García Márquez’s literary reputation is inseparable from the term magical realism, a phrase that literary critics coined to describe the distinctive blend of fantasy and realism in his and many other Latin American authors’ work. Magical-realist fiction consists of mostly true-to-life narrative punctuated by moments of whimsical, often symbolic, fantasy described in the same matter-of-fact tone. Magical realism has become such an established form in Latin America partly because the style is strongly connected to the folkloric storytelling that’s still popular in rural communities. The genre, therefore, attempts to connect two traditions—the “low” folkloric and the “high” literary—into a seamless whole that embraces the extremes of Latin American culture. As the worldwide popularity of García Márquez’s writing testifies, it is a formula that resonates well with readers around the world.
“A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” is one of the most well-known examples of the magical realist style, combining the homely details of Pelayo and Elisenda’s life with fantastic elements such as a flying man and a spider woman to create a tone of equal parts local-color story and fairy tale. From the beginning of the story, García Márquez’s style comes through in his unusual, almost fairy tale–like description of the relentless rain: “The world had been sad since Tuesday.” There is a mingling of the fantastic and ordinary in all the descriptions, including the swarms of crabs that invade Pelayo and Elisenda’s home and the muddy sand of the beach that in the rainy grayness looks “like powdered light.” It is in this strange, highly textured, dreamlike setting that the old winged man appears, a living myth, who is nevertheless covered in lice and dressed in rags.