A few months ago I wrote about Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings. I started that review mentioning how I’d read the story and couldn’t stop thinking about it. Six months later and I’m thinking about it still. This story rings bells in my subconscious that are difficult to ferret out, yet impossible to ignore.
A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes) is widely anthologized and available free online, in English here and Spanish here. If, like me, you are perpetually learning Spanish, here’s something straightforward to read side-by-side. It was written in 1955 and included in Leaf Storm (La Hojarasca), Marquez’s collection of short stories and a novella (also La Hojarasca) published in the same year.
The story is simple. An old man, battered and muddied, completely ordinary except for his enormous wings (in no better shape than the rest of him), shows up in Pelayo and Elisenda’s courtyard one day. They reluctantly take charge of him, put aside their first inclination to club him to death, and second inclination to put him out to sea on a raft, and confine him to their chicken coop. Soon the neighbors decide he’s an angel. The ensuing onslaught of visitors is overwhelming, until Elisenda conceives an idea to charge a paltry admission. This scheme nets her and Pelayo a fortune, which they use to build a new house, but not a new chicken coop. They keep the old man in the same decrepit building until it falls down and he’s moved to another shed. He continues to live with them, slipping into their house enough to annoy Elisenda. Presently, when they believe he could hardly deteriorate into worse condition without dying, he begins to regrow feathers. Soon he lifts himself off the ground on faltering wings, and flies away.
What is so captivating about this charming story I find myself returning to it? It must be the character of the old man. Angels hold a prominent place in Christian mythology. I, like many, harbor dim memories of Christmas pageants. In fact, I may have played an angel in one. It’s likely there are connections rattling around my subconscious that link angelhood to happy mysteries of early childhood. But, this angel is a decrepit old man, with shabby wings and missing teeth. How can the happy mysteries of childhood connect to the slow deterioration of old age?
It is the genius of magical realism to connect such unlikely partners, and therein lies the explanation for my return to the story. In this unlikely association of childlike spark of fascination with mature regard for inevitable decay, certain realizations arise. Elisenda watching the angel disappear into the distant sky is anyone watching his innocent dreams fade, regretting his life’s unrealized opportunities, accepting mundane reality in the places where celestial ideals once held sway.