MEXICO CITY — It may be too easy a wisecrack to call them the Gang that Couldn't Steal Straight. But the joke definitely was on the Colombian bootleggers who put out a pirated edition of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's new novella last week, apparently not realizing that the Nobel Prize-winning author had made some last-minute changes to the ending.
According to publishing officials here and in Colombia, several weeks ago Garcia Marquez decided to alter parts of the final chapter of his long-awaited "Memoria de mis putas tristes," or "A Memory of My Melancholy Whores" -- purely for artistic reasons, the officials said. But a purloined edition of the Spanish-language book, evidently based on an earlier draft with a different ending, began circulating on the streets of Colombia last week, before the book's scheduled Oct. 27 release.
As a result, the novel's release was pushed up a week, and bargain-hunters who bought the book's pirated version for less than half the official price are now stuck with either a valuable collector's item or a literary fake of a fake. Doris Bravo of Editorial Diana, which co-published the book in Mexico with Random House Mondadori, said that at least the thieves had good taste. "They're cultured," she said with a laugh.
The bogus bootleg caper provided a surprise twist, and a flood of free publicity, to the Latin American release of the Spanish-language edition of "Memoria de mis putas tristes." The slim 112-page novella, Garcia Marquez's first major work of fiction in a decade, presents itself as the account of a washed-up newspaper columnist's desire to celebrate his 90th birthday by having sex with a young prostitute.
Bravo said she was not sure how different the ending of the official version of the novel was from the bootleg. "The truth is, I don't know that there's that much difference, because Garcia Marquez decided to correct two or three words of the last part of the book, well, to enrich it, nothing more," she said. "It was not a large part of the contents." In Mexico, 100,000 softcover and 30,000 hardcover copies of the novel have been issued, and a second printing of 50,000 is underway.
In Colombia last week, police reportedly confiscated thousands of fake copies of "Memoria" and arrested at least three street vendors. The bootleg edition is based on an original that appears to have been stolen from the printing house, a warehouse or during transportation, according to Moises Melo, editorial director of the Colombian publishing company Norma.
He said that advance copies of the book had been distributed to a very small group of people who were under heavy restrictions to prevent them from divulging the book's contents to others. "We are investigating," he said.
Garcia Marquez hasn't spoken publicly about the piracy incident. The Colombian-born author, a longtime resident of Mexico City, received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982 and is best known for his novels "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera." His recently released memoir, "Living to Tell the Tale," recounts his youthful visits to Colombian brothels.
Despite its Nabokovian conceit and frank descriptions of various carnal encounters, the new book has been viewed by critics as being less concerned with sex per se than with the nature of erotic desire and the play of memory across time. "I would describe it as a story of love, a story of pure love," Bravo said. "After reading it, there remains a sensation of what joy there is in being in love, what joy there is although a person is old."
"Memoria de mis putas tristes" is being issued by different publishers in different countries. It arrives in U.S. bookstores this week. The English-language edition, translated by Edith Grossman, will be published in September 2005.
Several publishing officials said they could not think of another occasion when a book by an author of Garcia Marquez's stature had appeared in pirated form before its official release.
Exactly how it happened is still a mystery. Aggressive copycatting is nothing new in Latin America, where it's customary to see bootlegs of popular CDs and DVDs selling openly in street markets and on the steps of subway stations mere days or even hours after their official versions have been issued. And though the quality of the sound and titles may be badly reproduced, ("Sherk" instead of "Shrek," for example), the customers don't seem to mind.