The fictional world of ''Chronicle of a Death Foretold'' is as pungent and memorable as a sharp spice. Men wear wheat-colored linen suits and high-laced cordovans and carry canes. Hens sleep on perches in the kitchen. The bishop arrives by paddlewheel steamboat but doesn't stop, even though the townspeople are preparing his favorite soup. It is a place of simple truths and strict codes of honor, and it is unmistakably the creation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
Garcia Marquez, winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature, is a Colombian whose work is extremely popular in most of the world. His most famous novel, ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' has sold over 10 million copies, which makes the books of many famous US authors seem self-centered and pale.
In this new short novel Garcia Marquez chronicles the murder of one Santiago Nasar in a small unnamed South American village - a murder everyone in town knew was coming, yet no one wanted to occur.
''Never,'' says the novel's narrator, ''was a death more foretold.'' This narrator, a friend of Nasar's, is recounting the events of that fateful day, years after the fact.
His purpose is not to solve the crime. The deed was done in broad daylight, in the town square, by the Vicario brothers, who believed their sister had been dishonored by young Nasar; afterward they willingly surrendered.
Instead, the narrator is determined to understand why no one was able to prevent Nasar's death. ''The cocks of dawn,'' he says, ''would catch us trying to find order to the chain of many chance events that had made absurdity possible, and it was obvious that we weren't doing it from an urge to clear up mysteries but because none of us could go on living without an exact knowledge of the place and the mission assigned to us by fate.''
Why did Nasar's mother lock the door her son could have used to escape? Why did Colonel Aponte, upon learning of the Vicarios' plans, judge them harmless and fail to arrest the brothers? Why did Nasar wander unarmed out of his fiancee's house into the town square, knowing the danger there?
And finally, did Nasar really have his way with the Vicarios' sister? Or did she lie, dooming an innocent man? The judge sent to investigate the crime had, years before, thrown up his hands. ''... he never thought it legitimate that life should make use of so many coincidences forbidden literature,'' writes Garcia Marquez.
This spare book is thus an examination of the nature of complicity and fate, and of how a searing event can alter many lives over time. It is not nearly as wild and mysterious as ''One Hundred Years of Solitude,'' or as experimental as Garcia Marquez's other novel, ''The Autumn of the Patriarch.'' It is probably not a major work at all. Yet it is an exquisite performance, for its evocation of a frontier village ethos if nothing else. It makes novels about midlife crisis and divorce in Manhattan seem like whining, not writing.