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RISQUE REPRISE: Racy tale of illicit extramarital intimacy in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Until August

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Until August is a racy tale of extramarital sex that stuns with its plot and characterisation

Julie Banerjee Mehta | Published 21.04.24, 09:01 AM
Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Story goes that the Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez publicly read a chapter from his then-unpublished novel Until August in March 1999 at the Casa América Madrid for the Spanish Society of Authors and Publishers. In true form of dramatic flourish, three days later the Spanish newspaper El Pais published the very same chapter. Later, The New Yorker translated it into English. In 2003, yet another piece of the story was published. This time, surprise-surprise, in Cambio, a magazine owned by Marquez himself. The story was entitled The Night of the Eclipse.

Then, for 20 years there was stony silence.


There were rumblings in the publishing industry in 2023 about the existence of the unpublished work. And, boom, on the 10th anniversary of Marquez’s death in March 2024, came the publication of the novel En Agosto Nos Vemos in Spanish, followed by the publication by Viking of its translation by Anne McLean, Until August.

It was a troubled gestation.

Marquez himself had said he did not want it published because it was not completed to his satisfaction. It is no secret that he was meticulous about editing and reediting every word he wrote.

To complicate matters, in the last 10 years of his life he battled dementia, having already suffered from lymphatic cancer. Since 1999, the troubled year when Marquez’s health was going downhill and he was facing his imminent mortality, he was attempting to promote this unfinished novel.

In a strange irony, the same two boys, Rodrigo and Gonzalo Garcia Barcha, who had rigorously followed their father Marquez’s directive to tear up every existing copy of any unpublished manuscript, suddenly found themselves in charge of their father’s literary estate. Now, they began disregarding their father’s explicit instructions — “This book doesn’t work. It must be destroyed,” Marquez had said.

In the preface of Until August, Rodrigo and Gonzalo reiterate their father’s instructions. However, they insist that the novel was their father’s last effort to carry on creating. And they wish to justify their decision to publish it in order to allow Marquez’s fans to not be deprived of his last hurrah.

This brings us to the original question: Why was Marquez promoting the novel if he wanted it shredded? The answer is that he thought he might defeat both cancer and dementia, and have enough time to finish and polish it.

Usually, art imitates life. But in some very strange cases, life does imitate art. In the case of Marquez, affectionately called Gabo by his friends and readers, life and art have often blended in a merry dance of pleasure and pain. Hot off the press, Until August has all the elements of a painting of a turbulent sunset by William Turner, where the lines between a flaming passionate sky and surging grey sea leaves the reader breathless.

It has all the markers of Gabo’s signature style: a sense of drama, a wicked sense of seduction, sex, and the shadow of a ghost. It was originally titled En Agosto Nos Vemos, which translates to ‘See you in August’. The storyline appears to be deceptively simple with beautiful descriptions of a blue sky and turquoise waters, blue herons and the seductive bars of Bolero and Debussy laying the geography of a tranquil evening in a colourful island in the Caribbean.

Planned as a 600-page saga, it has eventually been published as a 100-page novella. The protagonist of the novel, Anna Magdalena Bach, is 46 years old, stunningly beautiful, married happily for 27 years, and goes to a Caribbean island every year on August 16, the anniversary of her mother’s death, to lay flowers on her grave. She makes the 24 hours on that island every year an indulgence of pleasure, sleeping with a new man. Unnamed.

A pragmatic, attractive woman, she goes on an annual visit to this idyllic spot to offer gladioli blooms on her mother’s grave. At the same time as her island sex life, she has an active sexual relationship with her musically brilliant husband back home that sounds quite warm and fuzzy goes on, as Marquez graphically describes the “reckless love... like teenagers” in “assignation motels, sometimes the most refined but just as often the sleaziest, until one night when the place was robbed at gunpoint and they were left stark naked”.

But she is drawn by the magnetic pull every year like the tides to the moon, and makes the annual one-night trip to indulge in what is almost a ritual of lovemaking with a stranger. One time, on one of these sojourns, Anna comes back to her hotel, and falls asleep reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, spruces up and goes to have a drink and a bite at a bar. There she unexpectedly sees a stranger. He is tall dark and handsome in a Latino sort of way, and wears a linen shirt.

She is captivated by lust. She approaches him unabashedly and follows him in a desperate desire to his hotel room. For the first time in her happily married life in decades, Anna Magdalena seizes the night and the stranger who leaves a trail of lavender scent all around the room where they make mad love till the wee hours of the morning.

Anna Magdalena (weirdly named after the wife of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach) falls asleep and wakes up to find that the stranger has gone, the bed is empty beside her, and there is only a $20 note inside her copy of Dracula. She is overwhelmed by mystery and the reader is left wondering if that irresistible devilish stranger might be a new-age Dracula who draws no blood physiologically, or is it a ghost who followed her from the graveyard.

The style is undoubtedly magical realism — where the worlds of reality and magic meet in a blurred realm of infinite possibility. Latin American writers use this literary device in which supernatural elements are treated as mundane. As several literary critics point out, though the technique has its roots in traditional storytelling, it was a centrepiece of the Latin American ‘boom’, a movement coterminous with postmodernism.

The novels of this master of magic realism are populated by ghosts, young virgins who levitate and attain heaven even as they devastate men with their beauty, blood that trickles upwards, defying gravity, old men with wings who descend from heaven, a beautiful pageant to be mesmerised by, in the blink of an eye, as Gabo might put it.

Here’s a very short passage from Until August: He moved to her table and very stylishly poured her a shot. “Cheers,” he said. She perked up, and they both knocked back their drinks in one. He choked, coughed with his whole body shuddering, and was left with tears streaming down his face. They were silent for a long moment while he dried off with a lavender-scented handkerchief and recovered his voice.”

Julie Banerjee Mehta is the author of Dance of Life, and co-author of Strongman: The Extraordinary Life of Hun Sen. She teaches Masters English at Loreto College

Last updated on 21.04.24, 09:22 AM

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