Jose Carillo's Forum


On this webpage, Jose A. Carillo shares with English users, learners, and teachers a representative selection of his essays on the English language, particularly on its uses and misuses. One essay will be featured every week, and previously featured essays will be archived in the forum.

A personal tribute to the Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning author of One Hundred Years of Solitude and several other highly acclaimed novels and short stories in the magical realism genre, has died. He was 87. (Read the news obituary of García Márquez by CNN’s Todd Leopold, April 17, 2014.)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Purely by happenstance, I discovered García Márquez as a stray paperback in the romance section of a big bookstore at Claro M. Recto Avenue in Manila in 1972, but I couldn’t remember now whether it was shortly before or right after martial law in the Philippines had taken the life of the daily paper where I worked as a roving reporter.

I could never really know what Castilian or Colombian idioms were missed by that paperback’s translation, but that English-language One Hundred Years of Solitude lit in me a silent fire for language that would burn even brighter with the passing of the years. Indeed, I can say in all honesty that the seeds of this English language forum, improbable as it might seem, had come in no small measure from my fascination with the language and imagery of García Márquez’s novels, short stories, and nonfiction.

In fond memory of the great writer, therefore, I am posting in this week’s edition of the Forum “How I Discovered Gabriel García Márquez,” an essay about that first encounter with him that I wrote for my English-usage column of The Manila Times in 2002. To reach more fellow devotees and admirers of García Márquez in various parts of the world, I also posted that essay on April 18, 2014 on CNN iReport. (April 20, 2014)

Click on the title below to read the essay.

How I Discovered Gabriel García Márquez

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. 

100 Years of Solitude

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.

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Previously Featured Essay:

Matters of faith

I was making notes for a possible non-English-language topic for my column, thinking that grammar wouldn’t be right for Holy Wednesday, when my nine-year-old son Jack tapped my shoulder and asked: “Dad, why is Holy Week from April 13 to 20 this year? Last year, it was from March 24 to 31.* Why not hold it on the same date like that of Christmas Day so it doesn’t get confusing?”

Talk about deja vu! I had wanted to ask my own father that same question when I was about the same age as my son now, but never got to ask. Now I am a father myself—three times over, in fact—and yet could only give a stock answer to veil my continuing ignorance: “It’s because the days of the Holy Week are movable feasts, son. They base it on a religious calendar—you know, that kind where there are names of one or two saints for every day of the year.”

“But why, Dad? They could do the same to every other religious holiday, but they don’t. And another question: Why is Easter Sunday called ‘Easter’? This celebration came from the West, so wouldn’t it make more sense to call it ‘Wester’? And one last thing: Why is the bunny a symbol for Easter? It looks funny and doesn’t seem right.”

Those questions stumped me even more, so I told him: “I really don’t know the answers, son, but tonight I’ll get them for you. Go to sleep now and tomorrow we’ll talk again.”

My little research to answer my son’s questions, I must say, yielded more fascinating answers than I expected. To begin with, it turns out that the movable Holy Week schedules are not totally arbitrary at all. They are always exactly timed in relation to the natural, once-a-year occurrence called the vernal equinox. The equinoxes—there are only two of them—are those times in the year when day is precisely as long as night. The vernal equinox comes in March, marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring, while the autumnal equinox comes in September, marking the end of summer and the beginning of autumn.

The advent of spring was, of course, always a cause for great celebration in the ancient world. The Anglo-Saxons welcomed it with a rousing spring festival in honor of Eoastre, their goddess of springtime and fertility. The Scandinavians called her Ostra and the Teutons, Ostern, but they honored her in much the same way. The importance of this festival to the early Europeans was not lost on the second-century Christians, who wanted to convert them to Christianity. They therefore made their own observance of Christ’s Resurrection coincide exactly with the festival. Then they gradually made it a Christian celebration, even appropriating the name “Eoastre” for it. Thus, contrary to what my son thought, the later use of the term “Easter” for the high point of the Holy Week had absolutely nothing to do with global geography.

People in those early times, however, celebrated the spring festival on different days, mostly on Sundays but often also on Fridays and Saturdays. This became a thorny issue. To resolve it, the Roman Emperor Constantine—who had by then become a supporter of the Christian faith—convened the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. This council came up with the Easter Rule, decreeing that Easter should be celebrated on the first Sunday that occurs after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox. The “full moon” of this rule, however, does not always occur on the same date as the full moon that we actually see; it is the full moon after the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which always falls on March 21. By this reckoning, Easter will always fall on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25. This rule has withstood the test of time, remaining unchanged exactly 1,682 years later to this day.

As to the Easter Bunny, it may be natural for us to think that it is simply a modern-day contrivance to liven up Easter Sunday. It isn’t. Its provenance is even older than that of Easter itself. The prolific rabbit, whose reappearance in spring unerringly marked the end of the brutal winters of those days, actually was the earthly symbol of the goddess Eoastre. Along with the Easter Egg, itself a symbol of rebirth in many cultures, the Easter Bunny was, in fact, a powerful ancient symbol for activity after inaction, for life after death.

In the suffering and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Roman Catholics and the rest of the Christian faithful have similarly found such an enduring symbol. They have thus consecrated the Lenten Season in His Name as their holiest of days, ending it on Easter Sunday in a feast where church tradition and ancient belief find joyful convergence.

These are the things I’ll tell my nine-year-old when he wakes up today and reminds me of what I promised him. (April 15, 2003)
*This year of 2014, following the celestial mechanism that I describe in this essay, Holy Week happens to fall on exactly the same beginning and end dates as Holy Week in 2003, April 13 (Palm Sunday) to April 20 (Easter Sunday). By this reckoning, Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the full moon that follows the ecclesiastical “vernal equinox,” which in turn always falls on March 21. How the ecclesiastics compute this sounds complicated and rather arbitrary, and I really don’t have the competence to satisfactorily explain the process here.

From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, April 15, 2003 © 2003 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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