By David A. King, Ph.D. | Published June 1, 2021
In his 1982 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez said that he longed for a world without hatred and violence, “where no one decides for others how they die and where love will prove true and happiness be possible.” As we all know, this ideal is not easy to achieve.
Over the past several weeks, the New Testament readings in the daily liturgy have come from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel According to St. John. They feature not only the miraculous Ascension of Jesus into Heaven, but also Christ’s repeated promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit and his frequent distinction between the world of God and the world of men.
Jesus tells his Apostles in John’s Gospel that “In the world, you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world.” He says to the Father that “I gave them your word, and the world hated them because they do not belong to the world anymore than I belong to the world.”
The Catholic and Beat writer Jack Kerouac once wrote in his journal, “The world really does not matter, but God has made it so, and so it matters in God, and He Hath Aims for it, which we cannot know without the understanding of obedience. There is nothing to do but give praise. This is my ethic of art and why so.”
The Gospel readings and the Kerouac quote put me in mind of stories about how we so often overlook grace, even when it is right in front of us. They made me think that because we have a conception of what the miraculous should look like, we often miss our chance at mystery because of preconceived notions. Grace is everywhere, but the world often misses it, because rather than giving praise we critique and argue. In our debate over minutiae, we miss the big picture.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s wonderful 1955 story “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is a perfect example of how these themes operate. The story is about an angel of mercy, yet no one fully understands this fact until he vanishes from their midst.
Marquez was born in 1928 in Colombia and died in Mexico City in 2014. At his death, he was considered to be the greatest Colombian artist of all time and one of the finest writers in world literature. He was associated with the “Latin American Boom” of the 1960s and 1970s, a renaissance in Latin American literature that also included Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz. At the heart of Marquez’s work there are constant themes that occur at the center of all the Latin American literature in the Boom: a stylistic hallmark of Magic Realism, the blend of the fantastic and the actual in settings that seem at once strange and familiar; a fascination with myth and religion, particularly Roman Catholicism in which most of these writers, including Marquez, were raised; and the theme of solitude, the paradox of the individual feeling alone or misunderstood in a vast yet impersonal society or bureaucracy.
A master of the short story
Marquez’s best-known work remains the 1967 novel “100 Years of Solitude,” which is a masterpiece not only of Latin American literature, but of world literature. Faulknerian in its scope (Marquez was fascinated by William Faulkner), the novel is a perfect example of an imagined location becoming a symbol of universal truth.
Yet like many great novelists, Marquez was also a master of the short story, and “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is certainly one of his best. Subtitled, almost winkingly, as “A Tale for Children,” the story provides a small example of the hallmarks of the Boom while also affirming the presence of grace in the midst of the ordinary and profane.
Marquez makes clear that though some of the characters in the story don’t understand him, the old man is meant to be seen as an angel. And the story is full of mythic and religious motifs. Indeed, the first few words of the story, “On the third day of rain …,” clearly and suddenly immerses us in the realm of both the Resurrection and the Flood.
The angel appears at the home of Pelayo and Elisenda, whose baby is sick with fever, and whose home is overrun with crabs because of the flooding rains. The world in which they live is sad and gray, and it is into this bleak landscape that there lands “an old man, a very old man, lying face down in the mud, who, in spite of his tremendous efforts, couldn’t get up, impeded by his enormous wings.”
A wise old neighbor woman gives the old man one look and declares, “He’s an angel. He must have been coming for the child.” Whether she means that the angel was coming either to take or save the child, we don’t know; her blend of certainty and ambiguity are an important aspect of the story’s overall tone. Her matter-of-fact acceptance—the only such belief we see in the story—represents truth: grace exists in the everyday world; how it chooses to operate is a mystery.
The responses to the angel are varied and absurd. One simpleton wants to make the angel “mayor of the world.” Another wants to name him a “five-star general in order to win all wars.” Some imagine “putting him to stud in order to implant the earth a race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe.” The parish priest is not convinced of the angel’s legitimacy since he doesn’t speak Latin, yet nonetheless he sets in motion an ecclesiastical inquiry process that goes all the way to the Vatican and back without anything being established.
A late realization
In the meantime, few notice that “the child woke up without a fever and with a desire to eat.” Pelayo and Elisenda find fortune. The child grows up healthy and bright. Yet all the while, the village considers the angel “as if it weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.” When a real circus arrives in town later, a bizarre spider woman takes precedence. “A spectacle like that, full of so much human truth and with such a fearful lesson, was bound to defeat without even trying that of a haughty angel who scarcely deigned to look at mortals.” Because the angel embodies solitude and patience rather than the spectacular, he is quickly cast off in favor of a carnival sideshow. Ironically, the villagers see the spider woman as “providential.” The angel is just an annoyance.
Throughout the story, the angel is tormented. The curious onlookers poke him and prod him and toss him garbage to eat. He is kept in a chicken coop. Yet through all the abuse, “he tolerates the most ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who has no illusions.”
What becomes clear to the reader is that the angel prolongs his stay for a few primary reasons. For one, he wants to heal and nurture the child, in which he succeeds. He also wants to bless Pelayo and Elisenda. And, after all, he needs to heal himself. As time passes, the angel grows stronger, and develops the ability to be in different places at the same time. Tragically, as the angel’s presence grows more pervasive, Elisenda becomes “exasperated and unhinged, shouting that it is awful living in that hell full of angels.” That denunciation causes a severe regression in the angel’s health, yet again over time, he manages to heal.
So it is that one day, the angel makes his first awkward attempts at flight. The only one who witnesses his departure is Elisenda who watches him, and keeps watching him “until it was no longer possible for her to see him, because then he was no longer an annoyance in her life but an imaginary dot on the horizon of the sea.”
Too late, she seems now to realize what she’s missed. The implication, a wonderful example of a writer showing rather than telling, is that too late she realizes she has been the recipient of a miracle.
Marquez subtitles the story “A Tale for Children” because he suggests, as Jesus did, that to understand the Kingdom of Heaven, one must have the innocence of a child. Thus, in tilting at windmills, Cervantes’ Don Quixote affirms imagination over logic. Shakespeare’s Hamlet says wisely that “There are more things in Heaven and Earth than dreamt of in your philosophy.” Yet the Letter to the Hebrews puts it best, and Marquez must have surely had it in mind: “Forget not to show love unto strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unaware.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.