Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s new novel challenges readers to look beyond the magic

The posthumous release of Until August prompts readers to reexamine Márquez’s storytelling techniques and themes of memory and reality.

Published : Jun 25, 2024 17:33 IST - 8 MINS READ

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez stands outside his house on his 87th birthday in Mexico City in this file photo from March 6, 2014.

Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez stands outside his house on his 87th birthday in Mexico City in this file photo from March 6, 2014. | Photo Credit: Edgard Garrido/ REUTERS

Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel laureate, enduring voice of Latin America, connoisseur of the strange, and astute observer of literary culture, has been brought back from the dead. Not since the legendary novelist’s passing in 2014 has there been such a flurry of conversation about him as there is now, in 2024, after the release of a “lost novel”, Until August, translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, and the announcement, close on the heels of this, of a Spanish-language Netflix series based on One Hundred Years of Solitude. Ten years after his death, Márquez is suddenly the subject of widespread critical and public chatter—a figure revived, resuscitated, reconstructed.

If the Netflix trailer reinvents in Disney-for-grown-ups fashion his trademark magical style of storytelling, in Until August it is his persona that is charmed back to life in two accounts that bookend the text: one a preface authored by his sons, Gonzalo and Rodrigo, and the other a translated editor’s note by Cristóbal Pera, who handled Márquez’s work near the very end of his career. Both conjure up an ageing Márquez, who is earnest, waning, and losing his way in the labyrinths of dementia: he wishes to complete this story of a lone woman and her late life love affairs but runs out of time. Ultimately, he declares that it would be better if the work, still raw and unresolved, but meticulously typed out by a recently hired assistant, does not see the light of day.

Cover of Until August.

Cover of Until August. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

As if to assure us of the authenticity of these narratives, plucked from personal memories, there are facsimiles of amendments and corrections to the original manuscript of Until August in Gabo’s own hand—signs of intention that have now been carried out by his sons and editor, we are given to understand. In order to believe in the experience of reading Márquez once again after his death, we must believe in these narratives. The meaning we assign to the story of Ana Magdalena Bach, the middle-aged woman at the centre of Until August, depends a lot on how it is framed within the larger narrative of Gabo’s life and work. An ungenerous critic might even feel that Penguin Random House, the publisher, is at pains to convince you that the novella was not written by ChatGPT.

Reviewers have responded to Until August variously with disappointment at its ending, dissatisfaction at its looseness and incompleteness, and gratitude at having one more piece of Gabo to savour, all summed up best by Lucy Hughes-Hallett in The Guardian: “Until August is a sketch, as blurry and flawed as sketches generally are, but a sketch from a master is welcome.”

Misconstruing Márquez

When we seek to narrativise our encounter with Márquez in 2024, what we look for is something originary and definitive, which will not only confirm what we know already about him but also renew our relationship with him as readers in familiar, stable form.

But the process of interpreting Márquez has always problematised the location of the reader. In a 1993 essay titled “The Dangers of Gullible Reading: Narrative as Seduction in García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera”, the literary critic M.K. Booker tells us that while the confirmation-of-bias approach to reading Márquez is not new, in applying it we are perhaps missing the point of his work. Love in the Time of Cholera, published in 1985, was received as an “affirmation of the human spirit, the author’s kindest and gentlest work”, moving readers and critics alike with its patient treatment of a romance between older characters.

Also Read | The magic of Gabo: Why Gabriel Garcia Marquez matters

Booker suggests that this is a “gullible reading” that fails to see the irony created by Márquez’s various “textual traps”. That the languid, distant narrative voice “duped” readers into interpreting years of suffocating oppression—the agency of the female protagonist, Fermina Daza, is brutally eroded over years of marriage with the clinical Dr Juvenal Urbino and persistent courtship by the foolish and sappy Florentino Ariza—as tenderness. We were too easily led, by narrative persuasion, into accepting a comfortable, self-affirming version of the truth.

Márquez’s use of magical realism too has frequently been misconstrued—as the cosmetic “adding in” of fantastical elements to the portrayal of an indisputable “real” life, rather than as an expression of the dramatic powers of the every day. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, describing the political and cultural “solitude” of Latin America, Márquez felt the need, not for the first time, to clear the air: “I’d like to think it is this outsized reality, and not just its literary expression, that has deserved the attention of the Swedish Academy of Letters.”

