The Old Gringo
Carlos Fuentes
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Buy *The Old Gringo* by Carlos Fuentes, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden online

The Old Gringo
Carlos Fuentes, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
208 pages
February 2007
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes was first published in 1985. One of his greatest works, this fascinating novel of dreams and destinies, war and fate, thresholds and boundaries deals with the end of the famous American author Ambrose Bierce’s life and the meaning he ironically brought to the lives of others in the final days leading up to his death while living with Pancho Villa’s soldiers in Mexico. Cross-border politics, morality, and mortality take the stage, their meanings changing with the shifting sands of the desert. What does it mean to be brave? To be truly alive or dead? This short 199 page masterpiece eloquently deals with these issues and many more--it’s a book that’s easy to get lost in, to become a fellow wanderer in, a book full of irony and deep meaning.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all in The Old Gringo is that although Ambrose Bierce journeys to Mexico at the ripe age of 71 to die, he experiences so much there that profoundly affects his life and the lives of others. There’s the self-proclaimed general, General Arroyo, for instance, who is illiterate but bases his actions on his past mistreatment at the hands of the powerful land-holding Miranda family, and on papers he jealously guards that he believes, in what is almost an act of faith, confirm that he and other campesinos are the legitimate heirs to the land of the Mirandas. Also, there’s Harriet Winslow, a gringa from Washington, D.C. who came to Mexico both to teach the Miranda children and escape from her own past and memories of a father who never came back from the Spanish-American War in Cuba - not because he died, though the Winslows provided him with a grave and tombstone, but because he took a black mistress in Cuba and wanted to live a different life there.

“There’s one frontier we only dare to cross at night,” the old gringo said. “The frontier of our differences with others, of our battles with ourselves.”
These are the words of General Arroyo, looking back on the old gringo’s (Ambrose Bierce’s) life in the book’s first chapter. This rather odd figure of a man, as he was first seen by Arroyo, Colonel Frutas Garcia, Inocencio Mansalvo, and a boy referred to as “young Pedro,” came riding across the border of Mexico at night on - of all things - a white horse, traveling lightly, with only a few sparse possessions in a suitcase. He figured it safer that way, and he wouldn’t need much since he intended to die in Mexico, anyway:
If they opened his suitcase at customs, all they’d find would be a few ham sandwiches, a safety razor, a toothbrush, a couple of his own books, a copy of Don Quixote, a clean shirt, and a Colt .44 wrapped in his underclothes.
Why the need for clean clothes, a razor, and a toothbrush, seeing as how he would be dead soon? “I intend to be a good-looking corpse,” he would tell any possibly inquisitive border guard. Why, then, the books? He’d explain, if asked, that he’d written two of them, one being the famous book of humorous but bitterly ironic definitions known as The Devil’s Dictionary, and that “All my life I’ve wanted to read the Quixote. I’d like to do it before I die. I’ve given up writing forever.” He ultimately does take up his pen again, briefly, though it’s never stated whether or not he gets through all of Quixote. He is, as portrayed by Fuentes, a very quixotic person himself.

Ambrose Bierce: known as “Old Bitters” to many during his life because of his biting ironic wit, a man who served as a reporter on William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, The San Francisco Chronicle until he got fed up with the hypocrisy of working for the same type of people his irony was meant to attack (though his readers always thought he must be referring to other people in his writing - it could never be us), a man who also fought in the Civil War against his own father, a man whose own children rejected him, possibly fearing that one day they would find themselves the subject of his sometimes cruel wit. Because of his service in the Civil War, General Arroyo called him the “Indiana General,” when not referring to him merely as “the old gringo.”

Today, Bierce’s work is still widely read, his short story “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” often required reading in schools. He’s also the subject of a series of great books written by Oakley Hall, the latest being Ambrose Bierce and the Ace of Shoots, where he is depicted as still being on staff at Hearst’s paper and solving crimes in his spare time. If you are the type of person who loves being swept up in panoramic historical novels, if you are someone who dreams and cares about the significance that dreams have on our lives, or if you just enjoy reading damn fine excellent pieces of writing, you’ll want to add The Old Gringo to your must-read list.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Douglas R. Cobb, 2007

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