A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Un Señor Muy Viejo Con Alas Enormes) by Gabriel García Márquez, 1968
A VERY OLD MAN WITH ENORMOUS WINGS (Un señor muy viejo con alas enormes)
by Gabriel García Márquez, 1968
Written between his first major novels, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) and The Autumn of the Patriarch (El otoño del patriarca), "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" ("Un señor muy viejo con alas enormes") is one of two stories Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez designated "A Tale for Children." (The other is "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.") The author has never explained the heading, but both stories have at their center a fantastic person who enters, briefly, a more realistic world and transforms it in unexpected ways. Stylistically the stories belong to the magic realism of the first part of One Hundred Years of Solitude—a world of wonders where marvelous happenings are both impossible and innocent. Collected with Innocent Eréndira (La increíble y triste historia de la Cándida Eréndira), the two tales for children bring to an end the epic style of One Hundred Years of Solitude as García Márquez freed himself to develop the narrative voices of The Autumn of the Patriarch.
While "The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World" is obviously a study of the power for good of illusion (or delusion), the point or moral of "A Very Old Man" is considerably less clear, wherein resides its moral. Like its protagonist the story provokes and resists moralizing interpretation. The very simple narrative line is complicated by details either comically insignificant or resonant with social and political implications: the reader must decide which, when, and what signifies. Closure is provided by autobiographical elements familiar from García Márquez's other work, and at the story's heart is the invention of a wackily reimagined angel, an invention that reinvents others' visions.
"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" starts in the sad, muddy, poor yet still iridescent world of the Caribbean littoral, as a couple copes with crabs, rain, and the threatening sickness of their newborn child. On the third day in the mud of the courtyard Pelayo, the husband, finds an old man groaning face down in the mud unable to rise because he is impeded by his enormous wings. After the wings the reader's second surprise is the deromanticization or desentimentalization of the angel. This "drenched great-grandfather" with wings is no angel as art has represented angels to us. His buzzard wings have parasites; he has few hairs and fewer teeth, and he stinks. To the townsfolk, as to the reader, he immediately presents a problem of interpretation: what is he and how should he be treated?
Thereafter the angel's story follows a simple trajectory through the townsfolks' response to him. An initially brutal response to a stranger—club him to death, lock him in the chicken coop, put him on a raft with three-days' provisions—is replaced by celebrity as others crowd to see him. Is he a supernatural creature or a circus animal? (Here an allegory of the successful artist or the imagination steps in.) Should he be mayor of the world, a five-star general, or an occasion for eugenics? (Here politics and social engineering insert themselves). The priest has doubts and suspicions but no powerful alternative interpretation: he consults authority, without success. (Religion, its good intentions, and its futility make a bow.)
From nowhere, unexplained, unsummoned, troops with fixed bayonets disperse the mob gathered at Elisenda's house. (The brutal force, usually invisible—that force that keeps the social order intact and possesses actual, not theoretical, power—makes a fleeting appearance.) Sick, he raves like an old Norwegian. (García Márquez reminds us again that the Norse first discovered America from the west, the initial discovery having come from the east.) The townsfolks' multiple interpretations and the narrative's odd details spin off in different directions. The story of the angel is intrinsically coherent but meaningless: he comes and he goes, yet just as the oddity of the angel impels the townsfolk to interpret so the oddity of the story impels the reader to repeat their activity, interpreting them as well as the angel.
The desire for coherent interpretation, for narratives that "make sense," is worked through in the passing of the angel's celebrity. Eventually the town's attention shifts from an indifferent, perverse angel who does not speak to them to a more satisfying and interpretable story, the moral tale of the girl who was changed into a spider—a tarantula the size of a ram—for disobeying her parents. (Like Eréndira in Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother, the metamorphosed girl had earlier appeared in One Hundred Years of Solitude.) Her story has a clear and useful meaning readily applied in daily life: honor your father and mother, or at least obey them, and do not go out dancing all night. The angel, however, does not work like that. He is irreducible and irascible and useless. He may be allegorized, but the allegorization is not he.
The story ends many years later when the angel's wings grow back and he flies away. The child he saves (or fails to take away) marks the passage of time, and the angel himself is a battered old man, a figure traceable to the author's grandfather. Such a figure—familiar from "Leafstorm" (La horarasca), No One Writes to the Colonel (El coronel no tiene quien le escriba), and One Hundred Years of Solitude—would appear transformed yet again in The Autumn of the Patriarch and later still as Bolívar in The General in His Labyrinth (El general en su labertino). The angel's last years as nuisance evoke the senile grandmother (Ursula in One Hundred Years of Solitude and "she" in "Bitterness for Three Sleepwalkers").
Save that his departure has something to do with the wind from the sea (inspiration? exile? freedom?) and his arrival coincided with the recovery of the sick baby, we do not know where the angel came from or where he is going. He may reflect—or incarnate—the irritation of a successful author (or his inarticulate, unprotected novel, speaking only its own language), poked at and branded, scolded and suspected, accused of not having a clear and proper moral (a frequent complaint made in Latin America against One Hundred Years of Solitude when it appeared in 1967). He may be a scrap that did not make it into that novel (where his opposite number the Wandering Jew appears and Remedios the Beauty rises into the heavens with sheets for wings): what would happen if an angel came to town, and what would an angel really look like? An image around which interpretation laps and breaks, the old angel argues the superiority of the image (and the imagination) to interpretive apparatus while he illustrates the irresistible need to interpret.