This article is part of our series about the four stories not included in The Weird. See the Four Stories introduction for more information. — The Editors
“The world had been sad since Tuesday.”
Reading the stories of Gabriel García Márquez reveals that we have been incomplete all this time. A delirious current of imagination and critique runs like live electricity through the masterful Colombian writer’s prose, and his stories envelop readers in a sensual and richly affective world where all stray details, all passing observations, and all chance descriptions contribute to something generous, wise, and powerfully weird. His is a world where the stray, the passing, and the chance take centre stage. (Cue our bedraggled old man with sorry wings.) My advice to approaching such richness is to be aware of critical appellations, but also to engage with the stories on their own terms. Magic realism, the term most often used to describe García Márquez, has many definitions. We should at least know that the Colombian’s penchant for blending fabulous and fantastical with the heartrendingly real can be traced to the children’s stories his grandmother would tell him when he was young. That disclaimer made, allow me to present you with today’s offering by way of a wish to have it included in the weird fiction canon: “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes” / “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” (in Gregory Rabassa’s translation).
What we have is a children’s story about a place warped by sadness and visited by a distressed, lost Daedalus. It bears comparison with Franz Kafka’s best fables, Herman Melville’s shortest stories, and Angela Carter’s dangerous fantasies (or, equally as good, those of Silvina Ocampo). Yet its vibrant colour is all its own. It is – and I’m looking at you, weird reader – a story deeply imbricated in the febrile plenitude of fiction’s constitutive strangeness and in the complex relationship we as humans have with ambiguity and with each other. That sounds like a tall order but it’s a very simple draw. Like so much of García Márquez’s writing the story aches with a luxurious language of sadness and beauty. Let me rephrase my sales pitch, then. The story is a marvel and a wonder.
“Against the judgement of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angels in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they did not have the heart to club him to death.”
To begin, who is our eponymous figure? An angel? An old man? A movie star or a dramatic actor? (Let’s not get distracted by the adaptations of this tale in film, in 1988, and on the stage, in 2002 and then in 2005.) He’s got wings but little will to use them. Perhaps he is Daedalus, the great artificer who flew with his son Icarus on self-devised wings – the father who saw his son fall to sea and drown in the same wings he made. The old man speaks neither Latin nor Spanish but some “hermetic” tongue. (Although I silently implore Father Gonzaga to address him in Greek, the meddlesome priest does not even oblige a response.) Perhaps the old man is the angel of death, as the neighbor suggests, his wings the ragged remnants of heavenly garb. He is – this is certain – the narrative pretext for the villagers’ actions: his aberrant nature and abrupt presence precipitate events of passing strangeness. Answers are not forthcoming from the story itself. Readers must draw their own conclusions.
“The simplest among them thought that he should be named mayor of the world.”
Never mistake the simpleminded for silliness. There have been worse politicians than incomprehensible foreigners. To be led by signs or ciphers – our angel raving in a sailor’s voice – is the fate of all readers. If there is in our old man a sign mistaken for a wonder, then, as his changing fortunes demonstrate, the villagers bear him little allegiance. (Beware the competing spectacle of a spider woman!) The story raises a question: to what degree are people led by the spectacular and the strange, only to capriciously and suddenly shift their allegiances and interest? You would not be mistaken to hear faint if distorted echoes of Guy Debord. What should our relationship with the clearly inexplicable be? This is the territory speculative fiction charts; in it, the weird overlaps with magical realism to create a magnetic, alluring relationship asking us to evaluate our perspective on things we don’t understand. An old man with enormous wings is a thing to be seen, but is he a sign of political allegiances? Is he something less than that? Something more? Perhaps he is just an old man with wings.
“The curious came from far away.”
