Chronicle of a Death Foretold

by Gabriel García Márquez

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Chronicle of a Death Foretold

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1965

One of the foremost writers of El Boom Latinoamericano of the 1960’s, Gabriel García Márquez has steadily produced a series of works that have won for him both popular international acclaim and the official recognition that attaches to the Nobel Prize for Literature (1982). While his reputation rests securely upon such epic works as Cien años de soledad (1967; One Hundred Years of Solitude, 1970), and El otoño del patriarca (1975; The Autumn of the Patriarch, 1976), and such short fiction as Lo hojarasca (1955; Leaf Storm and Other Stories, 1972) and El coronel no tiene quien la escriba (1962; No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories, 1968); his Chronicle of a Death Foretold (published in Colombia in 1981 as Crónica de una muerte anunciada) clearly contributed to his official recognition as a master storyteller and continues to bring him popular acclaim despite its mixed critical reception. Measured against his longer and more ambitious works, García Márquez’s latest novel falls short of the virtuosity of One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch, but it is nevertheless a richly complex work, a monument to García Márquez’s artistry.

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A virtually undisguised García Márquez shuttles back and forth between August, 1950, and his present moment of writing to narrate a series of events based on historical fact, his own research into the facts of the case and their fictionalized outcome, and his quest that leads him, at various historical points, to return to his “forgotten village, trying to put the broken mirror of memory back together from so many scattered shards.” One must approach these authorial and narrational shuttlings warily, particularly in those instances in which fact and fiction intersect: The narrator remains a fictional character of limited perspective and at times appears to be the victim of some authorial irony. One must also tread warily in the footsteps of the narrator, who leads the reader, familiarly and openly, to a place abutting that celebrated region of a mind’s geography García Márquez calls the Macondo, the Caribbean coastal area of northern Colombia that has its North American counterpart in the famous Yoknapatawpha county of his avowed master, William Faulkner. The mind’s geography also intersects that of cartographers: The unnamed village may not be unlike the author’s native Aracataca; both Riohacha, where the Vicario brothers serve out their brief sentence, and Manaure, where the rest of the Vicarios live after Santiago Nasar’s death, are surely on the map. These places also belong to a magical region filled with the incongruities, oddities, small insanities, and omnipresent hostilities that characterize its genuinely human, sometimes warm, and truly unforgettable populace. So, too, the facts upon which García Márquez weaves his fiction are verifiable: In 1951, two brothers murdered a man in Sucre, Colombia, for being the supposed lover of their sister, another man’s bride. García Márquez, then a journalist, was acquainted with the victim. The fictional treatment of these bare facts is pure García Márquez and partakes of what has been termed his “magical realism”, 6 a technique that superadds fantasy to the shards of history in surprising ways.

The chronicle García Márquez presents is a tale of slaughter that affects the village’s entire population. Twin brothers, Pablo and Pedro Vicario, avenge the honor of their sister, Angela, a bride of five hours, returned home by her groom, Bayardo San Román, upon his discovery that she was not a virgin. Santiago Nasar, the man whom Angela names when asked who deflowered her, is an unlikely suspect; indeed, no one really believes that he is responsible. It is Nasar’s death that is foretold in the novel’s first sentence, variously heralded before the fact, and explicated, discussed, and rationalized once it has occurred. The chronicle is itself, however, incomplete, despite the fact that García Márquez has said it was thirty years in the making: The one shard of memory not found and replaced is the secret Angela Vicario never reveals—the name of her actual lover.

