Topic: February 2005
Next week I shall begin re-reading and discussing Jeannette Winterson's, The Passion. Your comments are, of course, welcomed.
As for fallen angels and women changed into spiders, I continue to find these curiosities engaging, but must defer to the particularity with which Gabo selected his language to tell their stories and the story of the community at large (including Elisanda and Pelayo's). To me, this remains a classic standard for magical realist short fiction, and one of the best stories for revealing the core of Gabo's worldview.
I'd like to thank Joe Benevento for his essay on teaching magical realism, which is widely read in university classrooms. From his essay, I read his deconstruction of "A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings," not too long after first encountering that story, and it was illuminating. I also enjoyed reading the entirety of his comparative analysis and hope you'll check out the essay for yourself.
Don't you just love the paradoxes of magical realism?
Eventually the angel is allowed to stay in the shed. At some point soon thereafter, E and P are alarmed to discover that the angel is showing signs of fever; they expect an imminent death.
What would you do with a dead angel? I'm not sure what I would do. Committing it to a tomb seems to be taking measures in the wrong direction, but a cremation only calls up images of hellfire, which might satisfy the opinions of the angel's hosts in this story, but which seem catastrophic and immoral to me, a Westerner with a penchant for believing in angels as wholesome and benevolent.
Fortunately for Pelayo and Elisanda, and for the angel too, this is not the outcome it suffers. Once left alone to heal (the townfolk have since grown bored of its presence), the angel grows back its wings and eventually flies away from the earth "with the risky flapping of a senile vulture."
This description is arch and sarcastic. The real vultures were the people who came to see a caged angel, after all. As for its senility, there's little room for this community to preach the morality of craziness.
You can bet Gabo meant every word of this description as a way to characterize society at large. While I generally think of Gabo's narratives as ultimately hopeful, I find his attitude in this story less generous. He seems to be suggesting that society has lost its proper faith, its ability to care selflessly. When Elisanda watches the miracle of the angel's disappearance into the sky, she is relieved, but not for the resurrection of the angel, but for the burden that's been lifted from her shoulders.
The people toss about ideas for what to do with the angel. Make it mayor of the world? Grant it the title of a high-ranking general so as to guarantee the success of all future battles? Breed it?
Me, I'd get it to an animal shelter, immediately. The poor thing needed health care.
Father Gonzaga appears at this point in the story. After a close examination, the priest determines the angel not to be an angel at all, but the work of a meddling Satan who has sent forth his evil in the form of an angel to confuse and influence the masses.
Predictably, the people don't listen. The angel was pathetically frail and covered in parasites. What sort of devil would bother sending such a loser specimen?
Elisanda, instead, begins to charge admission.
My first impulse to this is: How very American of her. Except that I'm wrong. It's not only an American response, to capitalize on something like a fallen angel. The idea of carnivals, and freak shows, and lookyloos, is not original to the West. This is a human inclination, no matter where it occurs. What we don't understand we either wish to kill or to own. The satiation of curiosity seems to be worth paying for.
The angel, of course, takes center stage. Other adjacent carnival acts cannot compete for the attention our Very Old Man receives from people all around, who are there either to see it for themselves, or in a few cases, to seek out healing miracles from the angel.
(Do I truly believe that a fallen angel would actually be treated like a circus animal if it were to happen today? I don't know. I find it more plausible that it would be treated like the sighting of the Virgin Mary, with all the markings of a Great America theme park ride--no line jumping, please!--and with merchandise being sold in the background. ? At any rate, I suppose the way it would be treated would just depend upon the community into which the angel falls. Frankly, my cynical side thinks it'd be better off falling down in some place remote and unspoiled by human beings. But that's just me shortchanging the human race its ability to be compassionate.)
Pelayo and Elisanda make money hand over fist on admissions, while Gabo reports that "the angel was the only one who took no part in his own act." Of course not. The poor thing, it really just needed to be left alone, or at the very least, treated in a more sacred fashion.
Instead, it's left to entertain the masses inside the depths of a stinking chicken coop which eventually collapses under the weight of what we are told is a superficial, minor anomaly: a sideshow act featuring a woman changed into an enormous tarantula.
Huh? How that doesn't rate as highly in the freak show zone as the fallen angel, I don't know. A spider the size of a small farm animal seems miracle-worthy.
This is not to criticize Gabo, but rather to acknowledge his wicked sense of humor and his insights into the human condition. We have this strange capacity for adaptation.
The woman-spider, which would have been a curiosity in any other situation, is treated by the narrator as a kind of blase, second-rate freak element that exists mostly as a nuisance for all involved.
This is precisely how we shape our realities, on the basis of what has come and gone before. It raises the question: When is the unreal acceptably real? In the footsteps of the fallen angel, the anansi-like creature is normal. Real. We're no longer grounded in the reality of the world pre-angel, but in one recast in post-angel reality.
I'm left with an image recalling Godzilla v. Rodan or somesuch. Which freak will destroy the other? This is the prevailing question, not whether any of it is real at all.
When Pelayo and Elisenda first found the angel, their response was less an exercise in captivity and more an exercise in rescue ("He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down," says the wise neighbor woman).
