On Márquez and music

Published : Jul 02, 2024 13:18 IST - 5 MINS READ

Gabriel García Márquez in Mexico City, on March 6, 2014.

Gabriel García Márquez in Mexico City, on March 6, 2014. | Photo Credit: AFP/ YURI CORTEZ

Dear Reader,

The silences of history and literature are as eloquent as what they explicitly state. One of the latest personalities to be brought back from obscurity is classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach’s wife, Anna Magdalena Bach (1701-1760). In recorded history, she is merely known as the famous composer’s wife. But before her marriage, she was a well-known soprano in her own right, probably valued highly in the court of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen, where Johann Sebastian held the post of music director from 1717. After her husband’s death, Anna Magdalena ensured the publication of his book, The Art of Fugue, which remains a seminal text for piano students.

Interestingly, Ana Magdalena Bach is the name of the protagonist of Gabriel García Márquez’s “lost” novella, Until August, published in 2024, 10 years after his death. Like her real-life predecessor, Until August’s Ana Magdalena is a musically inclined woman, who has allowed her talent to go unnoticed while her musician husband has flourished. The husband has bedded many of his admirers while remaining married to Ana Magdalena.

One of the discomforts a reader might experience in reading Márquez concerns the way in which his male protagonists treat the women in their lives. In Love in the Time of Cholera, often read as an ode to love, the sappy Florentino Ariza is a serial womaniser who nevertheless professes undying love for the unattainable crush of his youth, Fermina Daza. Towards the end of the novel, when the 76-year-old Florentino gets to claim Fermina as his own at last, he unceremoniously dumps a 14-year-old girl, America Vicuna, whom he had seduced. The girl kills herself in despair. 

The story of an older man desiring an underage girl is taken up again in Memories of My Melancholy Whores, where the 90-year-old protagonist falls in lust with a drugged 14-year-old girl in a brothel. Later he comes to worship her as the sacred virgin. However, essential to the veneration is the fact that the girl is sleeping whenever the man visits her—her silent lips and floppy body mean that he can treat her anyway he likes, obliterating her agency.

In Until August, the roles are reversed. The middle-aged Ana Magdalena has a series of affairs with younger men. However, she never stoops to objectifying them, though the very first of her “lovers” does that by blithely leaving behind a $20 note as payment for her efforts. Ana Magdalena’s relationships with her younger lovers are not exploitative—rather, she is the one who feels routinely exploited, demeaned, even though she initiates the affairs. 

Until August, written when Márquez’s memory was failing, has an air of incompleteness (he wanted to destroy the novel). The depths of Ana Magdalena’s mind are not plumbed, although expectations of this deep dive are not what one brings to Márquez’s fiction in any case.

But another Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee, is known for cutting open the psyche in all its ugliness and beauty in his novels. The opening story in his last published collection, The Pole and Other Stories, is also about a music-loving, middle-aged married woman, Beatriz, who grudgingly comes to acknowledge the attentions of a 72-year-old Polish pianist, Witold Walczykiewicz (referred to as “the Pole”), who is smitten with her. 

In his characteristic deadpan way, Coetzee expresses how a younger woman might perceive an older man who claims to love her: “He looks like a man with messy divorces behind him, and ex-wives grinding their teeth, wishing him ill” and “What does she [Beatriz] dislike about him? A number of things. Above all his dentures, too gleaming, too white, too fake.”

If America Vicuna got to tell her side of the story in Love in the Time of Cholera, she might have paid similar compliments to the doddering Florentino Ariza. However, beyond the plane of gender inequalities and other injustices, both Until August and The Pole and Other Stories hint at another, higher level, where these wrongs cease to prickle so much—that of music. In their appreciation of music, Ana Magdalena and Beatriz have a gift that enables them to endure the hurts of the world. Here is Coetzee beckoning at the undiluted joy only music can bring: “To be transported, to be lost in transports: an outdated idea, in all likelihood, of what music does for its listeners—outdated and probably sentimental too. But that is what she [Beatriz] desires on this particular evening, and that is what the Pole does not provide.” 

Also Read | To 2023, with love 

Elsewhere, in Diary of a Bad Year, he writes, “Each bird-cry is a full-hearted release of the self into the air, accompanied by such joy as we can barely comprehend. I! says each cry: I! What a miracle! Singing liberates the voice, allows it to fly, expands the soul.” 

In thinking of liberation on the wings of music, we return to Bach: “The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free” (Diary of a Bad Year).

It is interesting that two exceptional writers, Márquez and Coetzee, in their later works, choose to write about that stage of life when the body starts failing, and the mind returns to the solace of music and memory. Do the latter constitute a greater love, freed from the fetters of the body? 

Do read Dakshayini Suresh’s insightful essay on Márquez and Until August in the latest edition of Frontline. With the Netflix adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude coming soon, this is a good time to engage in a close reading of Márquez’s oeuvre so that we are not taken in by what Suresh calls the “Disney-for-grown-ups” version of Márquez that Netflix is probably going to present. 

With that, I call it a day as I brace myself for yet another interminable journey home through the traffic-choked roads of Bengaluru. But I have the music of Bach to see me through and heavens be praised for that!

Till next time,

Anusua Mukherjee 

+ SEE all Stories
Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment