“His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience.”(830)
Gabriel García Márquez was born March 6, 1927 in Colombia, a country inundated with Roman Catholic ecclesiology, and grew up under the care of his grandmother who gave him “a deep reservoir of folkloric knowledge about omens, premonitions, dead ancestors and ghosts.”(“Gabriel García Márquez – Biography”) His story, A Very Old Man, was published in 1955 during La Violencia (1948-1958), a period of turmoil “whose reverberations still haunt Colombia today.(“The Independent”) Of note is the fact that during this conflict “Garcia Marquez fled Bogota and the Violence when his boarding house burned down, [and] rejoined his family in the coastal city of Cartagena.”(“The Independent“)
This paper assumes the story is an allegory, and thus, when looking at four of the characters (i.e. Pelayo, Elisenda, Father Gonzagos, and the unnamed neighbor) as well as the role of the old man, will discuss things from two directions: the literal meaning and an interpretation of the hidden meaning as it appears to the reader. Finally, we will examine the role of angelology in this work.
The first of these characters which we will assess is the unnamed neighbor, a crone who believes the old man to be a “fugitive survivor of a celestial conspiracy”(828) who has come “for the child,”(828) and advises that his rescuers “club him to death”.(828) Paradoxically, she is also the fount of wisdom from whom we learn what the “food prescribed for the angels”(830) is. That is, when the family is trying to help the old man remain alive through corporeal means, she is the provider of relevant information to facilitate this.
Much like the stereotypical crone she is depicted as the repository of the ancient folklore needed to navigate life, this status further strengthened by the fact that she remains conspicuously nameless, and evokes images of Márquez’s grandmother telling him ‘fantastical’ stories in a deadpan manner. However, the information she provides can not be taken at face value. While she seems to be correct when declaring “He’s an angel”(828), the narrator using this very word at the end of the story, her opinion that angel’s eat mothballs is to be rejected as the old man “turned them down,”(830) and in the end “ate nothing but eggplant mush”.(830) From this one may opine that, while folklore is helpful, something else needs to be coupled with it to ensure that one does not fall into error. Unmoored from higher moral truths it will as easily kill an innocent as give him/her food.
The second character we will look at is Father Gonzaga who is painted in stark contrast to those onlookers who dreamed of making the old man “mayor of the world”(829) or “five-star general in order to win all wars”(829). His designation as priest who “reviewed his catechism in an instant”(829) is counterbalanced by the assertion that he “had been a robust woodcutter”(829), something which we assume has a role to play in his nonchalant appraisal of the situation. Utilizing reason and theology, he comes to the conclusion that the old man is no angel, and warns the masses against being too innocent and unsuspecting (i.e. gullible).
Caught up in a bureaucratic morass as he attempts to get an official seal on his proclamation, he only gets relief from his insomnia when the spider woman, a more corporeal and human miracle, usurps the old man’s place. Whereas the nameless crone’s word is taken as the truth, more or less, Father Gonzaga faces outright dismissal, his vast stores of knowledge, a coupling of the mundane and esoteric, not quiet enough to hold back the ignorant masses. In him we find a metaphor for authority that is hampered by needless quibbling and thus unable to meet the needs of the people, as well as a critique of what President Cleveland’s Consul at Manila, Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb (b. 1847), called “church-Christianity”.(Russell Webb 68)
Elisade, a hard working mother “her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash”(829), is deeply concerned for the welfare of her family. Initially, like her husband, she “skips the inconvenience of the wings”(828) and believes that the old man is a “lonely castaway”(828), and in spite of the crone’s advice does not possess “the heart to club him to death.”(828)
These fledgling feelings of magnanimity do not last long though. Shortly after Father Gonzaga’s ‘prudence fell on sterile hearts”(829) and “troops… with fixed bayonets… disperse the mob”(829), we find Elisenda getting the “idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel.”(829) That is, despite believing the old man is not a devil but an angelic being of heavenly origin, she decides to make money off of him, and meets his departure with ambivalence. Márquez, “[a]lways a convinced socialist and ant-imperialist,”(“The Independent”) deploys this character in a manner that brings to mind the capitalist notion that wealth be earned by any means, no matter how profane. We also find here the recurring motif of need disconnected from the moral truths of religion.
