Opinion | Would It Really Be Better to Never See Gabriel García Márquez’s Final Book?

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When the writer Gabriel García Márquez, the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and other classic novels, died nearly 10 years ago, he left behind an unfinished novel, “Until August.” The novel was published this week, unleashing a backlash from scholars, writers and fans who’ve taken exception not with the novel itself, but rather with what they see as an act of betrayal that endangers García Márquez’s legacy.

Before his death, García Márquez asked his sons, Rodrigo García and Gonzalo García Barcha, to destroy the novel. They did not. They could not. I understand.

The life of a work of art does not end when its creator dies. Artists too rarely leave clear instructions on what to do with their works, especially unfinished ones, which can lead to messy legal battles. Even when the instructions are specific, it can put executors in an impossible position. The heirs inherit the responsibility to preserve and promote the artist’s legacy so that it can be appreciated for generations to come.

Imagine being the one to decide whether to destroy the work of an influential artist, who also happens to be your father, and what it’s like to live with the knowledge that people will watch and judge what you do today, while those in the future may lament your actions. The truth is that if García Márquez’s sons had done as their father asked, they would most likely have been met with criticism, too. Honestly, no matter what heirs do, some people will not be pleased.

We all benefit when works by great artists that are marked for destruction are instead preserved. That’s why the way García Márquez’s sons have managed their father’s legacy, including the publication of “Until August,” should be praised and perhaps even studied.

It’s likely that by the time García Márquez began working on “Until August” more intensely in 2003, his memory had already begun to fail him. I saw the different versions of the manuscript at the archives. They were disorganized and the writing more hesitant when compared with previous works. Nonetheless, he completed an unpolished full draft the following year. His sons, friends and literary agent tried to help him edit it until his dementia became too advanced. At that point, thinking it was no good, García Márquez asked his sons to destroy it.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions after hearing the news that the sons published the novel despite their father’s orders. It certainly makes for a catchy headline. Many have rushed to accuse his sons of publishing the novel simply for the money — similar accusations were raised after the family sold the writer’s archives to the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and after selling the rights to adapt “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to Netflix.

But those decisions have made García Márquez’s works more publicly and globally available. The Gabriel García Márquez Archive at the Ransom Center, which also holds materials by William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, is one of the most visited collections both on-site and online.

When I visited the archives, I read his personal correspondence, which gave me a window into how he wrote “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” which later formed the basis of my research for my book on the writing of the novel.

Surely, not all heirs act admirably. For decades, María Kodama, the widow of Jorge Luis Borges, sued anybody for what she deemed to be incorrect use of her husband’s works. She was often accused of being too protective. She died in 2023 without, incomprehensibly, a will or a designated heir. Now her most direct relatives — five nieces and nephews with whom she reportedly had little contact — are the heirs to Borges’s works.

Nobody denies that “Until August” is the unpolished work of an aging master. It should be read as such. The heirs of artists must serve their wishes, but also their legacy — which is sometimes served best by making their works, however imperfect, available to readers for generations to come.

Imperfect works of art are more useful than destroyed ones. Days before he died in 1852, the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol burned several manuscripts, among them, the second part of what would have been the trilogy “Dead Souls.” Scholars and fans have lamented their destruction.

When works of art are made available, artists can live on and even perpetuate themselves in the most beautiful of ways: in the works of future artists. Franz Kafka, in his dying days, ordered his friend Max Brod to burn his unfinished works. Brod famously did not. This betrayal changed the history of literature and the life of a young man who, after reading “The Metamorphosis,” decided to become a writer. The man was García Márquez.

While “The Metamorphosis” was not one of the books that Kafka wanted to burn, it didn’t gain fame and great influence until Kafka received further attention through the works Brod saved. If the publication of “Until August” inspires someone to be a writer, García Márquez’s sons would have done literature a great favor, just as Brod did.

Álvaro Santana-Acuña is a sociology professor at Whitman College and Harvard Summer School, and the author of “Ascent to Glory,” a study of “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

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