Close Reading & Writing Exercises
by Jordan Hartt
“A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” was first published in Colombia under the title “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes,” and subtitled “A tale for children.” The story first appeared in the United States in 1972.
The story is one of the most famous examples of the writing technique of “magical realism,” in which seemingly fantastical events are related in a mundane, everyday tone.
Reading As a Writer: “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” by Gabriel García Márquez
Note: there are many, many writing exercises suggested in this close reading, designed to put into practice the story’s craft techniques. There are too many to do all: pick and choose the ones that appeal to you as practice exercises, for the purpose of generating new work of our own!
On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross his drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench. The world had been sad since Tuesday. Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish. The light was so weak at noon that when Pelayo was coming back to the house after throwing away the crabs, it was hard for him to see what it was that was moving and groaning in the rear of the courtyard. 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.
The narrative voice being set up right from the outset is of an omniscient, fairy-tale-type narrator who knows everything, and can use any point of view.
Written after the publication of his magical-realist novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” this story is subtitled in a way that claims it is for children (although, is it?), a technique to give Gabo the freedom to allow for the fantastical.
Although we’re cued by the title to expect miraculous things, the narrative proceeds in a fairly realistic pace until we get to the phrase: “impeded by his enormous wings.”
Writing exercise: write an opening paragraph whose final sentence completely sends the story in a new direction. In this case, it’s the use of magical realism. But what else could that sentence do, in your case?
Frightened by that nightmare, Pelayo ran to get Elisenda, his wife, who was putting compresses on the sick child, and he took her to the rear of the courtyard. They both looked at the fallen body with a mute stupor. He was dressed like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had. His huge buzzard wings, dirty and half-plucked, were forever entangled in the mud. They looked at him so long and so closely that Pelayo and Elisenda very soon overcame their surprise and in the end found him familiar. Then they dared speak to him, and he answered in an incomprehensible dialect with a strong sailor’s voice. That was how they skipped over the inconvenience of the wings and quite intelligently concluded that he was a lonely castaway from some foreign ship wrecked by the storm. And yet, they called in a neighbor woman who knew everything about life and death to see him, and all she needed was one look to show them their mistake.
“He’s an angel,” she told them. “He must have been coming for the child, but the poor fellow is so old that the rain knocked him down.”
The hallmark of magical realism is, linguistically, in how the seemingly fantastical is related through everyday, quotidian language. It was also often used by writers in the post-colonial or developing worlds, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, as a way for their characters to address truths in their lives that they couldn’t say directly. Gabriel García Márquez often said that the trick of magical realism was in the details: the more specific the “magic” (in this case, note the specific descriptions of the old man), the more believable the story would be.
Gabriel García Márquez himself found it amusing that Western audiences were so enthralled by his magical realist techniques. “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination,” he once said, “while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
Writing exercise: Write a magical-realist story of only 300 words. Have something fantastical happen, but be very specific and concrete about the details.
On the following day everyone knew that a flesh-and-blood angel was held captive in Pelayo’s house. Against the judgment of the wise neighbor woman, for whom angels in those times were the fugitive survivors of a celestial conspiracy, they did not have the heart to club him to death. Pelayo watched over him all afternoon from the kitchen, armed with his bailiff’s club, and before going to bed he dragged him out of the mud and locked him up with the hens in the wire chicken coop. In the middle of the night, when the rain stopped, Pelayo and Elisenda were still killing crabs. A short time afterward the child woke up without a fever and with a desire to eat. Then they felt magnanimous and decided to put the angel on a raft with fresh water and provisions for three days and leave him to his fate on the high seas. But when they went out into the courtyard with the first light of dawn, they found the whole neighborhood in front of the chicken coop having fun with the angel, without the slightest reverence, tossing him things to eat through the openings in the wire as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.
Father Gonzaga arrived before seven o’clock, alarmed at the strange news. By that time onlookers less frivolous than those at dawn had already arrived and they were making all kinds of conjectures concerning the captive’s future. The simplest among them thought that he should be named mayor of the world. Others of sterner mind felt that he should be promoted to the rank of five-star general in order to win all wars. Some visionaries hoped that he could be put to stud in order to implant the earth a race of winged wise men who could take charge of the universe. But Father Gonzaga, before becoming a priest, had been a robust woodcutter. Standing by the wire, he reviewed his catechism in an instant and asked them to open the door so that he could take a close look at that pitiful man who looked more like a huge decrepit hen among the fascinated chickens. He was lying in the corner drying his open wings in the sunlight among the fruit peels and breakfast leftovers that the early risers had thrown him. Alien to the impertinences of the world, he only lifted his antiquarian eyes and murmured something in his dialect when Father Gonzaga went into the chicken coop and said good morning to him in Latin. The parish priest had his first suspicion of an imposter when he saw that he did not understand the language of God or know how to greet His ministers. Then he noticed that seen close up he was much too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels. Then he came out of the chicken coop and in a brief sermon warned the curious against the risks of being ingenuous. He reminded them that the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary. He argued that if wings were not the essential element in determining the different between a hawk and an airplane, they were even less so in the recognition of angels. Nevertheless, he promised to write a letter to his bishop so that the latter would write his primate so that the latter would write to the Supreme Pontiff in order to get the final verdict from the highest courts.
Note the continued use of specific detail, as well as the way that the author develops the characters of the town around him. Note that we never know whether or not he is an actual “angel,” and that the author allows each character to decide for themselves: we never know, for sure, and the perspectives of each character allows us to see their characterization. The central event (is the old man an angel or not) isn’t ever related for sure: the story becomes the town’s reactions to the miraculous, and not the miraculous itself.
Writing exercise: have a magical event happen, but people can’t agree on either the event itself, or even the meaning of the event.
His prudence fell on sterile hearts. The news of the captive angel spread with such rapidity that after a few hours the courtyard had the bustle of a marketplace and they had to call in troops with fixed bayonets to disperse the mob that was about to knock the house down. Elisenda, her spine all twisted from sweeping up so much marketplace trash, then got the idea of fencing in the yard and charging five cents admission to see the angel.
The curious came from far away. A traveling carnival arrived with a flying acrobat who buzzed over the crowd several times, but no one paid any attention to him because his wings were not those of an angel but, rather, those of a sidereal bat. The most unfortunate invalids on earth came in search of health: a poor woman who since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers; a Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him; a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake; and many others with less serious ailments. In the midst of that shipwreck disorder that made the earth tremble, Pelayo and Elisenda were happy with fatigue, for in less than a week they had crammed their rooms with money and the line of pilgrims waiting their turn to enter still reached beyond the horizon.
In this section, the miraculous opens up into other events and characters, putting the magical aspects of the old man into a kind of perspective of this wider world. All of it is related in the same quotidian, matter-of-fact way. Meanwhile, the story continues to develop: we see the increased wealth of Pelayo and Elisenda, and the real-world impact of the magical-world scenario set out at the beginning.
Writing exercise: frame a story using the above (second) paragraph as the model. story with a miraculous event. As in that paragraph, add magical events that help frame and supplement the original event. Close with noting the impact on the “real” world life of the characters. Other stories to read with this in mind would be “Magic Carpets,” by Steven Millhauser, as well as his story “A Visit”: how do magical events affect the characters’ real-world lives?
The angel was the only one who took no part in his own act. He spent his time trying to get comfortable in his borrowed nest, befuddled by the hellish heat of the oil lamps and sacramental candles that had been placed along the wire. At first they tried to make him eat some mothballs, which, according to the wisdom of the wise neighbor woman, were the food prescribed for angels. But he turned them down, just as he turned down the papal lunches that the pentinents brought him, and they never found out whether it was because he was an angel or because he was an old man that in the end ate nothing but eggplant mush. His only supernatural virtue seemed to be patience. Especially during the first days, when the hens pecked at him, searching for the stellar parasites that proliferated in his wings, and the cripples pulled out feathers to touch their defective parts with, and even the most merciful threw stones at him, trying to get him to rise so they could see him standing. The only time they succeeded in arousing him was when they burned his side with an iron for branding steers, for he had been motionless for so many hours that they thought he was dead. He awoke with a start, ranting in his hermetic language and with tears in his eyes, and he flapped his wings a couple of times, which brought on a whirlwind of chicken dung and lunar dust and a gale of panic that did not seem to be of this world. Although many thought that his reaction had not been one of rage but of pain, from then on they were careful not to annoy him, because the majority understood that his passivity was not that of a hero taking his ease but that of a cataclysm in repose.
Father Gonzaga held back the crowd’s frivolity with formulas of maidservant inspiration while awaiting the arrival of a final judgment on the nature of the captive. But the mail from Rome showed no sense of urgency. They spent their time finding out if the prisoner had a navel, if his dialect had any connection with Aramaic, how many times he could fit on the head of a pin, or whether he wasn’t just a Norwegian with wings. Those meager letters might have come and gone until the end of time if a providential event had not put and end to the priest’s tribulations.
These details continue to accumulate: the “magical” aspect of the old man with enormous wings being reduced to the granular details that accompany these kinds discussions of religious or spiritual issues by the folks who have those conversations. The focus of the story moves from the event itself to how the town/people in the town react to it, and the story really becomes about them, not the old man himself, although he, and the family in whose yard he landed, remains the central character.
It so happened that during those days, among so many other carnival attractions, there arrived in the town the traveling show of the woman who had been changed into a spider for having disobeyed her parents. The admission to see her was not only less than the admission to see the angel, but people were permitted to ask her all manner of questions about her absurd state and to examine her up and down so that no one would ever doubt the truth of her horror. She was a frightful tarantula the size of a ram and with the head of a sad maiden. What was most heartrending, however, was not her outlandish shape but the sincere affliction with which she recounted the details of her misfortune. While still practically a child she had sneaked out of her parents’ house to go to a dance, and while she was coming back through the woods after having danced all night without permission, a fearful thunderclap rent the sky in two and through the crack came the lightning bolt of brimstone that changed her into a spider. Her only nourishment came from the meatballs that charitable souls chose to toss into her mouth. 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. Besides, the few miracles attributed to the angel showed a certain mental disorder, like the blind man who didn’t recover his sight but grew three new teeth, or the paralytic who didn’t get to walk but almost won the lottery, and the leper whose sores sprouted sunflowers. Those consolation miracles, which were more like mocking fun, had already ruined the angel’s reputation when the woman who had been changed into a spider finally crushed him completely. That was how Father Gonzaga was cured forever of his insomnia and Pelayo’s courtyard went back to being as empty as during the time it had rained for three days and crabs walked through the bedrooms.
The owners of the house had no reason to lament. With the money they saved they built a two-story mansion with balconies and gardens and high netting so that crabs wouldn’t get in during the winter, and with iron bars on the windows so that angels wouldn’t get in. Pelayo also set up a rabbit warren close to town and gave up his job as a bailiff for good, and Elisenda bought some satin pumps with high heels and many dresses of iridescent silk, the kind worn on Sunday by the most desirable women in those times. The chicken coop was the only thing that didn’t receive any attention. If they washed it down with creolin and burned tears of myrrh inside it every so often, it was not in homage to the angel but to drive away the dungheap stench that still hung everywhere like a ghost and was turning the new house into an old one. At first, when the child learned to walk, they were careful that he not get too close to the chicken coop. But then they began to lose their fears and got used to the smell, and before they child got his second teeth he’d gone inside the chicken coop to play, where the wires were falling apart. The angel was no less standoffish with him than with the other mortals, but he tolerated the most ingenious infamies with the patience of a dog who had no illusions. They both came down with the chicken pox at the same time. The doctor who took care of the child couldn’t resist the temptation to listen to the angel’s heart, and he found so much whistling in the heart and so many sounds in his kidneys that it seemed impossible for him to be alive. What surprised him most, however, was the logic of his wings. They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.
