Saturday, 11 October 2008
Gabriel García Márquez, and it piqued my interest. I've studies Márquez quite a few times in my various Spanish classes, but I've never read anything by him! Well, here ya go. Worked perfectly, right? The story was "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," and I highly recommend it! In fact, here's a place where you can read the full text: http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/garciamarquezoldman.html. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200--read it now!
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed the story just at face value, but I was stoked to dig deeper into it. Here's what happened:A Very Old Book with Enormous Wings of Wisdom
At the initial encounter with Gabriel García Márquez’s short story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” the reader is mystified by sly but powerful imagery embellished with curious details that scurry through the plot, concocting the peculiar mix of the mundane and the bizarre, the spectacular and the repulsive, the holy and the unholy. Interestingly enough, García Márquez, like nearly every good writer, has a purpose in all aspects of his technique, including in this altered state of the reader; he devises captivation to make readers nearly blissful to pursue the story’s deeper meaning that is intertwined within the odd account. This story is a fine example of magical realism, a style of writing (common to García Márquez) meant to “endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things” by blurring the fantastic with the ordinary (qtd. in “Magical Realism: Definitions”). García Márquez uses skillful construction and magical realism in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” to contrast the innocent acceptance of a child to the incredulous maltreatment of an unprepared and unyielding population toward a supernatural visitor—an angel. Taking into account the notable allusions to religion and the roles that the behavior of the other characters play in the story, this divergence suggests that childlike curiosity and humility establish mankind’s suitable association with another holy messenger—the Bible.
Within a framework of delicate juxtaposition of the magical and the realistic, Garcia Marquez compares the approaches of many different people to the angel, but the scaffold itself supports examples of García Márquez’s cryptic message. Even the construction of the title presents a contrast that accommodates the stance of a child: though the main title is “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” the subtitle reads “A Tale for Children.” Therefore, the structure of the title prepares the reader to be favorably disposed to the perception of a child. The writing itself is elementary in that it is not lofty, particularly fluid, or ornately descriptive. Nevertheless, the skillful use of simple language is visually stimulating, as in the simple—yet sensory-rich—description that causes viewers to intrinsically assume the old man’s supernatural identity:
He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather had taken away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. (451)
Dialogue, a device often used to season the flavor of fiction, is only used once in García Márquez’s story. Furthermore, the crumb of dialogue (a dry morsel of information that falls from the mouth of an “expert” adult) states an observation that would probably be obvious on the level of a child and is likely already assumed by the reader—the notion that this winged stranger is perhaps an angel. García Márquez’s delivery also encourages a childlike posture in his readers by expecting his audience to readily accept information that is delivered “matter-of-factly,” outside of a fully developed frame of reference: “On the third day of the rain,” for instance, at the opening of the story, assumes that no further explanation will be desired or required. Children routinely function in a world that they do not completely understand, and García Márquez’s readers are offered a similarly accommodating platform. (451)
Of course, beyond the obvious, disquieting disparity of the angel himself (i.e., his arrival, his appearance, and his actions which are all counter to the iconic image of an angel), other profound discrepancies are found in the varied, unexpected responses of people to the angel. Though he is a fantastic being, he is regarded by Pelayo and Elisenda much like the lowly, troublesome crabs that they continually dispatch from their house. In fact, the family later buys a house equipped with “high netting so that crabs wouldn’t get in during the winter and with iron bars on the windows so that angels wouldn’t get in” (454). To the priest and clergy, the angel is observed as a theological puzzle, who, in their estimation, should converse in Latin, claiming that Latin is “the language of God” (452). This assumption represents a disappointingly weak knowledge of Biblical studies because the original Scriptures were primarily written in Hebrew and Greek. Readers would probably expect religious leaders to be experts in spiritual, Biblical matters. However, the priest expresses disdain that the angel does not conform to religious preconceptions and greet ministers with anticipated reverence. Driven by their own theologic agendas while primarily consulting a catechism (a document some consider to be man-inspired), the “religious” team inspects the angel for a belly button, inquires as to whether he can speak Aramaic, and investigates “how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings” (453-454). Conversely, the “pagan” neighbor delivers the most definitive information about the angel, but she recommends that the heavenly creature should be killed! “The most unfortunate invalids” (453) with their comical ailments and the legitimately ill, who seek to meet the heavenly being in hopes of compensation for themselves, are presented only with “consolation miracles” (454). Carnival performers, normally expected to draw the attention of a crowd and probably hoping to exploit the presence of the angel, are ignored. The only figure among the “carnies” who rivals the angel as an attraction is the tortured and “unheavenly” spider woman who, unlike the heavenly presence, is revered as an inspiration “full of so much truth” (454). Then there is the child, whom the reader might normally expect to be frightened by an angel. Instead of considering the angel as a nuisance, a doctrinal curiosity, a threat, a cure, a business opportunity, or a competitor, the accepting child and the misunderstood angel share a friendship and (implying close contact over time) even chicken pox!