As author and narrator, García Márquez uses the improbabilities of life and the techniques of fiction to comment upon the nature of reality in a work that treats life in the spirit of art and art in the spirit of life. Early in the chronicle, the narrator refers to the door before which Nasar was murdered as having been “cited several times with a dime-novel title: ’The Fatal Door.’” Later, twenty-three years after the tragedy, the narrator, unlike his creator, finds himself in an uncertain period of his life selling encyclopedias and medical books in the towns of Guajira. There, he glimpses Angela Vicario, a figure with steel-rimmed glasses and yellowish gray hair, seated at her embroidery machine. “I refused to believe,” he writes, “that the woman there was who I thought it was, because I couldn’t bring myself to admit that life might end up resembling bad literature so much.” The same motif appears in García Márquez’s account of the investigating magistrate who visits the village twelve days after the crime: “he never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature, so that there should be the untrammeled fulfillment of a death so clearly foretold.” Here, fiction-as-fact is commenting on fiction-as-fiction in a multi-mirrored regression. The preoccupation with literature and its relation to life—and the creation of the chronicle is one example of such a preoccupation—extends to a preoccupation with the act of writing, ordering the perception and memory of experience and reordering experience itself.

Most of what the narrator learns comes from direct observation and conversation, but significant portions of knowledge come from written sources. He first learns of Bayardo San Román’s entry to the village from his mother’s letters to him, and his reconstruction of the judicial inquiry into Nasar’s death is drawn from his five-year effort at rummaging around the sometimes flooded record offices of the Palace of Justice at Riohacha, where he secured only 322 pages of a much longer brief. The reordering of experience, the chronicling of a death foretold, represents a significant, long-term effort on the narrator’s part, an effort that spans three decades and is, finally, an effort directed at fixing in words, at writing, the history of a calamity that befell Santiago Nasar, Angela Vicario, Bayardo San Román and, indeed, the whole town. This act of writing, arguably the unifying theme of the work, is mirrored and surpassed by the prodigious writing of Angela Vicario herself, writing that is entirely obsessive and that chronicles her own existence over approximately twenty-seven years. Angela, seized by the memory of San Román, who “had been in her life forever from the moment he’d brought her back home,” writes him long letters with no future, letters he never answers until finally a fat, bespectacled and balding Bayardo San Román pays his visit and returns to her the nearly two thousand letters she has written him. A quintessential García Márquez touch closes the chapter: The two thousand letters are arranged chronologically in bundles tied with colored ribbons, “and they were all unopened.”

At the heart of the novel is the double standard of sexual morality and, with it, the strange, dark power of sex and sexuality that pervades the culture García Márquez depicts. This double standard in its Latin-American form is part of a larger cultural phenomenon embraced by the term machismo, a phenomenon noted in many sociological and psychological works and summarized pithily in Manuel de Jesus Guerrero’s El machismo Latinoamericano (1977). There is, for example, no thought that Angela Vicario could come legitimately to the marriage bed having had another lover, just as there is no thought that the amorous exploits of Santiago Nasar with Maria Alejandrina Cervantes and the girls of her bordello should interfere with his right to marry—and expect virginity from—his fiancée, Flora Miguel.

The lot of women, in fact, receives considerable attention in the novel. In Hispanic cultures, boys are brought up to be men while girls are “reared to get married.” The Vicario girls, for example, are exemplary in their devotion to the cult of death and should make any man happy “because they’ve been raised to suffer.” When Angela hints obliquely that, despite the fact that her parents arranged that she marry Bayardo San Román and obliged her to do so, she had an inconvenient lack of love for him, the matter is settled by her mother’s phrase, “Love can be learned too.” The one voice that undercuts the stereotypical view of Hispanic women is that of the narrator’s mother, a voice that is not without humor. That Angela dons the wedding veil and orange blossoms is, after her return, interpreted as a profanation of the symbols of purity. Recognizing the courage it took for Angela to do so, she comments, “In those days God understood such things.”

