Hiroko Oyamada, Gabriel García Márquez in 2014, André Aciman

A “lost” novel better left unfound

We’re a long way from touchstones One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera


This article is taken from the April 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“The lost novel,” it says here, on the cover of Until August, which is published ten years after the death of its author, the Colombian Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez. And why shouldn’t they trumpet it? Márquez was by common consent one of the great novelists of the last century, influential on several generations of writers after him and the man who popularised the genre of magical realism. (We’ll forgive him the last.)

But if “lost novel” implies a missing masterpiece from the man’s pomp — they would imply that, wouldn’t they? — then let’s take a sense check. We’re a long way from Márquez’s touchstones One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985): indeed, a long way from full-length fiction at all, since nothing he published in the last two decades of his life stretched beyond novella length.

Until August, Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Anne McLean (Viking, £16.99)

That is the territory we are in with Until August, which clocks up a little under 20,000 words tip to tail. According to the slightly unclear afterword by Márquez’s editor, it was written around 2003 – 2004, though he seems to have needed encouragement to finish it around 2010. The truth is that Márquez suffered from dementia in the last years of his life, and the circumstances which led to the publication of this work are unclear, to say the least. So we will confine ourselves to the quality of the book as it now spontaneously appears.

It is a story of love and lust from the viewpoint of a 46-year-old woman, Ana Magdalena Bach. Every year, on August 16, she travels to the island where her mother is buried “to place a bouquet of fresh gladioli on her grave”. And, during the four annual visits covered by this story, each year she encounters a different man at her hotel and they proceed to do what comes naturally to Gabriel García Márquez characters.

The first time it happens, she is shocked by her own behaviour. She is married, after all, and “for the first time in her life, she had fornicated and spent the night with a man who was not her own”. But she is not so shocked, nor so embarrassed when she returns to her husband, that she doesn’t do it again — and again, and again.

Now: it is possible to write a story about a woman in a hotel who indulges in her own pleasures with different men and not come over as crass. In fact, the Irish writer Eimear McBride did it a couple of years ago with her novel Strange Hotel. But Márquez is banging a drum from a different time, as evidenced by his lip-smacking descriptions of both Ana’s body (“pert breasts’) and the sexual act (“he raised her unhurriedly to the boiling point”).

For certain generations of male novelists, this stuff comes with the territory. Márquez is a writer, after all, whose last fiction published in his lifetime, Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004), was about a 90-year-old man’s desire to sleep with a 14-year-old virgin: a book with a goal, as Márquez’s fellow Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee carefully put it in his review, “to speak on behalf of paedophilia”.

I could say more about the story, but the sad truth is that there isn’t much more to it. The “gripping exploration of desire, freedom, love and fear” promised by the blurb never becomes gripping, nor does it explore. It begins, it is there and it ends — or at least stops.

Perhaps we shouldn’t expect more from a writer in his eighties when the book was (probably) written. Even without illness, powers fade. Philip Roth found his aptly-named penultimate novel The Humbling so draining to write, and such a failure in execution, that he determined to summon all his ability for one final, better work — the equally aptly-titled Nemesis — and then retired. Iris Murdoch wrote her last novel Jackson’s Dilemma when in the early stages of (undiagnosed) dementia: its weakness made sense in retrospect.

There is nothing in Until August which shows evidence of Márquez’s deteriorating mind — there is even the odd nice line (Ana suffers the “doddering sieges” of one ageing lover) — but more importantly, there’s nothing which shows evidence of why he was so admired in the first place. The lost novel was not crying out to be found.

The Gentleman from Peru, André Aciman (Faber, £12.99)

By contrast, the Italian-American writer André Aciman’s star is in the ascendant, even though, at 73 years old, he is already beyond the age Márquez was when he stopped producing substantial work. But then Aciman was a late starter: his debut, and still his most celebrated novel, Call Me By Your Name, was published in 2007.

His new novel The Gentleman from Peru oozes the confidence of a writer who knows he has a faithful readership that will follow him, tails wagging. There’s a smoothness — even suaveness — to the writing which matches the gilded setting: the Amalfi coast, where a group of young American holidaymakers is whiling away the time whilst their boat is repaired. Whilst there they see an interesting elderly gentleman — white beard, Moleskine notebook, pocket square — about whom they speculate. “Painter.” “Mossad.” “Ex-assassin.”

But they needn’t wonder for long. The gentleman from Peru — for it is he — makes himself known to the group when he places a hand on the aching shoulder of one of our party and miraculously cures his pain. If there was a faintly fantastical sense to the story before now — like one of Roald Dahl’s adult tales or a primped and polished urban myth — then from here on the book goes all-in. The gentleman, Raúl, befriends the group and a young woman Margot in particular: but if you’re expecting a Márquezian story of love across the decades, then you’d be wrong — mostly.

Raúl is given to gnomic pronouncements — “I go back”, “Time stops here” — and it soon becomes clear that we are in a state of irreality, a world of “hinter selves’ and déjà vu, where the journey he takes Margot on leads her to recognise places she has never been to before. The results are always surprising but not always subtle, taking in heavily symbolic fruit falling to the ground to rot and explanations that drop with a clunk. “This, according to legend, is possibly where the lotus eaters lived.” “You mean Ulysses’ companions who refused to sail back to Ithaca?” Yeah, those lotus eaters.

But a little charm goes a long way, and the fanciful web that Aciman weaves through a tale — no spoilers — that takes in Shakespeare, Virgil’s Lugentes Campi and literal spellbinding, is mostly seductive. Whether the book succeeds in its evident aim of creating a new timeless myth, or whether it is a slightly silly diversion, it is in either case probably best read on the sort of holiday that opens the story, when you’re feeling relaxed and welcoming, with your critical faculties temporarily suspended.

Last year we learned the astonishing statistic that Japanese writing constitutes a quarter of all translated fiction sold in the UK. These things feed themselves, which means there is now a glut of new Japanese fiction in publishers’ catalogues, not all of it worthwhile. Broadly speaking, the books divide into the whimsical (usually involving cats) and the weird; Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole sits in the latter category. It’s the third of her novels to be published by Granta in short order, this one coming just five months after her excellent satire The Factory.

The Hole, Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd (Granta, £12.99)

It starts straightforwardly enough, with a woman and her husband agreeing to move house to live next door to his parents, rent-free. This entails our narrator giving up her job — living the dream, her friend thinks — and adopting a life of silence and stasis as a housewife. That this doesn’t suit her is underlined by her experience when she leaves her new home one day and, whilst pursuing a mysterious creature, promptly falls down a hole. The hole — as symbolic as the mysterious creature and as André Aciman’s fruit — is so precisely her size that it could have been “made for me”.

We seem to be in the realms of the deranged fiction of Kobo Abe, where people are regularly trapped in holes, sand dunes or boxes, but Oyamada’s intentions are more domestic, bringing in Japanese cultural phenomena such as the salaryman and the hikikomori (person who never leaves their home).

Our woman does escape the hole, but she gets trapped otherwise, particularly in conversation with a man who claims to be her brother-in-law and who offers to take her to find the hole when she finds she can’t stop thinking about it.

The Hole is diverting enough, but there is — if you will permit — a hole at the centre of it, in that its evasions, and its blend of banality and strangeness, never quite seem to come together into one experience. One of the refreshing qualities of Japanese fiction is its appetite for brevity, but on this occasion, less is less. We need more. ●


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