Humans have always been fascinated with the unusual, with the unique and striking. This was probably the main reason why I accepted the challenge of working on two seemingly different novels, Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Ironically, the more that I read through their pages, the more that I realized that they actually have a lot in common.
Chronicle of a Death Foretold is set in an early twentieth century Latin American town. The novel is a quasi-journalistic collection of accounts from the townspeople about the murder of Santiago Nasar – a rich, young, half-Arab man who lives in a Latin American town – which happened twenty seven years ago. Apparently, everyone knew that the Vicario twins, Pedro and Pablo, were going to kill him but no one told Nasar about it. The narrative is non-linear. The structure of the story is akin to a spiral staircase which makes it a little difficult to follow. But the connections, interrelationships, and juxtapositions are more important in the story than a linear plot. In the Chronicle of a Death Foretold, the characters are flat. They are not given the chance to develop since the story is a collage of the (contradictory) witnesses’ accounts. The story also has a lot of ironies. It is highly unacceptable for a woman to sleep with a man who is not her husband and yet in the story we have Maria Cervantes, a prostitute who was almost described as someone who is elegant and respected. They even have a brothel in the town. Perhaps, the irony of ironies happens at the last part. Nasar’s mother, Placida Linero, was expected to save Nasar from his fate. But in the end she became the reason why her son was butchered in their front door. The mother pushed her son even closer to death. I would also like to take note of the foreshadowing in the story with the use of the butcher knives. The twins’ choice of murder weapon tells the reader how Nasar will be killed – like a pig atrociously dying in the hands of its merciless butcher.
Meanwhile, Life of Pi is an account about a boy named Piscine Patel (otherwise known as Pi). The story deals with Pi’s adventure and ordeal in the Pacific Ocean as the lone human survivor of a shipwreck. With him in the twenty-four feet lifeboat for two hundred twenty seven days is Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger. In contrast to the confusing non-linear plot of the Chronicle, the structure of Life of Pi is easier to understand. The story is developed in such a way that the first part establishes the background of Pi which makes his adventure with the animals in the second part plausible. Pi is a round character. We see him develop as we go through the story. While Chronicle deals with issues about morality, Pi deals with issues about science (e.g. the knowledge about animals) and religion (since Pi chose to be a follower of THREE religions Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism).
As I have mentioned earlier, I discovered that the two novels had more similarities than I had originally thought. I think that both novels can be considered as an example of postmodernist literature with all the big existential questions, magic realism, non-linear plot, irony, and questionable narrators that surround them. The two stories also have unusual themes. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, though it is a mystery/crime story, is not the typical ‘whodunit’ novel. Meaning, the story does not revolve on the idea of finding who did the crime. In fact the perpetrators have been identified almost at the very beginning of the story. What is unique about this is that instead of focusing on the ‘who’, the story makes the readers ask ‘why’. Life of Pi, on the other hand, is different from the usual adventure stories. Here, the question is not whether he will survive but rather ‘how’ he will survive. This arouses the curiosity of the reader. At the very beginning of the novel, the reader is already told that Pi survived the ordeal. The only thing left to think of now is ‘how’. Another notable thing is that the novels both exhibit the importance of the role of culture and setting in a story. For the Chronicle, the early twentieth century Latin American setting tells us how important honor is. In fact the lawyer of the twins defends the two by saying that it was a “homicide in legitimate defense of honor”. It justifies the crime. The people value honor so much that they could kill to regain the honor lost. It is evident that honor is needed to achieve high social respect. Regaining it is an obligation to them. In the story there is a point where one can sense that the brothers were just obliged to kill Nasar. For a while it seemed that they were hesitant to kill him and were just waiting for someone to stop them. There is also something about the culture of the townspeople that stopped them from warning Nasar of his impending death. Everyone assumed that someone informed him already but in reality no one did. Many even took the Vicario twins’ declaration of their plan to kill Nasar as a drunken man’s joke. When eventually it was proven that the twins were really serious about that plan, no one did anything to stop them. Aside from verbal warnings and taking the knives from the two, nothing more was done. There is something odd about the way of thinking of these people. It seems that the whole town conspired and allowed the two brothers to kill Santiago Nasar.