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In a work that deals with the more somber elements of existence, with frustration, betrayal, and the imposition of a one-sided code of conduct, there are also many wryly humorous passages. One, for example, seems to parody Gustave Flaubert’s famous operating-room scenes: The grisly, botched autopsy on Nasar leads to the conclusion that, based upon the weight of the encephalic mass, he had not only a superior intelligence but also a brilliant future. So outrageous is the autopsy and so poorly is it executed that Colonel Aponte, the mayor, whose personal logic is elsewhere presented for the illogic it is and whose responsibility for numerous massacres is clearly established, becomes a vegetarian as well as a spiritualist. Another instance illustrates both García Márquez’s mastery of form and his pervasive sense of the incongruities of which humor is born. One of the dozens of minor characters who weave through the novel, Magdalena Oliver, is present on the boat when San Román arrives at the village and also witnesses his inglorious departure. On both occasions, she draws an incorrect conclusion based on his appearance, first thinking him a homosexual and then, as he leaves, concluding that he is dead and making a remark about waste which Gregory Rabassa wisely leaves untranslated. Magdalena thus frames San Román’s entry and exit with complete understanding.

Elsewhere García Márquez has said that the historical personage he most detests is Cristóbal Colón (Christopher Columbus). It is not without significance that Bayardo San Román first meets his future bride “on the national holiday in October.” This holiday, celebrated throughout the Americas as Columbus Day, is also known in Colombia as Fiesta de la Raza, a nomenclature devised early in this century to downplay the commemoration of colonialism and its oppressive legacy. October, one recalls from García Márquez’s story “No One Writes to the Colonel,” is an unpropitious time in general; in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, October 12 is doubly unpropitious: It is the day when Bayardo (whose name is too close to the word boyardo, which Rabassa translates as “seigneur,” to ignore) buys up all the raffle tickets from, and presents the prize (a music box) to, his intended conquest, Angela Vicario; it is also the unfortunate Angela’s birthday.

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These small touches, matter-of-factly stated, and scores of other similarly deft strokes combine to form a highly wrought vision of a tragic event. It is a deliberately fragmented vision, one more tentative addition to the one book of solitude that García Márquez claims, in El olor de la Guayaba (1982; The Smell of Guava, 1984), to be his life’s work.

Historical Context

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The Birth of Latin American Culture
The term "Latin America" refers to the area that includes all of the Caribbean islands and the mainland that stretches from Mexico to the southernmost tip of South America. Latin America has a very long history, dating back to Columbus' discovery of the territory in 1492. Settled mostly by Spanish and Portuguese immigrants, Latin American culture is derived from both its European newcomers and its native inhabitants' traditions. Marquez blends elements from both cultures in Chronicle of a Death Foretold.

When the Spanish and Portuguese arrived, they easily overcame the native populations. The colonists destroyed native architecture, replaced the native religions with Catholicism, and strengthened the class system that already existed. As the natives died from diseases brought to them by the European immigrants, they were replaced by a new generation that resulted from an intermixing of the male immigrants and the female natives. The new population, known as mestizos, makes up the greatest part of Latin American society today. The mestizos, along with the remaining natives and African slaves, made up the lower class of Latin Americans. They and the mixed-blood mulattos worked as slaves or in the mines. The upper class included whites from Spain and Portugal known as peninsulares. The peninsulares were the only Latin Americans who could hold public office or work as professionals. Between the upper and lower class were the Creoles, European whites who were born in the colonies. The Creoles, although really equal to the peninsulares, were not permitted to hold government positions or to work as professionals. The struggles between the peninsulares and Creoles contributed to the wars for independence.

Colombian Civil Wars
In Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Ibrahim Nasar comes to the village after the end of the civil wars. The wars to which García Márquez refers are the Colombian wars for independence. Colombia, called New Granada at the time, experienced a separatist movement in the 1700s as a result of taxation and political and commercial restrictions placed on the Creoles. While independence was assured with Simon Bolivar's victory at the Battle of Boyaca, disagreement between Conservatives and Liberals arose over the issue of separation between church and state. Conservatives stood for a strong centralized government and the continuation of traditional class and clerical privileges. The Liberals believed in universal suffrage and the complete separation of church and state. The conflicts have continued throughout the years.

