Gabriel García Márquez’s last novel is a moving testament to his genius

Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) – affectionately known as “Gabo” – started his career as a journalist, but is famous for the novels and short stories that earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982.

Alongside Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa and the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, he was the best-known member of the triumvirate that started the boom in Latin American literature in the late 1960s. He popularised the style that came to be known as “magical realism”, influencing later authors such as Isabel Allende and Salman Rushdie.

His novel One Hundred Years of Solitude has sold more than 30 million copies and has been translated into 37 languages. He is one of the most translated Spanish-language authors in the world, alongside Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, and the author of Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes.

News about Márquez’s unpublished novel has been making headlines for close to a year. Posthumously published novels can be contentious. They tend to come in four categories.

Some are unfinished or incomplete. These are either fragmentary works, like Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura, or substantial works that were never fully revised to the author’s satisfaction. Franz Kafka’s Amerika, The Trial and The Castle are famous examples of unfinished, posthumously published novels.

Some are unfinished but partially complete. In this case, we have sections that were fully revised by the author to their satisfaction, but not a full draft. Charles Dickens’ final novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood falls into this category. When Dickens died in 1870, he had finished and fully revised six out of twelve chapters.

Occasionally, posthumously published books are finished and complete. E.M. Forster wrote Maurice, his novel about homosexual love, in 1914. He revised it to his satisfaction, but then decided not to publish. He was afraid of legal repercussions due to the attitudes against homosexuality at the time. The novel was published in 1971, the year after his death.

Then there are novels that are finished but unrevised. A full draft exists, but one that we know required further revisions by the author. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, for example, was written after The Hobbit, but was at first rejected. This resulted in Tolkien writing The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Silmarillion was eventually revised, edited and published by Tolkien’s son, Christopher Tolkien, four years after his father’s death.

Marquez’s Until August falls into this last category. It is a complete, but unfinished work that Márquez was not able to fully revise to his satisfaction. The novel has been edited by Cristóbal Pera, who also edited Márquez’s memoir, Living to Tell the Tale. The published version is based on Márquez’s fifth and last draft, incorporating some fragments from earlier drafts.

It is important to keep this in mind as we read the novel, as well as the reasons why it was not fully revised.

There had been rumours about the existence of an unpublished Márquez novel since March 1999, when the author read a chapter of Until August at the Casa América Madrid, during that year’s forum for the Spanish Society of Authors and Publishers. Three days later, the Spanish newspaper El País published the chapter, which was later translated into English for The New Yorker.

In 2003, another fragment of Until August came to light. It was published as a short story in the Colombian magazine Cambio (owned by Márquez) with the title The Night of the Eclipse.

After that, silence. For a long time, it appeared the rumours had been precisely that, nothing but rumours, until August 2023, when Penguin Random House confirmed the existence of the novel and its publication date in 2024, the ten year anniversary of Márquez’s death. The publication date is doubly significant: the book came out in Spanish on March 6 – his birthday.

Márquez was a perfectionist. He revised his novels meticulously, rewrote them over and over, within an inch of their literary lives. His indisputable masterpiece, Autumn of the Patriarch, took him 17 years.

This is why his children, Rodrigo and Gonzalo García Barcha, now in charge of their father’s literary estate, were at first uncomfortable with publishing Until August. In the preface to the novel, they share their father’s opinion about it: “This

book doesn’t work. It must be destroyed.”

As the brothers point out, however, Until August was their father’s “last effort to carry on creating”. In 1999, Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. Shortly after, in 2002, he was diagnosed with dementia. As his health deteriorated, his writing suffered. Until August was composed during this time.

The “novel” is really a novella. Scarcely 100 pages long, it is divided into six chapters organised around the main character, Ana Magdalena Bach. Ana Magdalena is 46 years old. She is named after Johann Sebastian Bach’s second wife and, like her namesake, she is married to a musician. Her husband of 27 years, Domenico Amarís, is the director of the local conservatory.

Ana Magdalena’s mother died eight years prior to the start of the book. Her last wish was to be buried on a Caribbean island. Every year on August 16, the anniversary of her mother’s death, Ana Magdalena embarks on the one-day journey to lay flowers at her grave.

On her eighth trip to the island, Ana Magdalena meets a man and has sex with him. It is tempting at this point to assume that the book will be about Ana Magdalena’s affair with this man, finding true love, yearning romantically throughout the year to meet him in August. But that’s not it. After that first encounter, Ana Magdalena makes a point every year of finding a new man to sleep with on August 16.

But the book is not about her sexual liberation either. We are expressly told that after almost three decades together, Ana Magdalena and her husband still have a strong and emotionally fulfilling marriage, as well as a steamy sex life involving all manner of kinky escapades that one might associate with much younger couples.

The anonymity of the island allows other elements of Ana Magdalena’s identity to come to the fore and to change her in different ways. Her sexual experiences are diverse. One encounter is with a man who assumes she is a sex worker and, to her great indignation, leaves 20 dollars behind in her copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Another, a hurricane in bed, turns out to be a criminal. Then there are visits to the island when, much to her frustration, nothing happens.

Interestingly, none of the men Ana Magdalena sleeps with is given a name. They are anonymous, making her the undisputed protagonist and subject of these encounters.

Until August glimmers with Márquez’s genius. The narrative voice is enthralling, the plot is cleverly creative. The characters are complex, contradictory and engaging.

Most astonishing is Márquez’s poetic prose, which has been fluently translated by Anna McLean. The cadences of his sentences continue to hit like a hammer to the heart. Take the following passage before Ana Magdalena’s first sexual encounter:

After the second drink she felt that the brandy had met up with the gin in some corner of her heart, and she had to concentrate in order not to lose her head. The music ended at eleven and the band was only waiting for them to leave so they could close. She knew him by then as if she had always lived with him. She knew he was clean, impeccably dressed, with inexpressive hands accentuated by the natural shine of his fingernails, and with a good and cowardly heart.

Until August is not a magical realist novel, so don’t expect one. It isn’t Leaf Storm or Chronicle of a Death Foretold – astonishing novellas and masterpieces of the form, written at the height of Márquez’s creative powers.

It is, however, a captivating book, and a testimony to the challenges Márquez was working to overcome when he wrote it. Books do not exist in a vacuum, they are the product of the circumstances in which they are written. Consequently, Until August is not Márquez’s best work. There are minor contradictions in the plot, some unnecessary repetitions, and a lack of clarity in a couple of passages. The ending is abrupt. It comes with a nice twist that could have been beautifully executed, but it isn’t, so the novel does not have the resolution it deserves.

And yet this is a hell of a book, particularly when we consider Márquez wrote it with one metaphorical hand tied behind his back.

In her Nobel lecture Writing and Being, South African author Nadine Gordimer mentions Márquez’s political commitment to writing. She summarises his views in one sentence: “When it comes down to it, the writer’s duty, his revolutionary duty if you like, is to write well.”

In the face of battle, the writer writes; in the face of illness, he did too. Until August is the fruit of that labour against adversity, a moving testament of Márquez’s love form and commitment to literature.