Think about it. Growing up within the unfurling narrative of postcolonial Latin America, young Gabo simultaneously, and harmoniously, imbibed his grandfather’s politically realist storytelling and his grandmother’s everyday sense of magic, miracles, portents, and mayhem. His rationalist grandfather was deeply dismissive of his wife’s world-view, no matter how rooted and real it was. The Banana Massacre, notable not only for the use of force against peacefully striking workers of the United Fruit Company but also for the way in which official records fudged the truth of American imperial complicity and the number of deaths, took place in the town of Ciénaga in Colombia in 1928, a year after Márquez’s birth.

A still from the trailer of One Hundred Years of Solitude, coming soon to Netflix.

A still from the trailer of One Hundred Years of Solitude, coming soon to Netflix. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In the colonial Latin American experience, objective reality was not an inflexible, trustworthy truth; it was a cultural standard, a version of a narrative that could be easily manufactured by those in power. It is doubtful whether his readers fully grasp this, even today, when they watch a Netflix teaser of One Hundred Years replete with sounds of jungle drums and visuals of sun-dappled leaves and words in out-of-place Devanagari script—all carrying traces of the colonial imagination.

The agenda of Márquez’s less magical works is remarkably close to that of his more magical ones. After the rapturous success of One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), he perhaps feared that magical realism had itself become the expectation of the cultural establishment, rather than the voice that troubled expectation. Labouring under this burden, he took four years to compose his next work—Autumn of the Patriarch (finished in 1971 but published in 1975)—a novel about a dictator, where “objective truth” is embodied in the undying, endlessly adaptable figure of the dictator.

His next, a chilling novella entitled Chronicle of a Death Foretold, delicately suspends the reader between the real and the strange as the same event is interpreted in different ways by unreliable narrators. Versions of reality get coloured not only in narration but also in the minds of listeners, who tend to believe what they want to believe. In this sense, it is not just storytelling but also listening, buying passively into an acceptable narrative of reality, that Márquez renders political.

Until August is, aptly, a story of returns: every year, the happily married Ana Magdalena Bach—teacher, reader, music enthusiast, mother of two—makes a trip to the island of her birth to leave a bouquet of gladioli at her mother’s grave. She stays in the same hotel, buys flowers from the same woman, and takes the same taxi to the cemetery. It is a ritual, one she performs with love but also with a sense of routine—until one year, when she finds herself seducing a man at the hotel bar.

Márquez strolls around piazza Navona, in downtown Rome, with his wife, Mercedes, and sons, Gonzalo and Rodrigo, on September 6, 1969.

Márquez strolls around piazza Navona, in downtown Rome, with his wife, Mercedes, and sons, Gonzalo and Rodrigo, on September 6, 1969. | Photo Credit: Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images

With this, she finds herself unmoored from the network of places and relations she had so far relied upon. Her returns to the island grow increasingly more desperate and lustful, even as the island, once a land of “virgin jungles” decays into a faceless globalised hell, suddenly full of “poor neighbourhoods” and kitschy tourist experiences. Her marriage too begins to fray with each passing year and each passing affair.

In spite of its brevity, the novella is a slow, uncertain churn, shrouded in an atmosphere of dissolution. Is this the ageing Márquez mourning for the once-untouched Colombian town of Aracataca where he was born, the wellspring of his imagination? Is it an allegory for the breakdown of memory, a meditation on rituals and predictability and on the newness of everyday failures, once memory starts fraying? Through the text, Ana Magdalena never quite realises that the changes she struggles against are “not to the world but to herself”.

Kernel of truth

Perhaps the challenge for the reader in this year marking a decade of Márquez’s death is to go beyond interpretations that simply reaffirm his greatness and examine the context out of which we reconstruct his significance to our lives. A “gullible” reading of his style and content is one in which we are unreflexive about how he is culturally revived and sustained. Are his critiques of imperialism, of power, of exoticised visions of reality still heard, or have they been absorbed into the discursive glut and indeterminate historicity of the contemporary cultural era?

Also Read | Vintage Garcia

After all, we read Márquez in a time in which facsimiles can be produced at the drop of a prompt, in which Spanish-language dramas on Netflix enjoy outsized viewing success among international audiences, in which genocides compete with fashion events for eyeballs, and the question of official memory in a postcolonial nation depends on which textbooks you are given to read in school and which political party you support.

There is a scene towards the end of Until August where Ana Magdalena exhumes the body of her mother with perhaps the aim to unbury her past, to demand of her forebears a logic, a kernel of ordinary truth that will explain her actions in the present. In return for her pains, she sees only her own face in the grave staring back at her.

Dakshayini Suresh is a feminist writer and educator based in Bengaluru.

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