Post-Colonial Latin America
By 1830, most of the Latin America colonies had gained independence from their mother countries. While they continued to trade with Spain, Portugal, and Great Britain, they began to establish themselves as exporters of raw materials to the rest of the world. In addition to experiencing economic growth, Latin America also gained population. Immigrants poured into Latin American from less prosperous or politically unstable European countries. The growth in population and economic development has continued through the twentieth century. In the late 1990s, the Latin American economy was about the same size as the economies of France Italy, or the United Kingdom.

Latin American Literature
Latin American literature aligns itself with the history of the region. Literary experts typically delineate four periods of Latin American literature: the colonial period, the independence period, the national consolidation period, and the contemporary period. During the colonial period, the literature reflected its Spanish and Portuguese roots and consisted primarily of didactic prose and chronicles of events. The independence movement of the early 1800s saw a move towards patriotic themes in mostly poetic form. The consolidation period that followed brought about Romanticism—and later, modernism—with essays being the favorite mode of expression. Finally, Latin American literature evolved into the short story and drama forms that matured in the early twentieth century. The mid-twentieth century saw the rise of magical realism, for which García Márquez is best known. García Márquez was part of the "boom" trend, the growth of novel writing, that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. During the boom trend, male voices and masculine themes dominated Latin American writing. Recently, female writers have been recognized for their early works as well as their current achievements.

Literary Style

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Point of View
One of the most outstanding features of Chronicle of a Death Foretold is the point of view García Márquez uses to tell the story. Narrating the story from the first-person point of view is the unnamed son of Luisa Santiaga and brother of Margot, Luis, Jaime, and a nun. Having returned to the river village after being gone for twenty-seven years, the narrator tries to reconstruct the events of the day that ends in the murder of Santiago Nasar. Typically, a first-person narrator gives his own point of view but does not know what other characters are thinking: an ability usually reserved for the third-person omniscient, or all-knowing, point of view. In this novel, however, García Márquez bends the rules: the narrator tells the story in the first person, yet he also relates everything everyone is thinking.

Setting
Chronicle of a Death Foretold takes place in a small, Latin American river village off the coast of the Caribbean sometime after the civil wars. Once a busy center for shipping and ocean-going ships, the town now lacks commerce as a result of shifting river currents.

The events of the story evolve over a two-day time period. A wedding has taken place the night before between a well known young woman from the town and a rich stranger who has been a resident for only six months. On the day of the murder, most of the townspeople have hangovers from the wedding reception. Because a visit from the bishop is expected, however, a festive air prevails.

Foreshadowing
Foreshadowing is typically achieved through an author's implication that an event is going to occur. García Márquez adds a twist to foreshadowing by telling exactly what is going to happen but not why it will happen. The entire story builds on the foretelling of Santiago's murder. The twins do not hide their plot; they tell everyone they meet of their plans. Each village person who hears about the scheme tells the next person. Santiago himself dreams of birds and trees the night before he dies, which his mother later interprets as the foretelling of his death. In the end, even Santiago knows that he is going to die.

Dream Vision
Throughout Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the characters refer to dreams and visions they have that are related to Santiago's impending death. Santiago's mother, for example, though well known for her interpretations of dreams, fails to understand Santiago's dream of his own death. He tells her of his dream of traveling through a grove of trees and awakening feeling as if he is covered with bird excrement. She remembers later that she paid attention only to the part about the birds, which typically imply good health. Clotilde Armenta claims years after the murder that she thought Santiago "already looked like a ghost" when she saw him at dawn that morning. Margot Santiaga, listening to Santiago boast that his wedding will be even more magnificent than Angela Vicario's "felt the angel pass by." The author's many references to dreams and visions contribute to the surrealistic tone that is characteristic of magical realism.

Magical realism
Latin American culture gave birth to the literary genre magical realism. While critics attribute its beginnings to the Cuban novelist and short story writer Alejo Carpentier, they agree that Garcia Marquez has continued its tradition. The hallmark of magical realism is its roots in reality with a tendency toward the fantastic. That is, while everything a magic realist writes has a historical basis, it also has fictitious elements throughout. Emphasizing this point, García Márquez said in an interview with Peter H. Stone in The Paris Review, "It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination while the truth is that there's not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality."

