- Posted April 17, 2014 by
Pasig City, Philippines
This iReport is part of an assignment:
How I Discovered Gabriel García Márquez
By Jose A. Carillo
It is a very private story that I occasionally tell, but only to aspiring literary types, younger executives, and teenage bookworms who find time to ask me what is a good English-language book or novel to read. The story is about how, many years ago, I discovered Gabriel García Márquez in the romance section of a big bookstore at Claro M. Recto Avenue in Manila. It was shortly before or right after martial law had taken the life of the daily paper where I worked as a roving reporter, I cannot remember the exact date now. But there was Marquez, still a total stranger to me, in the Avon hardback edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien Años de Soledad in the original Spanish), enjoying in the same shelf the company of such rupture-and-heartbreak novelists as Emily Loring, Barbara Cartland, and Jacqueline Susann. No, García Márquez did not get there as an occasional stray, chucked absentmindedly or insensitively into the shelf by some browser. If memory serves me well, the book had been actually misclassified and miscatalogued in the same genre as the more popular company it was keeping when I found it.
The reason why it got there was probably serendipity of the most sublime order, but I think you can dismiss that thought as just me imagining the whole thing in chronological reverse. A more plausible reason was that it had the green and grainy cover art of a naked man and woman in passionate embrace, which I later thought was the publisher’s well-intentioned attempt to make the Buendia family’s otherwise unimaginable tragedies and grief more commercially acceptable. It was actually this somber study in solarized chiaroscuro that drew my eye to the book. When I began to leaf through it, however, furtively expecting some passages about women in the throes of illicit sex, I read something much more exciting, much more stimulating, and much more intriguing. “Many years later,” García Márquez began, “as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” A few passages later I was irretrievably sold to the book. I promptly paid for it, tearing the plastic wrapping no sooner had the sales clerk sealed it, and started to read as I trudged the sidewalk on my way to my apartment somewhere in the city.
When I had read the book twice or thrice and still couldn’t get over the thrill of the discovery, I excitedly recommended and lent it to a broadcast acquaintance at the old National Press Club. I can’t remember now who the borrower was, but he was one of those press club habitues who would dawdle over beer or gin tonic at the bar till somebody’s self-imposed midnight closing song-and-piano piece was over. What I do remember is that he never returned it to me. He assured me, however, that he had read it and enjoyed it so much that he could not resist lending it to someone—was it Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil or the late Renato Constantino?—who in turn lent it to someone who lent it to someone until finally the chain in the lending was lost. The last I heard from the original borrower was that the book had been passed on to an English Lit. professor at the University of the Philippines, where a few years later I was to learn that it had become mandatory reading in its English graduate school.
Being pathetically inept in Spanish I could never really know what Castilian or Colombian idioms I missed in the English translation, but the English-language García Márquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude truly set my mind on fire. He lit in me a tiny flame at first, then a silent fire for language that burned even brighter with the passing of the years. He was not only robust and masterful in his prose but devastatingly penetrating in his insights about the flow and ebb of life in the archetypal South American town of Macondo. Not since I chanced upon a battered copy of The Leopard (Il Gatopardo in the original Italian) by the Italian writer Giuseppe di Lampedusa two years earlier, this time a real stray in a smaller bookstore nearby, had I seen such soaring yet quietly majestic writing. Here is García Márquez at his surreal best: “Fernanda felt a delicate wind of light pull the sheets out of her hands and open them up wide. Amaranta felt a mysterious trembling in the lace on her petticoats as she tried to grasp the sheet so that she would not fall down at the instant when Remedios the Beauty began to rise. Ursula, almost blind at the time, was the only person who was sufficiently calm to identity the nature of that determined wind and she left the sheets to the mercy of the light as she watched Remedios the Beauty waving goodbye in the midst of the sheets of the flapping sheets that rose up with her…” With prose like this I became a García Márquez pilgrim, re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude countless times and devouring, like an adolescent glutton, practically all of his novels and short-story collections in the years that followed.
Many years later, in 1982, I was to discover in the morning papers that García Márquez had so deservedly won the Nobel Prize for literature. I was so happy for the new Nobel Laureate and for myself, and I no longer thought anymore of ever recovering that first copy of him that I had the pleasure of retrieving from the company where it obviously didn’t belong. In homage I went back to the bookstore where I first found García Márquez, quietly and almost reverently picking up a new Picador paperback edition of him. Its cover art was no longer the man and woman in the deathless embrace, but this time an image more faithful to the elemental truth of the book: the whole Buendia family in a portrait of domestic but elegiac simplicity, at one and at peace with the chickens and shrubs and flowers that gave them sustenance, awaiting the last of the one hundred years allotted to them on earth.
The book is mottled with age and yellow with paper acid now. Now and then I would lend it to a soul that is intrigued why I would keep such a forlorn book on my office desk, but only after tragicomically extracting an elaborate pledge that he or she would really read it and give it back to me no matter how long it took to finish it.
This essay originally appeared in the author’s “English Plain and Simple” column in The Manila Times in 2002 and subsequently became Chapter 40, Section 7 of his book English Plain and Simple: No-Nonsense Ways to Learn Today’s Global Language. Copyright 2004 by Jose A. Carillo. Copyright 2008 by Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.