The Old Gringo

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Set in the northern Mexican desert in 1913, this intriguing novel is inspired by the rich folklore surrounding the disappearance of the American writer Ambrose Bierce, the “old gringo” of the title. At the age of seventy-one, Bierce set out to join the rebel army of the legendary Pancho Villa and was never heard from again. Inventing the details of Bierce’s travels, Fuentes constructs his novel as the flashback memories of Harriet Winslow, an American schoolteacher, who met Bierce when he was aiding the Villista armies headed by the peasant leader Tomas Arroyo. The circumstances of Bierce’s death and his subsequent burial as Harriet’s long-lost father in Arlington National Cemetery make up the intricate weave of this many-layered historical fiction.

Harriet’s memories of her encounter with Bierce and her seduction by Tomas Arroyo introduce another layer of flashbacks within the larger retrospective of her story. The three protagonists--Bierce, Harriet, Arroyo--recall key moments in their own past that have led to their fateful encounter in the desert.

Fuentes’ reason for setting his characters in this unique structure derives from this Mexican author’s long-standing fascination with the relation of individual destinies to national history. The mystery surrounding Bierce’s disappearance enables Fuentes to ponder the larger pattern of historical development of the two nations, which has been shaped and, in turn, shapes the personal destiny of individuals on both sides of the border. Though complex and subtle in its plotting and narration, THE OLD GRINGO proves an engrossing and fast-paced read.


Boldy, Steven. “Intertextuality in Carlos Fuentes’s The Old...

(The entire section is 717 words.)