Thursday, February 7, 2008

"A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" Notes I

Haha, YES. I've done this jounal before! My notes are somewhere else on the internet, I am sure, since I am known as Snoink and I post weird things like this. ANYWAY. Here were my initial notes, just to keep things on one place.


At first I was a little turned off by the story, not because it was bad, but because it was written in a sort of flippant style that I wasn’t used to. It seemed a little bit like a fairy tale, except it was not your typical children’s fairy tale, which has a glimmer of hope or beauty or love in it, even in the beginning. This had none.

It starts out with crabs, which, though probably very important locally, almost turned me off to the story. There is nothing glamorous about crabs. They are seen as busy little creatures that work constantly and have many offspring. So, in this case, it makes sense that they caught a lot of crabs. Looking beyond that into the symbolism of crabs, we see that crabs are thought of to be “family” since they’re so many of them.

The crabs in the beginning play an important role of setting up this story’s characters. In the beginning, unlike many the traditional fairy tales we are used to, the characters are not expanded on at the very beginning, and little is said to tell us about them afterwards. But this sentence says it all:

“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.”

Taking that crabs are symbolism of “family” this sentence transforms this relatively simple tale into a story about mass genocide which, as the crabs are discarded back into the sea, becomes meaningless. The crabs were killed to be eaten, but they never got that far and their deaths are wasted, in order to save one newborn child. In this way, Pelayo turns into a reckless god who is quick to kill (or destroy) and quicker to cast away, if something goes wrong. This theme is repeated throughout the story in various forms from various other humans, from the treatment of the angel to the manipulation of the crowds of people.

It is by pure luck that the angel is found, in a scene that somewhat resembles the Good Samaritan parable. Pelayo finds an angel in a place that, far from being a tropical paradise, is an impoverished village that sticks with the stench of dead crabs. And, instead of arriving on his two wings in a majestic manner, he cannot even stand, forced to lay half-dead in the mud. It seems like an odd place to be for an angel, since we are used to tales about angels living in paradise, but this is hardly the case and in this way, the story is set.

At first, Pelayo is surprised and frightened from this sight, and runs for his wife, bringing her back so that both of them can get a closer look.

In the bible, angels weren’t cute naked cherubs that flew around. This was brought from Roman mythology with Cupid. Instead, nearly all the appearances of angels in the bible are described in a tone of fear, with the person being confronted by angels falling to his knees. The angel ends up having to say, “Do not be afraid!” before giving off its message.

But in this case, the roles are reversed. Though at first, Pelayo is afraid, as he and his wife look at the angel more, the more normal he becomes in their eyes. Remember that at first Pelayo is introduced as a god, and he feels superior to the angel. So when they finally speak to him and he answers, the next sentence is, “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.” They forget that he is an angel and consider him a human, but at the same time, not part of their family. He is a stranger. And then they decide that he is a lonely castaway from a ship that has been wrecked. Though the adjective “lonely” gives them away. How is one to decide whether one is lonely or not, short of reading minds?

Also, the word “intelligent” is key here in that it references back to the Adam and Eve story, where they gain knowledge in order to become more like God and God ends up turning away from them. And in this case, the same thing happens, but later in the story.

The neighbor advises Pelayo to kill the angel, but he can’t, so he locks him up instead in a chicken coop. Then, miraculously as Pelayo and his wife continue to kill crabs, the child gets better. The husband and wife are thrilled and want to release the angel by setting him out to sea, perhaps for other people, when suddenly they are confronted by a strange sight. People have come to him, not for worshipping, but rather to mock him. They throw food at him as if he were an animal instead. Later, more people come to see him, including the priest, and they try to decide his fate, eventually coming to indecision. He is kept locked up in the chicken coop.

This brings to mind the story of the Passion for me. We have several very strong images that come up. On one hand, we have the group of crazy believers who simultaneously mock and worship the angel at the same time, to the point where things get slightly crazy and bayonets are brought out to control people – until the wife gets an idea and begins to charge the people. This heightens the whole trapped feeling and makes the angel even more pitiable while showing us how insane these people are.

Speaking of insanity, let’s look at some of the ailments of these people, who are thought to be ill. There are three main people whose ailments are specifically discussed. At first, I thought nothing of these ailments, which sounded silly, but in the context of the fairy tale like setting where the real and the mystical are blurred, it’s quite alarming. One is “a poor woman who since childhood has been counting her heartbeats and had run out of numbers.” So she’s been listening to her heart for years and years when she was a child, but she’s not quite sure how to listen to it again. Then there’s “a Portuguese man who couldn’t sleep because the noise of the stars disturbed him.” It’s funny because the stars really shouldn’t be the ones to disturb him. In almost every single mythology, stars are a light, a sign from God, to let us forever be with light even when there is none. Why would he prefer the velvet blackness of the sky and be disturbed by the tiny pinpricks of light, symbolizing hope? And last, there is “a sleepwalker who got up at night to undo the things he had done while awake.” A sinner, who has done wrong and is unconsciously trying to set things right again. (So why would he need to be healed?)

