Originally published in Spanish in 1985 as El gringo viejo, Carlos Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo is a fascinating historical fiction which takes as its theme the deforming effect of borders, describing the mental and physical boundaries that both separate and join Mexican and North American cultures. As such, the novel addresses readers of both countries and asks them to ponder the question of personal and national identity that artificial borders have constructed for them. Fuentes has long been recognized as one of his country’s leading artists and thinkers. The success of his novels outside Mexico attests his ability to universalize the Mexican historical and cultural experience and thereby to challenge some of the basic assumptions about the exotic picturesqueness of Mexico and its people. In fact, the ironic tension between the stereotypes that foreigners, mostly North Americans, have of Mexico and the intimate rapport by which geography has bound the two countries is the thematic centerpiece of The Old Gringo.
Set in the northern Mexican desert in 1913, the 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, a reporter for the Hearst newspapers and a short-story writer known for his misanthropic views, sets out to join the rebel army of the legendary Pancho Villa. In real life, Bierce disappeared, never to be heard from again. Fuentes, inventing the details of Bierce’s travels, constructs his story through the flashback memories of an American schoolteacher, Harriet Winslow, whom Bierce meets when he joins one of the Villista armies headed by the peasant leader, Tomás Arroyo. The circumstances of Bierce’s death and Harriet’s reasons for pretending that he was her father (she had him buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery) make up the intricate weave of this many-layered historical fiction.
The novel’s twenty-three chapters blend violence and fast-paced action with a series of dramatic meditations by the three protagonists on national and personal destiny. The whole story, in turn, is expressed as Harriet’s memories of her encounters with Bierce and Arroyo. The first and last lines of the novel are the same: “Now she sits alone and remembers.” The sentence is also repeated at least a half dozen times within the intervening narration to remind the reader that all actions are essentially retrospective. Characteristic of Fuentes’ master design for the work, and not unlike his earlier novels, personal memory parallels and, in important ways, illuminates national history. For that reason, particular attention is paid to a series of historical details which suggest that the fortuitous pairing of Bierce with Harriet and the later triangular relationship that emerges between the two Americans and Arroyo are part of a larger historical allegory of national rather than simply individual fortunes and identities.
That chain of historical details includes the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which Harriet’s father presumably died; the Mexican-American War of 1847, in which Bierce’s own father was a participant; and finally, the American Civil War, in which Bierce fought for the Union army. Through the accumulation of such background detail, Harriet and Bierce are gradually viewed as symbolic characters, expressing through the crises which have brought them to Mexico the deeper crisis which Fuentes suggests lurks in the American collective psyche.
Similarly, Arroyo is depicted as an amalgam of features that arises from Mexican and pre-Hispanic cultural myths. At points he is described as embodying and being trapped within the violent, destructive destiny of the Mexican revolution. At other points, the reader is brought to perceive a more arcane symbolism, as when his silent female companion, a woman named La Luna (the moon), is introduced into the story. The allusion here is to the son of the Nahuatl mother-goddess, Coatlicue, whose warrior son appears to be one of the mythic inspirations for Arroyo. Such touches clearly serve to free the novel’s action from a too-literal historical reading and move it into a more symbolic key.
Though the framing device of the flashback foregrounds Harriet’s position, the heart of the novel, as its title indicates, is the enigmatic figure of Bierce. In part, the logic of this detailed portrayal of Bierce is Fuentes’ fascination with the eccentric and embittered character of the real Ambrose Bierce; in part, it is to set in motion the intricate series of events which will transform Bierce’s final days from a mere footnote in history into a renewed vision of national cultural identity on both sides of the border.
The old gringo has come from San Francisco, a place which, perched on the coast, serves as a constant reminder to his countrymen that they have run out of frontiers and...
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