Title: “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children”
Author: Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Format: Short Story
Length: 2834 words
Published: in the collection Leaf Storm, in 1955
Reason for Reading: I’ve been curious about the Latin American magical realists for some time, and this title was appealing enough that I just jumped in without knowing anything else about it.
Synopsis: An old man with enormous wings appears in a small town, looking bedraggled and very sick, and speaking an incomprehensible language. Thought to be an angel but kept in a chicken coop, he becomes the subject of much speculation and hubbub, yet is never treated with dignity or respect. Finally the day comes that he regains enough strength to fly away.
Story Re-readability: Somewhat, for the fascinating realism with which the winged man is portrayed actually makes him more mysterious. That part I love. But the plot is sparse and the human characters simply worthless.
Author Re-readability: The depth and detail of Marquez’s imagination is fascinating. His style is poetic and textured, and somewhat dreamlike, even while describing mundane things.
Recommendation: Yes, because of the vividly realistic way the magical element is presented, although it’s not a must-read. The story itself is unremarkable and unaffecting, although it develops naturally enough.
Obtainability: At many online locations. I read it here.
“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” is both disheartening, because of the cruelty and callousness of the humans involved, and cautiously inspiring, because the winged man bears his suffering with such patience until he wins his freedom in the end. What the story lacks most strongly is a moral element that could invest it with greater meaning and resonance – something to suggest consequences for actions, or a character who models proper actions, or a sign of spiritual growth.
The people of the town at first think the man is an angel. Yet his wings, examined by a doctor, appear so completely natural that the doctor wonders why other men don’t have wings. He also is covered in dirt and parasites, his feathers stringy and falling out. He gets sicker as the years go by, and yet people continue to visit him from afar. Pelayo and Elisenda, the couple who keep the old winged man at their house in a chicken coop, get rich charging a viewing fee. He does seem to have some magical or supernatural elements, but the “miracles” attributed to him by those who have been touched by his feathers are unconventional:
Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers.
Thus it is unlikely that he is a real angel, but also unlikely that he is completely natural.
Marquez’s human characters, however, are generally lacking in admirable qualities, with the exception of the priest, Father Gonzaga, who tries to protect the old winged man and investigate his nature, though to little success on either account. Among the townspeople and the visitors from outside there is much curiosity about the winged man’s nature and existence, but their theories tend to be absurd and insensitive. No one, not even Father Gonzaga, seems able to see him as a person, as one of God’s own children just like everyone else. And Pelayo and Elisenda, in addition to being careless and callous in their treatment of him, seem to lack any true curiosity! They spend the first hours just staring at him, and generally leave him in the chicken coop. He is a burden for them, even as he makes them money. They never try to help him or understand him.
This helps us sympathize greatly with the old winged man, even as we are mystified by his apparent listlessness. He doesn’t appear to need much food or water, nor is he much aware of the indignities he is suffering; although, it is important to note, he does feel pain when the crowds shove a branding iron at him, and his dirty living conditions seem to keep him in poor health. Most of the time, he seems almost unconscious, or perhaps mentally slow. And yet when he recovers at the end, it is completely separate from anything the humans have been doing, as if his health is dependent on unseen factors. The final image of him flying away, presumably to some degree of freedom and happiness, is beautiful, even as I remain disappointed in the boorishness of the human characters.
The story is translated from Spanish, and in the version I read there were some unclear phrases: “In the midst of that shipwreck disorder that made the earth tremble” is said without a context including a shipwreck, earthquake, or other disaster, and Father Gonzaga counters the crowd’s cockamamie theories with “formulas of maidservant inspiration.” I can only speculate on the meanings.
There are some humorous touches throughout. Father Gonzaga begins to doubt the angelic nature of the man “when he saw that he did not understand the language of God [i.e. Latin] or know how to greet His ministers [i.e. priests].” When Gonzaga writes to his Catholic superiors, hoping for a formal judgment from the Pope, this is the result:
But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings.
Norwegians get mentioned one more time in such a way; I’m not sure if there is a specific joke here that I am missing, or if it is merely that Norwegians are considered inherently funny in Latin America. The randomness of the reference is a bit funny.
It has been noted that through the winged man’s extraordinary patience, the impoverished couple become quite wealthy, and thus the story might be an allusion to Hebrews 13:2, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Yet the couple has only improved financially, not spiritually in any way. I find it unlikely that Marquez would intend an angel to appear merely to bring some people money, rather than to help them become better people. But then, maybe Marquez is making a statement about the poverty of many people’s faith, how even if an angel visited them they would fail to recognize it for what it was.
In the end, the best thing I can say is that Marquez’s unique and detailed treatment of his concept has inspired me to dream on the subject more myself.