The paragraph involving the woman transformed into the tarantula, while magical and fantastical in itself, is related mostly as the reason that the townspeople began to move on, away from the relatively boring old man with enormous wings–but that the owners of the house “had no reason to lament,” given all the money they’d accumulated.
When the child began school it had been some time since the sun and rain had caused the collapse of the chicken coop. The angel went dragging himself about here and there like a stray dying man. They would drive him out of the bedroom with a broom and a moment later find him in the kitchen. He seemed to be in so many places at the same time that they grew to think that he’d be duplicated, that he was reproducing himself all through the house, and the exasperated and unhinged Elisenda shouted that it was awful living in that hell full of angels. He could scarcely eat and his antiquarian eyes had also become so foggy that he went about bumping into posts. All he had left were the bare cannulae of his last feathers. Pelayo threw a blanket over him and extended him the charity of letting him sleep in the shed, and only then did they notice that he had a temperature at night, and was delirious with the tongue twisters of an old Norwegian. That was one of the few times they became alarmed, for they thought he was going to die and not even the wise neighbor woman had been able to tell them what to do with dead angels.
The story then moves into its final stages: the old man with enormous wings, leaving the family as they were before–albeit slightly more well-off. Notice, in this final paragraph, how the author moves into the consciousness of Elisenda as the final perspective, showcasing the advantage of using the omniscient point of view, even in a short story: you as author can decide, in each and every moment, what is the best, most engaging point of view for each specific moment, similar to how a camera works in a film.
Much contemporary fiction in recent years has used a single-consciousness as a way of telling a story: that is changing, more and more, especially in cross-genre work, bringing multiple perspectives into the story. This is always worth a re-read, looking at the section Character & Point of View.
Writing exercise: is there another ending that would have worked better, in your view? If so, what? If not, why not?
And yet he not only survived his worst winter, but seemed improved with the first sunny days. He remained motionless for several days in the farthest corner of the courtyard, where no one would see him, and at the beginning of December some large, stiff feathers began to grow on his wings, the feathers of a scarecrow, which looked more like another misfortune of decreptitude. But he must have known the reason for those changes, for he was quite careful that no one should notice them, that no one should hear the sea chanteys that he sometimes sang under the stars. One morning Elisenda was cutting some bunches of onions for lunch when a wind that seemed to come from the high seas blew into the kitchen. Then she went to the window and caught the angel in his first attempts at flight. They were so clumsy that his fingernails opened a furrow in the vegetable patch and he was on the point of knocking the shed down with the ungainly flapping that slipped on the light and couldn’t get a grip on the air. But he did manage to gain altitude. Elisenda let out a sigh of relief, for herself and for him, when she watched him pass over the last houses, holding himself up in some way with the risky flapping of a senile vulture. She kept watching him even when she was through cutting the onions and she kept on watching 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.
Additional Writing Exercises
- Rewrite “An Old Man With Enormous Wings” in 55 words. What is kept? What is omitted? (This exercise is all about getting to the true heart of the story and is useful to apply to your own work, as well. What is essential?)
- Write a short story of 55 words using magical-realist techniques of your own. With only 55 words to be used, it forces us to get immediately to the true heart of our own work.
- Play with the title. Change a word or two, and write a story based on this new title, paying homage to the original. How can this title be used to frame and supplement the story you end up writing?
- Write a short work of 300 words that uses Catholic or other type of religious/spiritual imagery.
- Write a short work of 500 words in which you re-tell “An Old Man With Enormous Wings” from the point of view of the child. What happens if you change the setting to one you know well?
- Write a short work of 750 words that re-tells the story from the point of view of the old man/angel. What happens if you change the setting to one you know well?
- Write a short work of 1,000 words using magical-realist techniques.
- Write a short work of 2,500 words in which something “magical” happens at the beginning, and the characters try to sort it out.
- Write a short work of 5,000 words in which someone arrives from out of the sky (a parachutist, an angel, a djinn, a bird) and follow what happens next.
- Write a short work of 7,500 words in which people attempt to discover the background of someone recently arrived to the area.