But the next day, the angel has become, indeed, a captive: Pelayo has taken to watching over the angel with club in hand, then dragging the poor creature out into the chicken coop at night. They are afraid of the angel, who is familiar and yet unfamiliar to them, a creature which they would have ordinarily considered a thing of Heaven, nonthreatening, especially since he is so clearly infirm.
When their baby awakens the following day, having broken the fever at last and yearning to eat, the relief of that news inspires Elisanda and Pelayo to release the angel to the ocean, upon a raft with fresh water and food for three days.
I find this amusing and sad all at once. How in the world is a flesh-and-blood creature of such infirmity to survive that sort of treatment? What were the two young parents thinking? Why were they afraid? And yet, isn't this, in essence, the way so many people treat their elderly? Send them away, or find some other way to forget about them, that in the act of forgetting they might disappear?
Shakespeare's voluminous cast of characters often did such a thing. I've been reading condensed versions of the Bard in short bedtime stories to my six-year-old, and I am reminded that, in fact, this is what Leontes did to his best friend in "The Winter's Tale," is it not? And what about the Duke in "The Tempest?" Was he not cast away by people who wanted his throne?
So now I'm reading this story as if it weren't about an angel at all, but perhaps about a betrayed king or God, or about a character who symbolizes a forsaken grandeur, or a reference embodying the notion of a long-gone prosperity: the good old days.
Below is Tamara Sellman's prelude to her reading of a section of Pearl S. Buck's The Big Wave, to be presented at A Wave of Caring: a concert for tsunami relief to be held at the Bainbridge High School gymnasium on Sunday January 16 at 3pm in Bainbridge Island, Washington.
"I read the story, The Big Wave, about a year ago to my daughters as a bedtime story.
The Big Wave is the prizewinning children's book written by Pearl Buck, about a Japanese fishing village that is wiped out by a tsunami.
One year later, I am tucking my oldest daughter in one night, and we are discussing the tsunami when she asks, Is it like The Big Wave?
I am reminded then how providing a human context for the disastrous events of our lives, big and small, close and far away, is essential for healing the human spirit.
Watching the TV news or reading the paper only provides information and facts, but information and facts are not enough to help people, including children, to cope with bad news.
I've found, as a lifelong writer, that literature is one of the best ways to explore the uncertainties that befall the human condition. The Big Wave filled in blanks for my daughter that I was not sure I could fill in myself.
When I tell my daughter that, Yes, the tsunami is the same thing as The Big Wave, she does not respond with fear. Instead, I see her process the comparison, and her next response is not one of panic, but of compassion. How can we help? she asks. How can we help?
Thanks to Pearl Buck my daughter makes that important leap. She understands that if we share and have faith as a global community, life will persist."
A TALE FOR CHILDRENThis 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...
For those who don't know, the film "An Angel at My Table" is the autobiographical account of famous New Zealand author, Janet Frame, whose books Owls Do Cry and The Carpathians emerged as some of the most important literature (and, whaddyaknow, magical realism!) coming from that part of the world.
Probably even more importantly, it's the story of a girl who comes from poor and tragic circumstances, who decides to become an author at about the same time she develops into a dreadfully introverted and sensitive young woman. Her shyness is perceived as a form of mental illness, she's committed at a sanitarium and barely escapes lobotomization after her collection of short stories wins a major national prize.
No, there aren't angels, in the traditional visual sense of the word, in this film, but it's really a must-see for writers and folks who want to study mental illness from the point of view of a woman who was wrongfully treated for a disease she didn't have (schizophrenia). The social repercussions of her story have had an everlasting effect on mental health care ever since (and thank goodness, though there's still a ways to go). Janet Frame has, in the end, become a hero for thousands, thanks to this film.
Another book combining the notion of angels and the torture culture of mental health "care" is Sara Paretsky's Ghost Country, which I recommend for its sly use of angel-like figures, its political statement about American society's abandonment of the homeless, and its contemporary staging of a Virgin Mary sighting.
I flipped it open precisely to the page "Baby Khaki's Wings" by Anar Ali, a story previously appearing in filling station.
Well, of course, I had to read the story, knowing I would be perusing another famous angel story in the coming weeks. It turns out to be a terrific piece of magical realism. It is, of course, the story of a baby born with wings, but it's also the story of a young girl and the woman who employs her who are both victimized (in different ways) by an established patriarchy expecting perfection and constant care on the home front. It's also about trying to keep secret a wonderful truth from a society more preoccupied with social appearances and outdated customs than with the beauty of miracles.
Perhaps my favorite passage in the story is this description of the baby's developing wings, as the ayah Aisha, the young nanny, examines them with the intent to surgically remove them to protect her own job security:
"She slipped her fingers into the wing-pouch and pulled each wing out. Some white fluff flew out. Aisha smoothed out the creases on the wings and laid them across the baby's back. Only then did she realize that the wings had changed?they were now lightly downed with golden-brown hair. Aisha stroked the wings?they were so soft! What a beautiful baby!"
I won't tell you more than that, except to say that this is a must-read story for fans of both magical realism and angel tales. The writing is smooth and lovely, with bittersweet but beautiful moments. Ali Anar is an emerging writer worth anticipating.