Friday, October 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #299: The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes

It took me thirty years to read this novel. I don't know why.

(Well, not having a copy for some of those years was a proximate reason. But it's a book I knew about, from two directions, and was interested in for all that time.)

I did my college thesis partially on Ambrose Bierce (along with Poe and Lovecraft) and read all of his stories at least twice during those years. (And some of his other things, too -- the Vassar library had a complete copy of his collected works from about 1910, in more than a dozen big volumes.) And I had a class on Latin American Literature in Translation [1], where I think I read at least one other Fuentes novel, among other things.

So I am totally the guy who should have read The Old Gringo around about 1990 or so. But I didn't. Maybe the Gregory Peck movie from 1989 drove me away? (More than once in my life I have seemed to avoid reading books because they were made into movies.)

Since The Old Gringo was written in Spanish, one of the many languages I do not read, I should note that I read the English translation credited to "Margaret Sayers Peden and the author," which is probably the only one extant at this point.

Who is "The Old Gringo?" Ambrose Bierce, who actually was the grumpy misanthropic San Franciscan with a big white mustache that Mark Twain is sometimes accused of being, ran off in 1913 at the age of 71 to see the Mexican Revolution first hand. His two sons had both died before him, and his wife had divorced him and then died herself a few years before. He disappeared entirely sometime in December, and no one knows what happened to him.

(Well, he died, obviously. Probably right then, maybe a bit later, at the outmost fringes of possibility some years afterward. But a man who was 71 in 1913 is definitely dead at this point, and was definitely dead even in the mid-60s when Fuentes started thinking about this story.)

In his novel, Fuentes tells the story of an "Old Gringo," a cynical American Civil War veteran seeing the war in Mexico, carrying two of his own books, whose name is not mentioned except once at the very end of the book. But, yes, we know who he is. The Old Gringo is at the center of the novel, alongside two others: the rebel General Tomas Arroyo and the thirtyish American woman Harriet Winslow, hired to be the live-in governess/teacher for the children of a rich family that fled ahead of the rebel army.

(I am very tempted to call the Bierce character "the OG" from this point forward, but it feels like a bad decision. I might do it anyway.)

The story takes place almost entirely while the forces under Arroyo are camped at the mansion of that rich family who hired Harriet. Arroyo is the bastard son of the tyrannical father of that family, and many of his soldiers were other workers on that man's land -- kept in semi-official bondage, peons or serfs or whatever you want to call them.

Arroyo is out for revenge, to wipe the slate clean and make himself a new man. Harriet is out for respect, to stand on her own two feet after a bad failed engagement back in Washington, DC, and also is yearning for a father figure.

Bierce wants to die. But he wants to die well, romantically -- perhaps by firing squad, perhaps in battle. He wants to die, to read the Quixote before he does, and to leave an attractive corpse behind.

The Old Gringo is the story of how these three characters circle each other, and how they all get, in the end, what they need, and perhaps even what they want. There are other characters, but they're not as important: enablers and spear-carriers and camp followers and hangers-on. This book tells the story of that triangle, young man and woman and old man.

It is a literary novel, so even its exteriors are interiors. Buildings are metaphors, histories are impediments, conversations are elliptical. This is not a straightforward story, and it's not told straightforwardly: it is all remembered by "the woman" some years later, and so a reader can assume a layer of unreliable narrator on top of everything else if he wishes.

But it's a novel of places and people and fathers, of the drive to do the things you feel you must do, and the conflict for the soul of Mexico. And it's good at exploring all of those things.

[1] I'm sorry to say that, as a callow and thoughtless young man, I generally referred to this as my "wetback" class.

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