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Until August Review: A sneaking up of melancholy

Marquez’s Spanish editor (Cristóbal Pera) says the author began writing this book in 1999. He gave up because he felt he could not find an ending.
Last Updated : 11 May 2024, 22:16 IST
Last Updated : 11 May 2024, 22:16 IST

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Exactly a year ago, in April 2023, Penguin decided to publish Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s unpublished work. It surprised the readers, albeit dividing them, because Marquez never wanted this book to be out. On the one hand, there were readers eagerly waiting for it. On the other, there were those who were miffed and decided to not read the book, the publication of which the famed author did not give his consent for. Finally published posthumously by his sons on Marquez’s 97th birth anniversary in March 2024, Until August is a 110-page novella that mourns loss and marvels at the hunger for love. It is translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.

The story opens with the arrival of a woman on an island. Ana Magdalena Bach is a married woman with two grown-up children. In the very first scene, she confronts her age; her cheeks hang loose, and wrinkles crowd around her neck ‘as there was nothing she could do about them now.’ But she is aware of her charm and beauty. She appreciated herself where necessary and ‘found that she looked almost as good as she felt.’ After buying a bouquet of gladioli, she heads to the cemetery where her mother is buried. Every August since her mother’s death, Ana heads to the island with gladioli, sees her mother and tells her of the year that had gone by. But in the August the readers are let into, Ana experiences something she had never before and that would change her life forever at 46. She meets a man and is riddled with anxiety until she finds herself lying in his arms enjoying his sexual moves.

While reading the story, one cannot but imagine Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway buying her flowers for the party and realising how troubled her marriage really is. Ana’s party with her mother is held at the graveyard but the Augusts also remind her how dead her marriage has gotten over the years. Like Mrs Dalloway, she finds herself drifting. As Meryl Streep’s character Clarissa (a modern-day rendition of Mrs Dalloway) in The Hours (2002) would say, ‘I seem to be unravelling’. Ana feels it viscerally so. The dearth of good company. The lack of a happy sex life. The fear of hurting her husband. The anxiety of being taken for a toss by men of varying ages. These emotions beset Ana and Marquez does a marvellous job at trying to tease them apart. The series of Augusts becomes a test for Ana to compare her perception of Ana at home and Ana on the island.

Marquez’s Spanish editor (Cristóbal Pera) says the author began writing this book in 1999. He gave up because he felt he could not find an ending.

Admittedly, the first chapter of the book is excellent. It also appeared in the New Yorker in the same year. There is no doubt of Marquez’s hold over prose. But somehow, his strength is confined to the beginning. The chapters following it become rather untethered. Readers who have read his oeuvre will feel it more strongly than those reading Marquez for the very first time. There is the passionate zeal and the ‘transformation’ his characters undergo like in his previous novels.

But the gusto with which it would usually be explored feels fainter here. Ana does not remain with the reader after they have put the book aside. Fermina Daza from Love In The Times of Cholera and Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles from Of Love And Other Demons are characters of Marquez that have made their presence felt beyond the text. Ana remains within. Perhaps, Marquez knew it and hence did not consent to its publication.

The novella, however, should be read as the last gift Marquez left for his readers. Ana makes us feel the author’s disappointment with ageing and not being able to do what he did all his life — write. Ana’s constant discontent with the world around her is one readers have heard more resoundingly in J M Coetzee’s latest novella The Pole published in 2023, or Julian Barnes’ 2022 work, Elizabeth Finch. The novellas follow middle-aged women seeking desire outside/without marriage. Ana pursues it every August on the island, Beatriz is besotted with a Polish pianist and Elizabeth is enamoured by a student.

It is curious to think how men, as they age, look to women to represent their discontentment of ageing. Do women experience ageing more strikingly than men as some feminist scholars believe? Did Marquez and Coetzee feel the discord of ageing more pronounced in women? Why do the older men remain background figures in their stories? If the beauty of a story is to make you think — as Marquez has done throughout his writing career — he has succeeded in doing that in some measure with this book as well. The novella leaves you thinking about ageing, the melancholy of watching your body transform, and the many unrequited desires that bubble to the surface at a time when one assumes them to be dormant, if not dead.

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Published 11 May 2024, 22:16 IST

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