Short Story Review: “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

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.

Key Thoughts

“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.

Short Story Review: “The Recurring Smash” by Rudyard Kipling

Title: “The Recurring Smash”
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Page: about 3
Source: Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, ed. Stephen Jones, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. New York: Fall River Press, 2010.
Synopsis: An unfortunate young man named Penhelder has a peculiar sort of curse, in that every third spring, with alarming regularity and despite all attempts at safety, he encounters some painful accident.
Reason for Beginning: Picked somewhat randomly from my large book of Kipling stories; settled on because of its brevity.
Reason for Finishing: Was hoping Kipling would provide some answers.
Story Re-readability: Not much, really. It’s somewhat amusing, but lacks any real meaning.
Author Re-readability: This is a difficult call. From this story alone, I’d say Kipling is fairly re-readable. His prose is graceful and textured, and commanding; by this I mean that he writes with authority, like he knows exactly what he wants to write and how to write it. But I detested his style in “The Wish House,” in which the “texture” of his dialogue utterly overwhelmed my ability to understand what was going on. Another problem he seems to have, is that he often fills his stories with specific details about British India that he never explains, as if his stories are only written for people of his place and time, who would immediately understand his references. If I did get these references, they would undoubtedly become one of the chief strengths of Kipling’s writing, because I suspect that he uses them to suggest quite a bit about his characters. Still, unless you are a student of turn-of-the-century British life and imperialism, you are likely to meet with many terms, phrases, and references you don’t understand. Fortunately, in “The Recurring Smash” these do not impede one’s understanding of the plot.

Key Thoughts & Recommendation

The strongest element is undoubtedly Kipling’s ability to swiftly sketch out a character’s life through specific and believable details, all with hints and references to the outer world, so that you are always aware that this strange little story is just one of many things happening in the world at large. There is also an appealingly droll sense of humor at work here, with Penhelder being generally resigned to his fate, while still frantically trying to avoid it. The ending even resembles the punchline to a joke, and it might even be funny if Kipling would just tell us what he meant.

It’s a passably amusing story, but Kipling’s decision to give absolutely no answers regarding Penhelder’s mysterious condition renders it empty of meaningful content rather than intriguingly enigmatic. I simply don’t see a point in recommending it; unless you are a Kipling devotee, I can see no benefit to be got from reading this story, nor anything that you’d miss by skipping it.

Short Story: “Christmas at Hostage Canyon” by James Stoddard

Title: “Christmas at Hostage Canyon”
Author: James Stoddard
Format: Short Story
Pages: about 16, but in a small page format
Published: in the January/February 2011 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Reason for Beginning: A Christmas fantasy story – should be good, right?
Reason for Finishing: It’s a goofy kind of awesome, that takes one outlandish premise and gives it some respect.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: On Christmas Eve a young boy is terrorized by a demonic elf, but finds strength through an unlikely savior.
Story Re-readability: Yeah, sure, though it doesn’t require rereading. The story’s pure entertainment, nothing significant beneath the surface going on. I could see myself reading it again at Christmastime, maybe even to my little nephews!
Author Re-readability: Yeah, I’d try another story of his. He’s funny, has a lot of sympathy for his characters, and seems to revel in the sheer possibilities of fantasy storytelling, even the somewhat ridiculous ideas.
Recommendation: Yes. It doesn’t rise to amazing heights of greatness, it only tugs at your heartstrings a little, and it’s not a “classic” or any other hyperbole. But if you get a chance to read it, it’s lots of fun! Continue reading “Short Story: “Christmas at Hostage Canyon” by James Stoddard”

