Weekly Reads: A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

At the beginning of this year I promised myself I would start reading more – something I always say but easily get distracted from. Unfortunately I am a slow reader. Novels take me longer than they should and they often feel like a chore. But I was committed to my promise of reading more, so I decided to focus on short stories instead. It was an easy way to explore new styles and writers I hadn’t been introduced to yet, and it also felt less daunting than that giant stack of books I keep avoiding.

With the ever-growing list of short stories I’m reading, I’ve decided to regularly share them here with a Weekly Reads post. I’ll talk about some of my favorites and what they’re teaching me about writing.

First up is a story I read in January: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” by Gabriel García Márquez. It was the first Marquez story I ever read, and I fell in love with him from the title alone. Three months into 2019 and it is still one of my favorites out of the 60+ stories I’ve read so far.

Marquez, a Colombian writer born in 1927, was a part of the Latin American boom of literature in the 60s and 70s. In 1982 he won the Nobel Prize for literature, and he has been cited as one of the most significant authors of the 20th century. He wrote numerous short stories and novellas, but he is perhaps most well-known for his novel 100 Years of Solitude (which has been in my To Be Read pile forever).

Marquez has a very exploratory way of writing. In fact, he said that he never tries to stick to one style:

In every book I try to take a different path… One doesn’t choose the style. You can investigate and try to discover what the best style would be for a theme. But the style is determined by the subject, by the mood of the times. If you try to use something that is not suitable, it just won’t work.”

Although I have only read three short stories by Marquez, I’m already inspired by his flexible approach and his willingness to try new techniques. He explores the boundaries of reality and mythology, weaving in the ever-present theme of solitude. He has a unique way of breathing new life into the simplest things and revealing it with the use of magical realism.

Magical realism is a literary movement that uses the supernatural as an ordinary part of reality. The most fantastical elements become a mundane part of everyday life. It’s extremely popular in Latin American writing, and many readers are introduced to it through the works of Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges.

In “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” magical realism flows through the entire story, starting with the very first paragraph. One day during a storm, a family discovers an old man lying in the mud in their backyard:

“He had to go very close to see that it was 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.”

This man’s wings are mentioned in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems totally normal. Of course he has wings, why wouldn’t he? That’s the power of magical realism; it brings the most magical ideas down to our regular life.

Unfortunately for this old man, his wings are in such terrible condition that he can’t get out of the mud and fly away:

“His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud.”

A neighbor woman who knows “everything about life and death” comes by and plainly tells the family that he is an angel. The family puts him in a chicken coop in their yard, and the entire town comes by to check him out. They prod and stare at him, waiting to be entertained by this caged creature that is completely apathetic to its surroundings. But the town is soon distracted by a different attraction: a traveling show featuring a sad girl who was turned into a spider because she disobeyed her parents.

I was instantly captivated by the way Marquez mixes the natural with the supernatural. There is this sense that we take the most beautiful parts of life for granted; we aren’t impressed by even the most magical things, but in some way we still expect them to happen. It feels similar to reading old fables or mythology, and yet it is so relevant to modern life. To me, these elements make it feel like the classic idea of a story.

I hope I can replicate some of Marquez’s insights and curiosity into my own writing. He has such a unique perspective on life, and I want to share my own through similar fantastic story elements. I have only read three of his short stories so far, and there is still so much of him I want to explore. Just looking at some of his other titles already has me intrigued:

  • Bitterness of Three Sleepwalkers
  • Nabo: The Black Man Who Made the Angels Wait
  • The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World
  • The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother

So I will keep studying the work of Gabriel García Márquez and hopefully pick up on some of his brilliance. I will read more of his short stories and novellas, and I will finally attack my TBR pile with his masterpiece 100 Years of Solitude. In the meantime, I highly encourage you to read “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” here or in this collection of his stories.

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