Until August by Gabriel García Márquez (Translated from Spanish by Anne McLean) - review by James Womack

James Womack

Save the Last Dance

Until August


Viking 129pp £16.99

The billing of Until August as Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘dementia novel’ is a simplification. Although García Márquez’s last years were marked by a falling away of his powers, and his brother confirmed a diagnosis of dementia in 2012, the manuscript was largely finished by 2004. An earlier version of the story, in a translation by Edith Grossman rather than Anne McLean, appeared in the New Yorker in 1999. The book as a whole seems to have been put away once García Márquez realised that he couldn’t pull off his intended structure: five stories of similar length, all with the same protagonist. Readers who want to examine this slip of a book pruriently, as a chance to see the shattered visage of a once-great writer, should look elsewhere.

This is not to say that there aren’t issues with its publication, as the preface to this translation makes clear. García Márquez himself was blunt: ‘This book doesn’t work. It must be destroyed.’ In their introduction, García Márquez’s sons disarmingly discount this opinion, using a logical jujitsu that I would be proud to hear from my twelve-year-old: ‘the fading faculties that kept him from finishing the book also kept him from realizing how good it was.’ I think this is specious; your mileage may vary.

In any case, we are not looking at a Max Brod situation here. If the mountain of books published posthumously against their authors’ wishes has The Trial at the top, Until August is somewhere in the foothills. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s certainly patchy. It’s also very male. On page five, the protagonist, Ana Magdalena Bach, looks at herself in the mirror and appraises her breasts, ‘still round and high in spite of two pregnancies’. By page eighteen, she is having a bit of a ride with a man she’s picked up in her hotel: ‘She straddled him, took him in right up to her soul and devoured him for her own pleasure not even thinking of his, until they were both left perplexed and exhausted in a soup of sweat.’ On the surface, this seems like the cheesiest form of male wish-fulfilment. 

There is something going on beneath, even if this is nowhere near as deep a work as many of García Márquez’s other books. The setup is simple, almost like a folk tale. Every year, Bach returns to an unnamed Caribbean island in order to lay flowers on her mother’s grave. While there, she has, or tries to have, a one-night stand. We are given descriptions of the various men she meets, and the various situations she gets into, from the boring evening with an old friend who happens to be on the island and throws her plans into disorder when he declares his love to her, to the dangerous night with a man who turns out to be ‘a swindler who pimped helpless widows, the probable murderer of two of them’. The second encounter is characterised as ‘the deflagration of a supernatural pleasure that left her threshed and burning and in need of three days of compresses and sitz baths’. By year three, she goes ‘so far as to wonder if she might be capable of walking the streets, stopping cars’ until she finds someone who will ‘do her her August favor’.

But Until August is – I’m insisting a lot here, but hopefully not too much – more than the sum of its slightly horny, macho parts. Music is an important theme throughout, starting with the obvious references in the name of Ana Magdalena Bach and her musical conservatory director husband. One particularly interesting motif is that of taking music and changing its style: we have ‘a daring bolero arrangement of Debussy’s “Clair de lune”’, a jazz musician who improvises ‘a very personal rendition of Béla Bartók’s Contrasts for piano and saxophone’, ‘a bolero by Agustín Lara in the style of Chopin’, ‘a Cuban danzón in the manner of Rachmaninoff’, ‘a danceable arrangement of Aaron Copland’. This all feeds into the questions that torment Bach throughout the novella. How far can a person alter their behaviour until they alter their essence? Is human character also a set of jazz riffs on a pre-existing tune, which remains present under everything we do, no matter how aleatory or eccentric our actions might seem?

As with the best of García Márquez’s work, this philosophical investigation takes place against a background both tangibly physical and surrealistically oblique: the descriptions of the island that Bach visits make one feel authentically sweaty; Bach’s daughter is a jazz aficionado who stays out all night and is keen to become – identity again – a Discalced Carmelite nun. There are occasional beautiful images: ‘The man, asleep on his side with his legs tucked up, looked to her like an enormous orphan’; ‘she tore up the card into minuscule pieces and tossed them into the seagulls’ complicit breeze.’ The strands all come together in an ending that is shocking and sudden, and yet entirely understandable given what has led to it. Until August forms a pleasant enough coda to a magisterial life’s work. 

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