Laying the Bones Bare: Honesty and Death in Gabriel García Márquez’s “Until August.”


The publication of Until August, a new novella by Gabriel García Márquez (translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean), ten years after his death could be seen as a betrayal. His sons acknowledge as much. They admit in the book’s preface that Márquez himself, after working on this manuscript through memory loss near the end of his life, finally declared, “The book doesn’t work. It must be destroyed.”

And yet it does seem to work. His novella, a small work of under 120 pages, is a mature story about laying tough truths bare: an older woman dealing with age, death, and love confronts the naked truth of her life and her own self.

Ana Magdalena visits her mother’s grave each year on August 16, laying flowers down in a cemetery that sits above a small, isolated island that her mother asked to be buried on. She is happily married and has a good family, but one year she impulsively decides to seduce a man and take him up to her room.

The sensuous encounter changes everything. Once home, she sees her life through completely new eyes. “She had always gone through life without looking at it,” the text reads, “and only that year upon her return from the island did she begin to see it with chastened eyes.” The change is distinct to her husband, who notices her renewed smoking, her detachment, her insomnia, and says that “it’s impossible for me not to notice how different you’ve become.” When she tries to blame it on their daughter’s antics, he denies it: “You came back from the island like this.”

Her demeanor may have been shaken by many things, but it all seems centered on one: after the night of unexpected romance, in which she seduced the man, believing herself to be the one in control, she wakes up to find him gone—and a $20 bill tucked into her book. It’s humiliating, reducing their encounter to a transaction (and a cheap one at that). The bill burns “like a live coal, less in her purse than in her heart.”

She both dreads and anticipates her next visit to the island. Half of her wants to repeat the task each year. She looks to conquer a man on each visit, seduce and sleep with him. But the other half of her is in constant angry panic, ready to refuse the men who approach her, upset by what she’s doing to her happy marriage, to the person she believes she is. And a part of her is always looking for the man who left her the $20, ready to either toss the bill back in his face or fall back into bed with him.

Her affairs have a brutal honesty to them, sad or happy, but her marriage’s happiness had been based on a veil of accepted lies. “The twenty-dollar man, whose memory embittered her, had opened her eyes to the reality of her marriage, sustained thus far by a conventional happiness that avoided disagreements in order not to stumble over them, the way people hide dirt under the rug,” reads the text. She was so determined to avoid any hint of her husband’s lies about his own sexual life that once when a friend hinted he’d had a girlfriend before her, she cut the friend off forever.

Something in that $20 strips Ana Magdalena of her ability to pretend—she now feels like a stranger in her own family, the illusions crumbling around her. After her third visit to the island, something breaks and she challenges her husband, neglecting their usual bedtime “ritual.” She demands to know the truth about his sex life, to which he responds: “If what you want to know is whether I’ve gone to bed with anyone else, years ago you warned me that you didn’t want to know.”

But the Ana who didn’t want to know is gone. Her husband lets a few details slip, but to his surprise, she fixates on whether he paid the woman he slept with—and if he had paid her, how much would that woman have been worth? $20? Or more? He doesn’t understand and he refuses to answer, but she’s enraged.

Twice, the text tells us that Ana Magdalena had “adapted to [her husband], become like him, and they knew each other so well deep down that they ended up seeming like one and the same.” But now, she realizes that they are not, in fact, the same. Her desire for conquest, to conquer other men and have these transactional affairs with them, continuously fail as the affairs leave her in tears. Her husband is capable of having affairs like that, but she isn’t. They are not mirrors.

So does she have a mirror at all?

Once, August 16 had been a “penance” of sorts. She thought her mother had wanted to be buried on the island because “It was the only solitary place where one could not feel alone.” But on her next visit, she discovers that all along her mother has had another visitor: an older man who visits and leaves “heaps” of expensive flowers on the grave. Her mother, it turns out, might have had a lover on this island—but not a cycle of transactional affairs. A romance.

Ana’s quest to find romance on the island, her sense that it was her destiny to do so, was paralleled all along by her mother’s own experience on the island, in her own desire to be buried there. All this time, Ana has been chasing a lie, by thinking her destiny was to emulate these one-time affairs. This truth lays her life bare. She is not able to mirror her husband, the unstoppable flirt and romantic, and they are not equal within their relationship. He has cheated in a simplistic, bare-bones way that she cannot equal. That night, she isn’t able to take a lover home. She sobs through the night instead, “furious with herself for the disgrace of being a woman in a man’s world.”

And when she wakes up, the text takes a turn. She misses her ferry the next morning on purpose, setting off instead “determined to take the plunge she hadn’t known how to take during her bad island nights.” This has been a quest so far hidden in herself that the reader didn’t know it was there, but she seems to have known all along that she would need to do it. She needs to see her mother’s bones.

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Confronted by bones, she sees herself in the casket. Ana and her mother stare each other down, and Ana feels “seen by her from death, loved and wept for.” They are one and the same. She leaves the island with her mother in tow, with a new understanding between mother and daughter from beyond the grave.

It’s a particularly fascinating book to write, arguably from beyond the grave. According to the foreward and afterword, Márquez returned to this manuscript shortly after the death of his own mother. He worked on it throughout the end of his life, as his memory increasingly failed him.

Controversies swirl over the posthumous publication of “previously undiscovered” manuscripts, and rightly so. An author arguably has rights over their own body of work, and over what does and does not get published.s it actually okay to publish a work that Márquez deemed not suitable for his own oeuvre? There’s a reason that fantasy author Terry Pratchett’s last wish was famously to have his unfinished works steamrolled and destroyed.

Still, Márquez’s editor, Cristóbal Pera, and his personal secretary, Mónica Alonso, worked closely with him to edit this book, and he gave one of the versions his “OK”. He knew what the ending was. Despite his comments, this may be a finished work at its core.

Ana’s mother wanted to be buried on the island. And yet Ana’s final revelation leads her to take those bones away from it, bringing them instead home with her. “She understands. She’s the only one who could,” Ana says, in the ending paragraph of the book. “What’s more, I think she’d already understood when she decided to be buried on that island.”

Maybe Márquez once said that the book didn’t work. But he might just understand—and he might even have understood—that the manuscript still had something in it that readers would need to see. And now, by publishing the book for Márquez’s millions of loyal readers across the globe, his sons are bringing his bones home.

Until August
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean
Published March 12, 2024


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