Going deeper into the stories, I found myself trapped in a web of unanswered questions. In Marquez’s masterpiece, aside from why no one warned Nasar or stopped the murder, it was never revealed who really deflowered Angela Vicario. While Angela was being asked who dishonored her, there was this line in the novel: “She found it at first sight among the many, many easily confused names from this world and the other”. Meaning, that it is not clear whether it is really Nasar who dishonored Angela. It is implied that she only picked Nasar because his name stood out among the many other possible men that she could point her finger to. Maybe because she was thinking that since Santiago Nasar is wealthy, her brothers would not dare touch him. On the other hand, Martel seems to test the readers by asking us which story we believe in: the unbelievable story of Pi’s survival with the animals or the story that does not involve the animals. Which of the two stories is true? The second story without the animals is the more ‘acceptable’ but what’s the point of telling the story with animals then?
It is interesting to note that Chronicle and Pi make the readers question humanity. In addition to the many questions embedded in the stories, the novels seem to ask the readers what it truly means to be human. Does the fact that the Vicario twins butchered Nasar make them less human? Does the fact that Pi acted like a wild animal in order to survive make him less human? The novels also deal with how one believes a story. In both novels, we are faced with the challenge of believing in something that is too incredulous – the contradictory accounts of the townspeople and Pi’s version of his survival story with the wild animals. Moreover, Chronicle and Pi are both examples of magic realism. In both stories, the reader is faced with surreal elements. In Chronicle, there are Nasar’s dreams and other mystical signs plus the unusual way the townspeople treated the news of his foretold death. In Pi, basically everything about his survival with Richard Parker can be considered as magic realism. It all seemed real but the element of fantasy was present. In the stories, we see the blending of fantasy, fable and fact.
With all of these things that I have learned from the two novels, I can say that these are what Literature is for:
First and foremost, Literature is a form of expression of the authors. It is their outlet. Through Literature they are able to express what they feel, send a message and ask the questions that they want the readers to understand and answer. Through Literature they are able to mobilize people. With Chronicle and Pi, the authors challenge the readers by posing a lot of existential questions for the readers to find out the answers. Just as how Salman Rushdie challenges the children to change the society with his Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
Second, Literature is there to allow us to be able to sympathize with other people. It allows us to ‘meet’ different kinds of people through the characters in the story and see their thoughts. We sympathize with Nasar (even if he was depicted ungentlemanly in the story) who was butchered to death because of Angela Vicario’s random name drop. On the other hand we sympathize with Angela who was having a very hard time that night. Then we have Pi who witnessed so much cannibalism at a young age and became an ‘animal’ himself in order to survive only to be interviewed by two annoying but funny men in the end. With the exposure that we get from these different characters, we are able to broaden our minds and be more sympathetic towards real people because we become more aware of what they feel. It exercises our emotions.
Third, Literature acts as a bridge to connect two, or more different eras and culture. With the societal and economic context present in literary texts, the reader is able to see and hopefully understand the milieu of the characters in the story. In the stories we see how the way of living and mentality of the early twentieth century Latin American town. In Pi, we had a glimpse of India and its history as the story progressed. The youth of today usually find history books and lessons boring but history embedded in Literature makes it interesting.
Lastly, Literature is there to bring us to an alternative world. In an escapist point of view, Literature creates an alternative world where one can temporarily dwell into and entertain himself/herself. Some may look at this escapism in a negative way but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Our present society and even our everyday lives become too toxic at one point that we need to break free. When I entered the world of Pi I did not just find entertainment but I also learned a lot. In that other world, we as readers also learn about quite a lot of things. The only thing wrong with this escapism is if one dwells in it too much that that person’s sense of reality becomes twisted.
Literature, with its many features, paves way for personal and intellectual growth. It enhances our imagination and makes us understand the things around us better. It makes us Human.