Book Review: Until August // Gabriel García Márquez

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Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Until August book cover
Until August

A Lost Novel – And Its Lost Worth

Last week, the posthumous publication of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novella, Until August, was met with unfavorable reviews. On the American continent, The New York Times lamented the book’s “vapidity” while the Financial Times derided its cliched language. On the European continent, the Guardian criticised its lack of interiority. Even its proponents – which include the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Book Review – admit it pales compared to the rest of his oeuvre. Or as one critic put it: “There are only fugitive traces of the exuberant imagination that gave us Macondo.”

They make a valid point. The story of Ana Magdalena Bach, a middle-aged woman who dutifully visits her mother’s grave on an unnamed island in the Caribbean every year until, on one of her trips, she impulsively begins sleeping with random men, is flawed. Marquez tends to romanticise. There is nothing that Ana Magdalena’s husband is bad at—he is an athlete, a rhetor, a comedian and a dancer. They have regular and great sex after 27 years of marriage. They don’t fight. His portrayal of Ana Magdalena, his first female protagonist, is equally unambiguously and jarringly male. At one point, she surveys her breasts in a mirror, “still round and high, in spite of two pregnancies.” The list goes on.

But these issues seem to have gotten in the way of critics recognising the novella’s merits. The story is, for all its flaws, an entertaining read. With each new trip to the island, the reader wonders what Ana Magdalena will do next. On her second trip already, we see a new version of Ana Magdalena who, instead of booking her usual hotel, stays at the island’s most expensive hotel, gets her hair and nails done, then dresses up to the aces for dinner. These changes permeate the story and maintain its tension—a hallmark of good storytelling.

If the story contains cliched language (“it was an unforgettable night” and so on), it offers poetic imagery that outlasts their reading. Naked children run around “pretending to be toreadors”. Ana Magdalena’s skin has “the texture of molasses”. The music plays at “Carnival volume”. Marquez’s colorful language brings his story to life, whether we like it or not. His ability to describe innocuous moments of everyday life – Ana Magdalena applying Vaseline to her eyebrows or washing herself between her legs before sex – only heightens this effect.

Until August also serves as a commentary about women’s place in society; Ana Magdalena’s story is one of female empowerment. Following in her mother’s steps, “a famous Montessori teacher, who in spite of her talents, never in her life wanted to be anything more,” Ana is a trophy wife who drops out of her arts and letters degree to marry her husband. She is surrounded by outstanding male musicians while she cannot play any instrument. She is a woman in a men’s world. But through the island, she changes that narrative. From her first fling, she begins to use men “for her own pleasure.” She feels like “a different woman: renewed and capable”. And though Ana Magdalena’s means may be dubious, Marquez makes it clear that her husband is no saint.

In the end, Until August is exactly what it purports to be: the unfinished and largely unedited manuscript of an aging author affected by dementia who, at his death, was described by then Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos as “the greatest Colombian who ever lived”. It is not One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it remains, especially by today’s standards, a decent piece of writing—one that by almost any other author would have been favourably received.

Words by Elkyn Ernst 

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