding and murder. Photo by Maria Angelica Gomez.

For years afterward, no one in the town can talk of anything else and it is obvious that they continue to talk because they all need some kind of exact knowledge of the place, its recent events, and the missions assigned to them by fate. All the uncertainties still remain decades after the events, affecting the lives of every member of the community.  Author Gabriel Garcia Marquez provides just enough hints to keep the reader attentive and imagining all the “what-ifs” about the events.  The one who learns most from this permanent exercise is the former bride herself, Angela Vicario, who discovers that hate and love are reciprocal passions, on which she herself chooses, finally, to act.   Her decision will remain a mystery to readers, however, just as all the other complications of this failed wedding will remain mysteries and guesses.  Power, one of Garcia Marquez’s major themes in other novels is more elusive and uncertain here, its sources unclear, and death, usually a big focus of his work, becomes one event among many that deserves more careful scrutiny.

Characters here sometimes refer to drinking cane liquor. Here a man is pressing the cane, to which he will add yeast for fermentation.

Characters here sometimes refer to drinking cane liquor. Here a man is pressing the cane, to which he will add yeast for fermentation. Note blue bucket catching the syrup.

Photos.  The author’s photo appears on https://en.wikiquote.org/

This  paddlewheel steamer with two stacks resembles the one which murder victim Santiago Nasar awaited, hoping to meet the bishop. https://flydango.net

Riohacha Prison is where Pedro and Pablo spent three years in payment for their crime.  https://colombiareports.com/inside-colombias-ten-worst-prisons/

A house in Manaure, perhaps similar to the one where Angela Vicario’s family stayed after the murder of Santiago Nasar and the jailing of Pedro and Pablo Vicario for three years.  Photo by Maria Angelica Gomez,  https://www.expedia.com

Throughout the novel, characters often partake of cane liquor.  Here a man is pressing the cane.  Note the blue bucket beneath.  Some yeast added to the syrup creates the fermentation for this local drink.  https://www.smithsonianmag.com

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