In Pelayo we find another view, that of the everyman, plugging along diligently as he ignores matters extraneous to his corporeal existence. He toils in plain sight, “throw[ing] [crabs] into the seat”(828) to help his child, watching over the suspicious old man “all afternoon from the kitchen, armed with his bailiff’s club,”(828) only feeling magnanimous towards the stranger when his “child woke up without a fever and with a desire to eat.”(828)
Notably, even though he is not the originator of the plot to exploit what is ostensibly an angel, he does not object to it, and beyond a perfunctory attempt at providing some semblance of shelter for this “lonely castaway”(828) seems to ignore this enigmatic being who is openly pulling unlooked for blessings into his house. He appears as a more concrete metaphor of the ordinary man (in the Old English sense of the word), as opposed to the villagers who present as a faceless mob. In Pelayo we find the ingenuous plebeian who is so engrossed in earthly pleasures and the corporeal that the miracles in front of him are overlooked.
Márquez (d. 2014) has written this story in the genre of Magical Realism, which is “a literary genre or style associated especially with Latin America that incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction.”(“Merriam-Webster”) In this story Márquez has plopped a celestial being in the guise of decaying flesh on a simple family, declared his purpose, and let things run their course. Some have seen in this allegory “a commentary on the events of Colombia,”(”Márquez’s A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings and Bambara’s The Lesson”) and I would agree, but I think it noteworthy that it is couched in religious terminology. The author repeatedly refers to the nameless old man as an angel, utilizes various characters to confirm this, and emphatically reiterates this notion as he closes the story. The old man may even fit the description of an angel according to the theological dogma of other religions, and thus quiet nicely fulfills the role of guardian angel for the child who miraculously finds himself healthy and in the lap of affluence.
However, I also see in it a depiction of the following: “Say: If there were angels walking calmly in the earth We would have surely sent an angel from the sky as a messenger.” What is spelled out here, as the Qur’ānic exegesis Ibn Kathīr mentions is that “if God had sent to humans messengers that were angels they would not be able to converse with them nor take from them.”(17:121)
The theological dogma of Islām describes those celestial beings as “bodies soft like air who are capable of assuming varying shapes [by God’s permission], possessing two, three and four wings; their dwelling place being in the sky (i.e. the abode of majority of them).”(Ibn Sūltān Muḥammad 12) In addition to Jibrīl, Mikā’īl, Isrāfīl, Izrā’Īl, peace be upon them, there are countless others “in [the] heavens and on earth [who] are appointed to do different tasks.”(Kifāyatullāh 3:8) Furthermore, these noble beings who are “pure of the quality of masculinity and femininity,”(Ibn Sūltān Muḥammad 12) are such that they “do what He commands, are infallible and do not disobey God.”(Ibn Sūltān Muḥammad 12) One may imagine the trouble humanity would have with following the example of genderless beings bereft of human needs and desires.
Fortunately, as Ibn Kathīr mentions in the sentence preceding the above quotation, “God says, bringing attention to His gentleness and mercy with His Slaves, that he sent messengers who were of their species so that they would be able to understand them.”(17:21) These humans, though Divinely protected from sins, had families, slept, and “used to eat food, and walk in the marketplaces”.(Qurān)
For the sake of brevity we will not delve into the details of how waḥī (Divine revelation) operates in Islāmic theology, and focus on the fact that a human connection is needed to facilitate the understanding and practical implementation of revelation. In the inscrutable nature of the old man we see this concept being played out. Leave aside the old man’s actions, the incomprehensible miracles, and a baffling physicality that has the doctor believing he should be dead, even his “hermetic language”(830) is a barrier to communication.
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