Saturday, September 05, 2009
Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Luisa Valenzuela, Isabel Allende and many others broke into the world literary canon via the fictional device called magic realism, wherein the marvelous is taken as a matter of fact. In the Philippines, magic realism harks back as far as the postwar period when our own National Artist Nick Joaquin wrote fantastic stories like “May Day Eve” and “Summer Solstice.” In Garcia Marquez’ own words regarding magic realism: “[My grandmother] told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness…She did not change her expression at all when telling her stories and everyone was surprised…my grandmother told them: with a brick face.” This same magic realism weaves itself in the subject short fiction “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” In the story, an element of the supernatural—an angel—comes to the lives of an ordinary couple more of an “annoyance” than of a blessing.
The extraordinary happened in the short story in question, as on the third day of torrents in Pelayo’s village, “a very old man…couldn’t get up [from the mud], impeded by his enormous wings.” For Western and Westernized people accustomed to the realities of skyscrapers, Internet, Industrial Revolution and capitalism, a winged creature—whether it is an angel or a manananggal—is a figment of the absurd imagination. If he can fly, he must be Batman, and the superrich hero uses modern mechanism at that. To some of us whose buried precolonial culture is peopled by diwatas and freakish creatures like snakewoman or spidergirl, we can grow less incredulous. When the couple along with the angel’s visitors far and wide grew familiar with an ordinary looking (even undignifiedly tattered-dressed) man who just happened to have big wings, they also grew contemptible of him: Pelayo “locked him up with the hens in the wire chicken coop” and the curious neighbors “without the slightest reverence, [tossed] him things…as if he weren’t a supernatural creature but a circus animal.” Magic realism can reach the proportion of this ordinariness because the marvelous is very much a part of our day-to-day lives. Interestingly, this likewise reads as a critique against people who ask for miracles and then deign on these upon their rare appearance.
In what can be taken as a commentary on the Church institution, the story’s celestial protagonist is also doubted by a minister of the “realistic” Catholic religion: Father Gonzaga downgraded the angel’s descent from heaven because the old man did not recognize God’s Latin language and did not greet Gonzaga as a fellow minister. Using the reality of religion, Father Gonzaga suspected the creature to be an imposter, “that the devil had the bad habit of making use of carnival tricks in order to confuse the unwary.” Another reality as determined by science is capitalism, when Elisenda “got the idea of the fencing in the yard and charging five cents admissions to see the angel,” earning enough to build “a two-story mansion…that crabs…[and] angels wouldn’t get in.” When the angel came supposedly to fetch the dying child only to fail, the child must have dipped in temperature because of the failure. But then again, it is magic realism—things happen sans the necessary cause. During this space and information age, all the same, the crabs overflowed because of the nonstop rain and the “neighbor woman…knew everything about life and death” because she is providentially wise, not because both are exaggerations that may pass for magic realism.
The world has been exposed to all sorts of scientific breakthroughs to cure illnesses, but pain does not seem to want to disappear, so what other things must be resorted to, besides modernity and science? In the story, “[t]he most unfortunate invalids on earth came [to Pelayo’s house, where the angel was caged] in search of health.” It is clear then that people, despite the wonders of modernity and science, cling to miracles, “waiting their turn” to see the angel and plucking some of his feathers in hope of getting healed. As it is, Western scholars do not necessarily embrace the advent of magic realism, attacking it as a literary passé, a postcolonial hangover, a cashing in on the Latin American boom, another way of white people’s marginalizing their other. But the marginalized other gets to write back through magic realism, and no amount of malingering can stop the trend from subverting the utopian, anti-pluralistic claims of science and modernism. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” did just that without clear morals or truths, erasing the dichotomy of the real and unreal.