The very brevity of a good short story makes for an intense, concentrated experience, one that lingers in the memory even if the story itself is never revisited. The Colombian author and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez’ ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ is, simply put, unforgettable. Its title promises a fable, as does its deliberate subtitle – ‘A Tale for Children’. And the author certainly draws upon the kind of tale one is told or reads in childhood: those narratives populated by big, bold beings (bigger and bolder than mere ‘characters’), in settings sketched out in broad, dramatic strokes. But Márquez also executes here his own very sophisticated signature combination of the fantastical and the everyday.

The physical world of the story is overwhelming: the unrelenting rains of the opening, the crabs that flood Pelayo and Elisenda’s humble home, the darkness that descends at noon. It is on such a day when “sea and sky were a single ash-gray” that Pelayo stumbles over a moving, groaning thing in his backyard, which on closer examination proves to be the titular old man with enormous wings, lying face down in the mud and unable to get up. He can speak, but in an “incomprehensible dialect in a strong sailor’s voice.”

Such a phenomenon cannot, should not be kept secret and Márquez brings the buzzing, bewildered world into the province of his story. A decision is made: this strange being is an angel. The deadpan narrative voice sketches out the range of responses to him: he should be clubbed to death; he should be put on a raft and put out in the high seas; he should be made a five-star general. He is a freakish curiosity at whom food is thrown through the openings in the wire of the chicken coop where he is confined; he is burned with an iron used for branding; when a sick child starts feeling better, he becomes the object of worship (although he puzzlingly does not understand Latin as angels surely should); the somewhat sceptical local priest continues to harbour some doubts and writes a letter that would hopefully make its way to the Pope, who would advise on what exactly is to be done. Márquez brilliantly mingles the horrific with the comic, the moving with the absurd.

‘A Very Old Man…’ makes one accept the incredible as most normal and also makes one expand one’s understanding of what constitutes the real.”

The language is vivid and stark when the sheer physicality of the angel is described: he looks like a “huge, decrepit hen among the chickens”; his huge buzzard wings are “entangled in mud” and “strewn with parasites”; he has an “unbearable smell”; a doctor is astonished at “the whistling in his heart.” And yet somehow, in spite of all this, or perhaps because of all this, there is something grand, certainly larger than life about him. Simultaneously, the reader is reminded of the poverty and hardship of the simple people who find themselves hosts to an angel: their cramped house and Elisenda’s spine, twisted from non-stop sweeping. But they don’t stay poor for long. In the manner of fairy tales and fables, the humble folk find their lives transformed by the supernatural visitor – Pelayo and Elisenda grow rich with the money they collect from those who flock to see the angel.

As in all of his work, Márquez has the magical easily coexist with the mundane – the mark of his famous magic realism, what Michael Bell has described as “a psychological suppleness which is able to inhabit unsentimentally the daytime world while remaining open to the promptings of those domains which modern culture has, by its own inner logic, necessarily marginalized or repressed.” ‘A Very Old Man…’ makes one accept the incredible as most normal and also makes one expand one’s understanding of what constitutes the real. A doctor who examines the angel is most impressed by the wings, which is of course what one would expect. But it’s not the extraordinariness of the wings that strikes the doctor, but it is their “logic”, the fact they are so natural and organic a part of this being who is, apart from this feature, a completely ordinary human being. The doctor departs, less confounded by the wings than by the fact that other men “didn’t have them too.” This reassessment of the rational, of the very nature of the real, is a striking moment in the story. Why, indeed, should humans not have wings?

‘A Very Old Man…’ is just a couple of pages long, but gives the impression of a large, bold canvas: things change, time passes, the drama never ever gets subsumed in a swirl of detail. The conclusion of a short story is, in my opinion, the most important part of it and the most challenging part to execute – if well done, it explains why the story has to be, well, a short story rather than be a longer piece. Márquez’ conclusion is brilliant. The opening of the story has Pelayo alone with the newly-found angel; the middle has a number of characters – visitors, commentators, worshippers – thickly inhabiting the story, crowding it. At the end, Márquez clears the stage once more, leaving only Elisenda and the angel. It is a quiet, even intimate moment, as she watches him make his first attempts at flight ever since he came to them. Marquez’ description is vivid, but deliberately down to earth: the aged angel’s attempts are awkward, “his fingernails open a furrow in the vegetable patch”, his “ungainly flapping… slipped on the light and couldn’t get a grip in the air.” But he does gain altitude and moves higher and higher till he is just no more than “an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.” At this moment, more than any other, he becomes a thing transcendental. And all along, Elisenda chops onions for the meal she is preparing and watches him disappear. And the reader is left feeling saddened, puzzled, even a little reverential.

Brinda Charry was born in Chennai, moved to the US in 1999, and now lives in New Hampshire with her husband and dog. She is a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist. A specialist in English Renaissance literature (Shakespeare and contemporaries), she has published a number of books and articles in that field. Her novel The East Indian was inspired by a one-line entry in colonial records mentioning the first Indian to set foot on American soil: “Tony East Indian”. It is out now from Scribe (UK, Australia and New Zealand), Scribner (USA and Canada) and Harper Collins India.
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Author photo by Lisa Arnold