Saturday, March 08, 2003

The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes

In 1913 the satirist and journalist Ambrose Bierce disappeared, his last known whereabouts being in Chihuahua, Mexico. In this novel Fuentes imagines that Bierce went looking for Pancho Villa's army, and found the division headed by General Tomás Arroyo. They form two points of the triangle completed by an American woman, Harriet Winslow, who has traveled to Mexico to teach the children of the owners of the wealthy hacienda where Arroyo was born, and which he now destroys.

This is not a simple love triangle: Bierce sees Winslow and Arroyo as his children, and each of them sees him as a father figure, with all the attendant emotional baggage to accompany this. When Winslow and Arroyo come together--in scenes which are as frankly sexual as any I have read--there is an incestuous undertone to their coupling. And the "parricide" which Arroyo inevitably commits, as Fuentes's Bierce wants him to, seems to serve as a comfort for the fact that he was unable to in fact kill the hacienda owner who was his true father. Bierce's arrival is like a gift for Arroyo, as Arroyo's killing of Bierce is a gift for the old gringo. What Harriet Winslow gives and receives is more complicated and problematic. But while at times Fuentes seems to be speaking to the joint destinies of Mexico and the United States, the novel works best when it is about the intersection of these three people's lives, with all the attendant parallels and contrasts.

This is the second novel by Fuentes I've read: The Death of Artemio Cruz was hypnotic and engrossing, but once having surfaced I find I can recall very little of it. The Old Gringo is more accessible, as well as being much shorter. The translation, by Margaret Seyers Peden and the author, is (for the most part) smooth and readable.


Post a Comment

<< Home