In Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold, how could one describe the economy of the culture of origin—what is happening economically at the time the book is written and/or takes place? What jobs are available? What opportunities are there to increase one’s own economic stability? How do economic considerations such as these play out in the text?
The state of the economy in Garbriel Garcia Marquez’s Colombia of the 1930s and 1950s, the periods when much of Chronicle of the Death Foretold takes place, is not a particular focus of the author’s. Garcia Marquez was far less concerned with the macroeconomic status of his homeland than in the glaring discrepancies between social and economic classes that characterized Colombian society. It is those disparities that drive much of the story’s narrative, contrasting as it does the conspicuous wealth of Bayardo San Roman, the prominent stranger who arrives in the small coastal village where the action takes place, and the village’s residents, most of whom are possessed of the social skills characteristic of educated people but clearly of more modest economic means. Many of these villagers have seen better times. The story’s victim, Santago Nasar, is described early in the novel as having had to “abandon his studies at the end of secondary school in order to take charge of the family ranch” following his father’s death. While Santiago Nasar has had to give up his academic studies, he does have the family’s cattle ranch, which is a significant symbol of means – the ownership of property being a highly respected attribute – although he is not especially successful as a businessman.
The doomed Santiago is not the only character in the novel who has seen better times. Garcia Marquez’s narrator also references an earlier, more prosperous age, as when he writes:
“Much later, during an uncertain period when I was trying to understand something of myself by selling encyclopaedias and medical books in the towns of Guajira, by chance I got as far as that Indian death village.”
The residents of this village are soon contrasted, in the second chapter, with Bayardo San Roman, whose wealth and profligacy will emerge as highly exploitative of the villagers’ less impressive financial status, as when he makes a monetary offer to “the widower Xius” for his home despite the emotionally devastating effect this transaction has on the saddened old man. Garcia Marquez describes this enormously wealthy interloper as the personification of conspicuous consumption, as in the following passage from Chapter Two:
“BAYARDO SAN ROMAN, THE MAN WHO had given back his bride, had turned up for the first time in August of the year before: six months before the wedding. He arrived on the weekly boat with some saddlebags decorated with silver that matched the buckle of his belt and the rings on his boots. He was around thirty years old, but they were well-concealed, because he had the waist of a novice bullfighter, golden eyes, and a skin slowly roasted by saltpetre. He arrived wearing a short jacket and very tight trousers, both of natural calfskin, and kid gloves of the same colour.”
Bayardo will prove resourceful and skilled in a number of areas, including athletics and business acumen. Again, as Garcia Marquez’s narrator relates, quoting his mother:
“My mother told me about it in a letter, and at the end she made a comment that was very much like her: ‘It also seems that he's swimming in gold.’ That was in reply to the premature legend that Bayardo San Roman not only was capable of doing everything, and doing it quite well, but also had access to endless resources.”
Again, Garcia Marquez contrasts Bayardo’s wealth with the more economically despondent villagers, noting that Poncio Vicario, father of the girl Bayardo will essentially buy (incorrectly assuming that she is a virgin), “was a poor man’s goldsmith” who has gone blind from the constant strain on his eyes. Similarly, Santiago’s family is of Arab heritage, and is a product of an immigrant community that had settled remote, usually coastal areas of South America. The Arab-Colombian community, as described in Chapter Four, is “clannish, hardworking, and Catholic,” insular and largely poor, reduced to “selling colored cloth and bazaar trinkets.” The story’s narrator refers to food stands and markets that evoke images of economic destitution in this coastal village. The financial struggles experienced by many of the village’s occupants, however, are not reflected in their demeanor, which bespeaks a culture of manners and customs. When it is made known that Bayardo has chosen to marry Angela, her mother, Pura, insists that this socially and economically superior intruder should “identify himself properly” and demonstrate respect for the social niceties that were bred into these families over the generations.
Bayardo comes from an entirely different world and represents the oppressive, entitled classes that dominated Colombian society. He uses his wealth and position to intimidate and corrupt the less affluent residents of this village. It is this economic and social disparity that Garcia Marquez illuminates in his novel.