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Similar in context to the stylistic prose associated with such writers as John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Garcia Marquez attempts in Chronicle of a Death Foretold to merge journalism and fiction. Consisting of five chapters, the novel compacts into a limited time span the graphic reenactment and ensuing repercussions of Santiago Nasar's ritualistic death. On the morning of his murder, Santiago rises to drink a sacrificial cup of coffee, adorns himself in a white linen suit, and then ceremoniously walks the streets of the town before his fated meeting with the Vicario brothers. Ostracized by the townspeople, Santiago is symbolically rejected by his own family, and the locked door of his house serves as the altar for his death.

Although a minor work in Garcia Marquez's literary oeuvre, Chronicle of a Death Foretold is an intriguing tour de force, incorporating cinematic presentation with artistic inventiveness. Contrived in its purpose, the novel combines suspenseful action with creative imagery to produce an eminently readable work of fiction; however, of most importance is that the novel successfully develops as a mystery despite the reader's insight into the nature and consequence of the crime.

Media Adaptations

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  • Graciela Daniele adapted Chronicle of a Death Foretold as an on-Broadway musical performed at the Plymouth Theater in New York City in July, 1995. The theater production received mixed reviews, but was nominated for a Tony award in the Best Musical category.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Alonso, Carlos. "Writing and Ritual in Chronicle of a Death Foretold." In Gabriel García Márquez' New Readings, edited by Bernard McGuirk and Richard Cardwell. Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 151-68.

Berg, Mary G. "Repetitions and Reflections in Chronicle of a Death Foretold." In Critical Perspectives on Gabriel García Márquez, edited by Bradley A. Shaw and Nora Vera-Godwin. Society of Spanish and Spanish-American Studies, 1986, pp. 139-56.

Burgess, Anthony. Review in The New Republic, Vol. 188, No. 1, May 2, 1983, p 36.

Christie, John S. "Fathers and Virgins: García Márquez's Faulknerian Chronicle of a Death Foretold." In Latin American Review, Vol. 21, No 41, June, 1993, pp. 21-29.

De Feo, Ronald. Review in Nation, December 2, 1968.

Elnadi, Bahgat, Adel Rifaat, and Miguel Labarca. "Gabriel García Márquez: The Writer's Craft." Interview in UNESCO Courier, February, 1996, p.4.

García Márquez, Gabriel. In an interview with Claudia Dreifus in Playboy, February, 1983.

Gass, William H. "More Deaths Than One: Chronicle of a Death Foretold." In New York Magazine, Vol. 16, No. 15, 11 April, 1983, pp. 83-4.

Grossman, Edith. Review in Review, September/December, 1981.

Mano, Keith. Review in National Review, Vol. 35, No. 2, June 10, 1983, p 699.

Millington, Mark. "The Unsung Heroine Power and Marginality in Chronicle of a Death Foretold." In Bulletin of Hispanic Studies, Vol. 66, 1989, pp 73-85.

Petrakis, Harry Mark. Review in Tribune Books, April 17, 1988.

Sheppard, R. Z. Review in Time, March 16, 1970.

Stone, Peter H. Interview in Paris Review, Winter, 1981.

Streitfeld, David. Review in Washington Post, October 22, 1982.

Sturrock, John. Review in New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1968.

Yardley, Jonathan. Review in Washington Post Book World, November 25, 1979.

For Further Study
Bell-Villada, Gene H. García Márquez: The Man and His Work. University of North Carolina Press, 1990. Followed by an extensive bibliography, this book puts Márquez in the company of other authors whose readers appreciate their ability to combine the commonplace with pioneering philanthropic political trends.

Donoso, Jose, The Boom in Spanish American Literature, translated by Gregory Kolovakos. Columbia University Press, 1977. While this author asserts that the term "the Boom Generation" is misleading, he acknowledges that the novels and novelists coming out of the period deserve their notoriety. In addition, Donoso explains the origin of the term.