As stated by Franz Roh, who first coined the term “magical realism” in the 1920s, the purpose of magical realism is to “reveal mysteries” (Faris 1). Perhaps the message of “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is revealed in its greatest mystery: how to regard an angel. Aggelos, in the Greek of the New Testament, and malak, from the Hebrew of the Old Testament are both words that translate into the word we know as angel. In their original languages, both words mean messenger. (“Angel”) Instead of accepting the angel, wrestling with the difficulty of his situation, and seeking to understand the mumbled message he struggles to relate, most people in García Márquez’s story consider the heavenly presence using only their myopic, earthly vision. The “most unfortunate invalids on earth,” the doctor, Pelayo, Elisenda, and the members of the travelling sideshow are only a few mentioned who reject the celestial messenger because they are not prepared to look beyond their own interests and are not open to receive the angel’s message. There is no room in their understanding, their business, their culture, their homes, or their hearts for the angel or for his audible but “incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice” (451).
The fact that angels are messengers of God is likely no coincidence in “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Other holy messengers have visited the earth only to be met by many with a sad but similar disdain. “And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” is said of one heavenly visitor, Jesus, by another messenger of God, the Bible (Isa. 53.3). It seems that there is a clear parallel between the angel in García Márquez’s story and the Bible, the textual messenger of God. The Bible, like the old man, has a message. Unfortunately, it too is often heard but quickly dismissed as incomprehensible—too difficult to understand. The message of the Bible, like the message of the angel, remains a mystery to most because they are unwilling to invest the necessary effort to receive it. Even the adjectives used to describe the angel—tattered, dirty, old, dark—bring to mind words readers might well use to describe a “washed up,” neglected, old Bible found lying on the beach, its ragged, ebon cover splayed out like wings, and its body composed of stained, gnarled, and coiled pages. Though the Bible is ancient and inanimate, it is described as “living and active” (Heb 4.12). Similarly, the response to García Márquez’s angel mirrors the treatment of the Bible in many modern households that have a Bible in their midst but are sadly not bothered to relate to it or to make meaningful room for its message in their lives. Like Pelayo and Elisenda, most people would rather chase away the Biblical message. The Bible is perceived as an inconvenient divine intrusion, a nuisance—just like the crabs. Like most of the characters in this story, many people prefer to rely on the often pseudo-knowledge of others (the clergy, the occult, science, etc.) to interpret spiritual messages for them. The spider woman, for instance, like the angel, is a mysterious creature with a didactic message, but she openly relays to the audience what happened to her. Therefore, she, like many secular moral commentaries, is preferred to the angel (and to the Bible) because she spoon-feeds her information to the audience so they can have what they want without having to poke, prod, and work to get it. In fact, like most of the characters in García Márquez’s story, most modern people possess a spirit that is too self-important, self-absorbed, or self-centered to successfully relate to the Bible. In sharp contrast, when the child comes to García Márquez’s angel, he invests himself with the messenger in innocence and without prejudice, in hopes of gaining only a friend. Jesus said in Luke 18: 17, “‘Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all’” (New American Standard Bible). Perhaps the secret to understanding both the message of García Márquez and of Heaven is to approach the subject with curiosity and a compliant, childlike spirit.
By incorporating the extraordinary with the ordinary, magical realists use an “easy unease” to cause their audience to reassess the world. For Gabriel García Márquez, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is meant to jar readers, to remind them, and to help them understand that, as improbable as it may seem, an angel—a Bible—is probably in their midst and in their charge. This holy messenger should not be rejected as an annoyance or treated as an extraordinary intrusion into ordinary, selfish, petty lives; but should be appreciated as a tremendous blessing. One interpretation of García Márquez’s message seems clear: a divine, ancient messenger seeks lodging in a human heart to impart the enormous wings of wisdom to every willing, childlike soul.
Faris, Wendy B. Ordinary Enchantments; Magical Realism and the Remystification of Narrative. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2004.
García Márquez, Gabriel. “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” Trans. Gregory Rabassa. The Norton Introduction to Literature. Ed. Alison Booth, J. Paul Hunter, and Kelly J Mays. 9th ed. New York: W. W. Norton , 2006. 451-455.
The New American Standard Bible. John MacArthur, gen. ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.
Roh, Franz. “Magical Realism: Post-Expressionism.” 1925. Magical Realism. Ed. L. P. Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 15-32. “Magical Realism: Definitions.” Arizona State University. By Alberto Ríos. 23 May 2002. 8 Sept. 2008. <http://www.public.asu.edu/~aarios/resourcebank/definitions>.
Strong, James. “Angel.” The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.