‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ by Gabriel García Márquez

I think it’s fair to say: I do not know magical realism if I do not know this story. There is so much humor, heart, and grief buried in its pages. It is a very short story with a novel’s worth of imagination, and honors the short story as the novel’s equal. By that I mean; if I’d imagined this story’s conceit, in all its richness, I might have said this isn’t just a short story, it’s a novel. And it would’ve failed. I cannot sing a praise about Gabriel García Márquez that isn’t a cover song, so I’ll just tell you a few things I love about this story. There is so much joy in the worldbuilding–it is a tremendous example of how the examined anatomy of a concept can drive the story forward. Every paragraph is surprising and powerful, and is a joy to read to see what invention Márquez will derive from his character next. The Angel’s “consolation miracles” is one of my favorite moments in all of literature:

“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.”

I am always grateful to share this story with new writers, because it is one of those stories that almost always illuminates – brings joy to the reader, shows them the possibilities within fiction, gives them space to build a concept and let it spread its enormous wings.

First published in La Hojarasca, Ediciones SLB 1955. First published in English in Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories, Harper & Row, 1978. Also in Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996. Available online here

‘Miss Forbes’s Summer of Happiness’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Edith Grossman

Forget ‘magical realism’, a term he neither invented nor embraced, Gabby does gothic best (or if you insist, ‘magical realism noir’). Granted, the evidence here is a single story, but it’s a killer, literally. If you’ve read any Márquez, you recognize that the title is highly ironic. Any happiness in the story, as the narrator says “became hellish for us,” two brothers, nine and seven, and eventually worse for the titular and Teutonic nanny hired to instill virtues of old fashioned European order and civilization in their heretofore paradisiacal summer of unfettered freedom on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily while their parents are off on a five-week tour of the Aegean Sea. 
Miss Forbes arrives looking like a cross-dressing Wehrmacht veteran, and immediately imposes a strict regimen of timed activities consisting primarily of lessons in etiquette, piety, and obedience. Obedience above all, against which the boys, resentful but totally cowed at first, eventually plan to rebel. So there’s your conflict: a child’s need for autonomy and play vs. autocratic adult authority. A common theme, but Marquez elevates the stakes when the boys, infuriated by their discovery that Miss Forbes holds herself to a far lower standard of decorum and rectitude at night, plan to kill her by spiking her brandy with poison. 
The plan goes awry until one afternoon when the boys return home from a swim to discover a crowd of police, ambulance medics and curious neighbors. Inside, Miss Forbes lay on the floor of her room, her naked body riddled with 27 fatal knife wounds, inflicted with “the fury of a love that found no peace, and that Miss Forbes had received with the same passion … the inexorable price of her summer of happiness.” 
Who did it? The local fisherman whose beauty Miss Forbes found beyond imagining? No clues or possible suspects mentioned. It’s not that kind of story. A moral, at least? Not that I can tell. The most we can say is that any notion of a summer sentimental education for the boys has been permanently corrupted by witnessing this bloody image of adult loneliness and love. Not exactly beach-reading material, unless your taste runs to the mystifying and disturbing. Listening to that 60s pop ode to summer love, ‘See You in September’ by The Happenings, might cheer you up. I doubt it.
Picked by Tom McGohey. Tom taught Composition and directed The Writing Center at Wake Forest University for 20 years. He has published essays in Fourth Genre, Sport Literate, and Thread. Two of his essays have been cited as “Notable Essays” in Best American Essays.

First published in Playboy, January 1986, under title of ‘The Happy Summer of Miss Forbes’. Collected in Strange Pilgrims, Knopf, 1993

‘The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa

I think I was in high school when I first read this story and it seemed to speak in a language intended only for me, as an adolescent girl going through some of the same changes and reactions from others as the title character. What I think Gabriel García Márquez models so exquisitely – placing him alongside Isak Dinesen, Naguib Mahfouz, and a few writers who have also evoked this response from me – is a way to create books that do not really seem written; that have a strong point of view, sense of humor (especially in Love in the Time of Cholera)but that reach so far beyond the subjectivity and ambitions of one single writer that they seem to have pre-existed any specific writer. I believe this only comes with a completely immersive revision process in which lines like the below then feel earned rather than overly ambitious: 

The house was far away from everything, in the heart of the desert, next to a settlement with miserable and burning streets where the goats committed suicide from desolation when the wind of misfortune blew.

It is not always possible to do what Gabriel García Márquez (including in his Paris Review interview, which I studied like a canonical text when I first realized I wanted to be a writer) says that he does (did) to create that immersion – writing for six hours a day without doing anything else (9:30 to 2:30 pm) and then using the afternoons for the business of writing. It is a gift of time and opportunity to be able to do that. But writing all this out and looking at both that story (which Esquire made free online for a time after the author died at the age of 87) – I am going to try the six-hour block thing whenever I can!!