Readers and not critics are the best agent provocateurs of recalcitrant fantasies, just as those interested in the old man and his wings come from great distances to get a look for themselves. We all need physical immediacy to gawk and marvel. It’s worth taking a minute to understand where we’ve come to, however, and place the story in its moment of origin.“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” was first published in the pages of the New American Review (1955), much before the majority of his work and twelve years before One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), probably the most familiar of his stories. Some critics point to La Violencia, a tumultuously violent time in Colombian history, as the key to understanding the actions of the community composed of Pelayo, Elisenda, Father Gonzago, and the rest of the vaguely cruel villagers. Thus, as John Goodwin argues in Explicator (2006), the story reflects the influence of religion and political instability in social crises.
García Márquez wrote “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” long before his Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), itself a novel which exposes the pathology and fascism of tyranny in its centroamericano or suramericano guises (norteamericanos do tyranny differently). Nonetheless, the endeavours have a certain resonance. Quoting from the United States Government Printing Office’s Area Handbook for El Salvador in her own Salvador (1982/3), Joan Didion provides some illuminating passages about General Maximiliano Hermández Martínez, El Salvador’s tyrant from 1931 to 1944 and an inspiration for Autumn of the Patriarch. “He kept bottles of colored water that he dispensed as cures for almost any disease, including cancer and heart trouble, and relied on complex magical formulas for the solution of national problems,” one sample goes. Another: “During an epidemic of smallpox in the capital, he attempted to halt its spread by stringing the city with a web of colored lights.” Any magic realism or weird fiction does not far diverge from the Colombian writer’s chosen antagonist: political reality. As Didion concludes in Salvador, “I began to see Gabriel García Márquez in a new light, as a social realist” (59). It is for this reason that, in his 1982 essay “The Critic and Society,” Wole Soyinka describes García Márquez’s work as a “haunting fusion of magic and revolutionary history.” We would not be far off to read this early story along similar lines.
And yet the story is not as simple as mere political allegory. Look at the brilliant lines of feverish dream with which the angel’s entrance changes the villagers’ lives. Remember the airs and sounds of the sea; remember Pelayo and his many dead crabs. Magical realism – the weirdness in which García Márquez’s story is deeply imbued – disrupts the political intractability of fiction’s traditional relationship with its social origins, but that disruption retains and even clarifies a hard nub of political violence and communal ethics. Weird fiction sets itself out against a particular milieu of social, literary, and political influences but does not cut its ties to the world as we know it.
“The angel was the only one who took no part in his own act.”
The mystery of the old man with enormous wings remains intact. Our be-winged Bartleby is no allegory; Gabriel García Márquez is no John Bunyan. Remember if you will, and only briefly, Melville’s great character Bartleby from “Bartleby the Scrivener” (1853). (The continental affiliations between these two American literary giants are powerful.) In that story, a man whose only forlorn utterance is the inimical “I would prefer not to” moves from a dead letter office to an early grave in a mental hospital. Along the way he betrays deep philosophical differences with the milieu in which he is placed and with the literary carriage that carries him. At one point many commentators read Bartleby as a clinically depressed man, but nothing could be further from the truth, as readers attuned to the weird should see clearly. Bartleby is strange. Better yet he is estranged. His refusal of the demands to which his interlocutors attempt to interpellate him delineates a clear space of non-possibility, a space of freedom in an age whose possibilities have been thoroughly colonized by the Wall Street of Melville’s short story. So too does our old man with wings refuse the explanatory allure of allegory. He proves utterly unreadable and alien to the villagers who at one point, with the pointless violence of those easily bored and lacking any critical conscience, cruelly brand his side. (Knock on the glass at the zoo, kid; wake that snake up from its sleep.) Like Bartleby, the old man with wings is weirdly different. He is of and only himself.
“His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience.”
These introductory remarks must draw to a close. The old man waits, lending his body to the townspeople’s amusements and depredations in what García Márquez describes as “a cataclysm in repose.” Our story patiently waits to bear meaning for its interpreters. The parallels hold but should not frighten us. Daedalus gave Ariadne the key to the maze he had created; before that, he built for her a dancing floor. García Márquez has given us something elusive and ethereal, but its brief and elusive reading has a strength which novels and epics would strain to match. Like the old man the story can give us much, if we give it mind. Draw your own interpretations. García Márquez’s world is vast. I invite you to enter in, once again.