Gonzalez Echevarria, Roberto. Myth and Archive: A Theory of Latin American Narrative. Cambridge University Press, 1990. Echevarria provides an extensive bibliography from which he has culled his ideas for his theory of how and where the Latin American narrative started and how it fits in with the modern novel.

Gabriel García Márquez and the Powers of Fiction, edited by Julio Ortega. University of Texas Press, 1988. A book of critical essays on the works of Gabriel García Márquez, this collection provides insight on Márquez's style through various scholars' view-points.

Landmarks in Modern Latin American Fiction, edited by Philip Swanson. Routledge [and] Kegan Paul, 1990. The "Boom" period in Latin American literature provides the backdrop to this compilation of essays that pertain to key texts written during the era.

Martin, Gerald. Journeys Through the Labyrinth: Latin American Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Verso, 1989. Beginning with the 1920s and continuing through the 1980s, the author presents a view of Latin American literature seen through the perspective of themes and historical periods. He presents new works and authors as well as a list of primary texts and a critical bibliography.

Wolin, Merle Linda. "Hollywood Goes Havana: Fidel, Gabriel, and the Sundance Kid." In The New Republic, Vol. 202, No 16, April 16, 1990, p. 17. This article describes the internationally known Foundation for New Latin American Cinema and film school located in Cuba that are headed by García Márquez. The school receives contributions from such recognizable people as Robert Redford and offers the typical courses needed to learn the art and craft of filmmaking.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 382

Antioch Review. XLI, Summer, 1983, p. 380.

The Atlantic. CCLI, May, 1983, p. 103.

Bilowit, Ira J. “Graciela Daniele: Chronicle of a Chronicle.” Back Stage 36 (June 16, 1995): 32-33. Profiles the efforts of director and choreographer Graciela Daniele to adapt Márquez’s novel to the stage. She talks about specific scenes in the book as well as the process through which she tried to interpret Márquez’s verbal metaphors into dance.

Christie, John S. “Fathers and Virgins: García Márquez’s Faulknerian Chronicle of a Death Foretold.” Latin American Literary Review 21 (January-June, 1993): 21-29. Christie draws parallels between Márquez’s novel and Faulkner’s Light in August. In both novels, the people in a small town manipulate facts leading to the killing of an accused criminal. It is likely that Angela’s blind father is really the perpetrator, yet Santiago Nasar is the one accused and murdered.

Christian Science Monitor. July 6, 1983, p. 9.

Hudson Review. XXXVI, Autumn, 1983, p. 552.

Library Journal. CVIII, April 1, 1983, p. 758.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 10, 1983, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXX, April 14, 1983, p. 3.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, March 27, 1983, p. 1.

Newsweek. C, November 1, 1982, p. 82.

Rendon, Mario. “The Latino and His Culture: Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis 54 (December, 1994): 345-348. Rendon discusses the mechanism of letter writing through which the protagonist achieves transcendent growth. Like psychoanalysis, it helps her to confront, and ultimately reject, the social rules that shape her identity. Rendon also makes the interesting point that the novel was published during the Cold War, when people were only too aware that they too stood at the brink of death.

Sims, Robert L. “From Fictional to Factual Narrative: Contemporary Critical Heteroglossia, Gabriel García Márquez.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 25 (Spring, 1992): 21-60. Focusing on narratology, Sims presents a critique of Márquez’s journalism and bigeneric writing. He discusses Chronicle of a Death Foretold in some detail.

Styron, Rose. “Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Kenzaburo Oe: From the Rose Styron Conversations.” New Perspectives Quarterly 14 (Fall, 1997): 56-62. A revealing interview with three renowned authors. They share their views on topics such as women and power, first and lost love, journalism as literature, spirit and faith, and multiculturalism.

West Coast Review of Books. IX, May, 1983, p. 40.

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