Then there is Father Gonzada who is looking for guidance on high that will never come to him. And why? Because he is looking to mortals who closely resemble the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, who are too bent on the procedures of the Catholic Church than looking at the spiritual world as a whole. But the Father is still seeking justice, so, to me, he resembles Pontius Pilate. He really wants to believe, but he because of logic, he will not let himself trust the angel.

If the angel had anything to do with the miraculous recovery, he seems to have nothing to do with the humans. He hides away from them, only crying out when the mob surrounding them pokes him with a brand to see if he’s still alive. He cries out, which proves he is alive, yet the people don’t consider him as that. He is physically breathing, but they consider him more of an animal than anything. Though, back in their subconscious minds, they do have an uneasy feeling, as if they know he is sentient, but they are not willing to formally accept it. This sentence says it all: “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.”

And even when miracles do happen, they are strange and don’t make sense. The sick aren’t healed. Yes, they have miraculous things that happen to them, but they’re so bizarre that they really don’t end up helping anyway and instead seem as if the angel is playing a joke on them. And, as the angel turns his back on the people who surround it, God seems to turn back on those as well.

The turning point in which the mob stops surrounding the angel is when the woman who was turned into a spider. Instead of being cold and distant, as the angel is, she’s amiable and distinctly human. She can help people by her miracles and really heal them. She evens helps out Father Gonzada with his insomnia! This is a miracle in itself, especially considering how Father Gonzada reacted to the angel. Earlier in the story, as he was analyzing the angel, this passage was written about what he said:

“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.”

But when the spider comes around, which is obviously a smooth talker with worldly values, he is taken completely and utterly. It seems ridiculous that he would be suspicious with the angel and not with the spider, but that’s what happens and makes it even more bizarre. And his insomnia is cured. Instead of facing real life and the mess with the spider and the angel, he experiences dreams once more, so he doesn’t have to confront the angel or even reality. His insomnia is cured; he doesn’t have to live.

This seemingly innocuous statement, which is not even a full sentence, also reveals something intensely interesting: “…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.” For just a brief moment, the crabs are revived and are back from the dead. A miracle has happened – and no one notices.

The angel is forgotten. Pelayo’s family gets rich and eventually the child whom the angel saved meets up with him. He pretends not to notice him, but the child hangs around with him anyway, and they get chicken pox at the same time. The doctor comes and can’t resist going to the angel and checking up on him. He finds the angel barely alive, but the most interesting passage is this: “They seemed so natural on that completely human organism that he couldn’t understand why other men didn’t have them too.” The angel is divine, and he, out of everyone, seems to be the only one to realize that.

More time passes and the chicken coop collapses. The angel tries to find another place, going to the Pelayo’s house, but the wife chases him out of the rooms, screaming about a hell with angels. This image is funny since it directly tackles the inhumanity of God. Everybody considers God to be a somewhat human face, but the fact that God is not human makes other people run away, chasing the faith away from their houses. And so she does this to the angel, finally, locking him up in a shed. There, another interesting passage comes up:

“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.”

Throughout the whole story, nobody cares about the angel. They associate him as something inhuman and thus, something strange and intolerable. Now is the first time since the mob attacked him that they pity him and realize that he can die. You can tell – before, they were calling him a Norwegian, and now they begin to call him an angel once more. But a dead angel is different from a dead human, and that makes them even more afraid. If an angel dies, does that mean a spirit can die? Does that mean God can die? And this is truly alarming to them. Remember in the beginning that Pelayo is introduced as a god. By seeing this angel die, he is faced with his own helplessness and mortality. He can die. What’s more, he can kill. The family finally come to the realization that he’s dying and they really did contribute to his death. So, while the crabs were rejuvenated in the unnoticed miracle, he will die. And that scares them.

But he doesn’t die. He gets better, despite everything, and finally during springtime, he is strong enough to fly away from everything, and he does. The last two sentences are particularly strong, perhaps the strongest sentences in the whole story:

“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.”

For the first time in the story, she is at ease. God is no longer in her presence and she doesn’t have to worry about Him anymore. Once more, He becomes an imaginary deity that is too far to see and too far to be concerned about. She can get on with her life, doing all the regular things that she has not had time to do, worrying and fretting about while the angel was there.

But it’s funny that she’s cutting onions, because as you cut up onions, tears come to your eyes. Is she crying? And isn’t it strange that, though she can focus more on real life, cutting onions in this case, she forgets about it and stares out at the imaginary dot of the sea?

1 comment:

E. M. Slate said...

I want to read this now. What collection is it in?