A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS
Now Playing: RE: Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program...
Topic: January 2005
I don't remember this from my original reading of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." In small caps, as a sort of subtitle to the story, are these words:
A TALE FOR CHILDREN
This belies an interesting beginning for a story that commences with the image of a man killing crabs in his house all night. American children's book publishers would have a fit at the idea of such inherent violence starting off "a tale for children"!
No matter. This first scene, loaded with sensory images ("drenched courtyard," "stench," "Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing..." "glimmered like powdered light..." "a stew of mud and rotten shellfish") sets the reader on a typical course of magical realist storytelling, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of course, holding the reins.
One doesn't know what to expect entering one of Gabo's stories. So it comes as no surprise (indeed, it makes me smile) to see that he would introduce the figure of an angel in the most earthly and abominable way, as a frail and elderly man on a gloomy day found lying face down in mud, impaired by a pair of ungainly wings. I think immediately, not of an old man at all, but of a desperate seagull caught in an oil slick, when I read this.
Immediately, the unlucky character who finds the old man, Pelayo (the one who was staving off the invasion of crabs for days before, and the father of the newborn child fallen ill) thinks of the old man as a nightmare. He grabs his wife, busy tending their baby, and shows her out to where he'd found the man, who Gabo describes simply as "dressed like a ragpicker."
But wait, Gabo's more sensitive than that! He goes on to say, "...his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had." Lovely. Gabo's not so judgmental after all, is he? This is a sad description, certainly, but it aims to try to reclaim for the old man some sort of dignity, it suggests the old man was, at one time, quite patriarchal.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez strikes me as one of the most empathetic truthtellers of our times. In our politically correct times here in the US, editors might flinch at a story where an elderly person is described in this way, but at the heart of Gabo's description is the necessary impulse to be honest.
And what of those wings? "Huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked..." They had, of course, been the old man's undoing, trapping him in the mud of three days' rain.
Right away, we learn something about Pelayo and Elisenda. They are not much different than anyone else. They are surprised, of course. But they do something that we all do in the course of our lives?they expose themselves to the reality of this irreal presence for so long a spell that they forget that he is part of their cultural mythos. Angels are not part of their everyday landscape, after all; angels are the couriers of omens and miracles who thrive in stories told by priests and grandmothers. In other words, Pelayo and Elisenda become desensitized?a state which encourages the mind to attach familiarity to what would otherwise be classified as irreal?and accept the old man's presence, wings and all, as something ordinary.
That is not to say that they don't still think he is an angel. He's just no longer extraordinary, not quite a nightmare, but rather, a pathetic discovery. They try to speak to him. They call on a gifted neighbor to help them decide where he came from (the old man's sailor-like voice and dialect suggests to them that he is a foreigner in the more earthly sense of that word). The woman declares him an angel, but with no more fanfare than if someone were to declare him a cab driver.
"He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down."
And that is the end of the angel's introduction.
One of the things I love about Gabo's writing is his ability to create dense, rich scenes that move. He spent as little time as necessary to create the premise for the story. In two paragraphs, we learn a great deal about the characters, the tone of the story, the setting, even the state of the world in "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings." Gabo wrote this story like all of his others, with tremendous confidence in his literacy of time, place and the human condition. No wonder he's such a master.
What happens next? Stay tuned...