First published in Spanish in 1972 as ‘La increíble y triste historia de la cándida Eréndira y de su abuela desalmada’. First publication in English in Esquire, 1973 and available to read to subscribers here. Collected in The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother, Harper, 1978. Currently available in the Collected Stories, Perennial Classics, 2005) 

‘One of These Days’ by Gabriel García Márquez

If there’s an orthodoxy to fiction workshopping, one of its central tenets holds that economy is crux of the short form. That is, for all the things that the form could do, a perfect story above all else does the absolute most it can with the absolute fewest words possible (the canard is typically that any given word in a story should be doing at least two things, if not more). I don’t believe that’s necessarily true (nobody loves a long sentence like I do), but there’s no denying that an immaculately tight story can be a singular thing. 
If you asked me to recommend a story of perfect economy I’d point you toward ‘One of These Days’. Márquez rinses so much (surprise, tension, beauty) out of its three scant pages that it’s practically obscene. The first paragraphs, seemingly placid and descriptive, are freighted with hints of dissonance and unease – the physical tics of the doctor, the buzzards he sees. Márquez denies the reader access to Aurelio Escovar’s internal thought and feeling, dealing only in surface thoughts, if that. In so doing he trains the reader to extract from small observations – a character’s carriage, the quality of their movement – a chapter’s worth of history. 
Once the danger arrives, the promise of violence becoming explicit, the register of the story does not change. This is pretty daring, as I think most writers would be tempted to switch gears and tighten focus once the stakes of a story were made clear. But the same spare remove is employed, and quietly doubling its workload, to boot: The ghostly scaffold of intimated history continues to build, but a plot is also brought to life through it. Characters act, react, and pull the reader in. Notice how elegantly the plot mirrors the formal constraints of the story. The world comes to life in what isn’t shown to the reader, the plot builds staggering tension in what the characters don’t say to one another.
Its most spellbinding aspect is, to me, the suggestion of complex ecosystems of human behavior. The power dynamics of the characters shift: The cruel mayor demands relief. The dentist makes a dubious claim promising great pain, which the mayor accepts, and he places himself at the mercy of the dentist, a professional without credentials. The dentist makes an open threat. The mayor, still in an (ostensible) place of weakness, does not react with the violence that we’ve been told defines his character. 
The mystery is intoxicating: Does the mayor really believe that he can’t be administered anesthetic? If not, why does he consent? Why does he put himself through this gauntlet? To prove something about his toughness? To demonstrate that he is not afraid even with his throat bared, as it were, to the dentist? Or is it a kind of ritual of penance, an acknowledgment and claim of the dentist’s grievance? It’s that last possibility which most intrigues me. There is the hint of something like ceremony in it, of unspoken agreement and transaction, and a deeper, private reckoning.

First published in Spanish in 1962, in English in 1968. Collected in Collected Stories, Available to read here

‘Light is Like Water’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Edith Grossman

I no longer have my copy of Strange Pilgrims, from which I first read this pure tale of how Toto and Joel navigate a rowing boat, complete with sextant and compass, on light rather than water, having smashed light bulbs in their crowded fifth-floor apartment. I almost always regret giving books away, and have been known to return to second hand book shops the day after to buy back my own copies. This is one certainly I must somehow retrieve. 

First published as ‘La Luz es como el Agua’, in Doce Cuentos Peregrinos, Editorial Oveja Negra, 1992; and in English in Strange Pilgrims, Cape, 1993, available at the Independent)

‘One of These Days’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by J.S. Bernstein

It is a wonderful moment when you recognise in some minor sketch that a great surreal or abstract artist can draw classically and wow you with representational finesse. So it is here with Marquez’s chilly distillation of small-town corruption. None of the magical realist brushwork in this short tale. Instead, the style is spare, austere even, as Marquez relates the potential revenge of a dentist realising he has the slaughterer of his revolutionary friends in his chair and at his mercy. The accumulation of simple details mixes the human and the political, the barber wrestling with professional and filial duties. A great last line.

First published in Spanish in 1962, and in English in Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996. Read the story online here

‘The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World’ by Gabriel García Márquez, translated by Gregory Rabassa 

Angela Carter fans, look no further. The fairytale, fable-like language in this story has always been fascinating to me. And so is the way García Márquez depicts the shared reality among the villagers: their collective action, and their absolute unswerving faith in the fiction they’ve created together. I often teach this story in classrooms alongside Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’. The transformation of the “dark and slinky bulge” in the opening, into the man in the closing paragraphs with a specific name and past, all invented – what does this say about the role that storytelling plays for us? Are the villagers delusional or wiser than any of us will ever know? Does it all come down to figuring out how to deal with death, when it’s staring you right in the face?

In Collected Stories, Penguin, 2014. Available to read online here

‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ by Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez is here because he was such an influence on my young self. As a teenager, I pretty much wanted to be him (I’d have accepted the generous moustache), and my first ‘proper’ short story was a wholesale Márquez rip-off, of which I was quite proud. This story is resplendent with so many of the Márquezian traits I know and love. Days of rain have left Pelayo’s house infested with crabs, and ‘the world had been sad since Tuesday.’ Then he finds a ragged old man face down in the muddy yard. The man has enormous wings. Pelayo ignores his neighbour’s advice to club this apparent angel to death, and instead locks him in the chicken coop. Soon, visitors are flocking from far and wide, and Pelayo is raking it in. Only when a woman who has been turned into a spider arrives with a travelling fair are Pelayo, his family, and his aloof angel left alone. Infestations, transformations, curious crowds, extreme weather, and mystery make this classic Márquez. It strikes me now that all those elements have indeed snuck into my own writing, though I am sadly still short a generous moustache.

In Collected Stories, Penguin, 1996; first published in English in Innocent Eréndira and Other Stories, Harper & Row, 1978; available online here

“I Only Came To Use The Phone” by Gabriel García Márquez

‘Then she clung to her husband’s neck, screaming like a real madwoman.’

This is the first short story I ever read. I had an inspiring teacher at school who introduced me to Marquez. It felt like the first time I had read ‘in colour’. This story, however, is as dark as it gets. A woman is accidentally admitted to a sadistic psychiatric hospital where the consultant persuades her husband she is too dangerous to ever leave; something the woman herself begins to believe the longer she stays. Marquez is famed for his fantasies, but having worked a lot in mental health, the most terrifying thing about this story is its chilling proximity to the truth.

In Strange Pilgrims (Penguin, 1992)