Short Story Review: “Canterbury Hollow” by Chris Lawson

Title: “Canterbury Hollow”
Author: Chris Lawson
Format: Short Story
Pages: 13 (in a small magazine format, though)
Published: in the January/February 2011 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Reason for Beginning: Interesting title and the shortest of the stories in the magazine (I was reading at my job during downtime).
Reason for Finishing: Quite interesting story, with some good characters and narration. Ending is a mixed bag, I guess.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: On a future planet where the humans have been forced into underground cities by a killer sun, two lone characters, both of whom expect to die soon, meet, fall in love, and must decide how to spend their remaining weeks.
Story Re-readability: Some, yes, mostly to better pick out all the little worldbuilding details he scatters tastefully throughout.
Author Re-readability: For the most part his style is straightforward and not shy about the sci-fi elements. Sometimes you have to do a little detective work to figure out the society he’s writing about, since he reveals facts in bits and pieces, and often through implication. There was a section where he tries to be deeply philosophical in a classic sci-fi manner, with big words and existential, evolutionary abstractions, and it doesn’t work very well, in my opinion. But they’re short, and the rest of the story works pretty well. If I saw another short story with Lawson’s name to it, I’d read it.
Recommendation: Sure, if you’re interested in character-based sci-fi that’s more about ideas and emotions than technology, adventure, or exploration. It’s definitely not my favorite kind of sci-fi, but it was an interesting, thought-provoking read.

Obtainability: I found a PDF of it here.

Brief Thoughts & Some Spoilers

What I understand about the universe of “Canterbury Hollow” is this. It’s at least 500 years in the future, and Earth has been abandoned in favor of various planets many light-years away. The planet Musca, our setting, was settled by humans before they realized that its nearby sun was unstable and fast approaching its death. As the sun grew hotter and scorched the surface, people began to realize that they could not continue living there. The first Deep Citizens of Musca were those who dug miles down and excavated the First Chamber, a cavern just large enough to house up to ten thousand people. But as the heat continued to grow and the atmosphere started to burn away, they dug deeper, creating whole new cities in caverns and tunnels that they then sealed off from the surface, finding ways to provide sustainable food and air for themselves under the planet’s surface. Eventually a huge elevator to the surface was built for tourists, leading to an artificial pocket of air called the Sundome that is maintained over the ruins of the last surface city. This is the only way people can safely see the sun and stars (the atmosphere having completely burned away). This is also where our main characters meet.

Arlyana and Moko meet under the Sundome and soon find out that they both are…well, I’ll leave a little bit to remain secret. Their relationship is sudden, maybe a bit too much so, but it’s sweet. You can understand why they make some of their impulsive choices. Like I said above, the ending is a bit mixed for me, but unfortunately I can’t say much about it without ruining it. I wish it didn’t end the way it does, because it feels a tad too depressing. I want to use the word existential, but I’m not sure if I’d be using it correctly, seeing how diverse the philosophies of existentialism are and how limited my current understanding. However, I can also see a reading of the end that is more positive and romantic in nature. Rather than bow to fate, the characters do take some measure of control over their own lives and find a way to be together. In a manner of speaking. But my chattering is useless now, because of the necessary vagueness that comes with talking about something without really talking about it.

And besides, it’s a short enough story that you can read it quickly enough and decide for yourself what you think about it.

Short Story Review: “The Coloured Lands” by G.K. Chesterton

A mysterious (and awesomely dressed) man shows a bored young boy a new way of looking at the “mundane” world.

Title: The Coloured Lands
Author: G.K. Chesterton
Format: Short Story
Pages: 5 (in Tales Before Narnia, edited by Douglas A. Anderson)
Published: 1925 (first)
Reason for Beginning: It is in the anthology I have, it is short, and I have heard wonderful things about G.K. Chesterton, who was supposedly one of the wittiest, most intelligent, and most imaginative writers of the early 20th century, and a Christian apologist to boot. This is the first anything of his I have read.
Reason for Finishing: It’d be pretty bad to not finish a story this short, but having it be so interesting is nice too.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A mysterious (and awesomely dressed) man shows a bored young boy a new way of looking at the “mundane” world. Continue reading “Short Story Review: “The Coloured Lands” by G.K. Chesterton”