The Old Gringo
This is a 1985 novel by Carlos Fuentes. It takes place in the middle of the Mexican Revolution and begins with a stranger coming to town. The stranger is referred to as the “Gringo” or the “”old Gringo” for the entirety of the novel, and we’re told first what everyone in the town assumes about him, some of which ends up being true. We learn that he is tall and straight-backed, that he is washed, shaved, and perfumed, and that he has come to Mexico to die. We learn from him that he keeps care of himself because he wants to leave a beautiful corpse. He carries with him a lot of pain and weight, but also three books: Don Quixote, which he wants to read one time before he dies, and two books by an author that he seems to have some real resentment toward. These last two books are some of our clearest clues to the identity of the old Gringo, something that matters a little bit for the sake of the plot, and little to our experiences with the novel. The Old Gringo is clearly Ambrose Bierce, the well-known short story writer and journalist who when he was around 70 traveled to Mexico and then disappeared. His exact death and final moments are otherwise unknown. In this novel, he takes up with one of the floating armies of the Revolution, specifically with Tomas Arroyo, and joins his band after a showy display of marksmanship. Arroyo is a regional leader, far subordinate to Pancho Villa, and has captured a local hacienda, which he uses as a kind of base, after burning almost all of the property to the ground. We are told that he used to work the land and the oppressive control the owners exacted over it meant that it would disgraceful and painful to leave it standing. He leaves just one building, a ballroom, intact because of it’s long mirrored walls. He wants his people to see themselves once in their lives at least.
Joining as well is a 30 year school teacher from Washington DC, one Harriet Winslow. Harriet’s father died in the Spanish American War, and her marriage was both a flop and abusive, so she took a job working as a teacher on the hacienda, arriving only after it had been burned. She feels some kind of obligation to her promise and the money paid her and stays to try to teach the current occupants. A kind of love-triangle, with some additional Electra Complex complications, arises among her, the Gringo, and Arroyo.
The book is hard to pin down as its narration is flowy and dream-like, often flitting from one perspective to the next. The hazy nature of the truth of plot (facts v truth, that is) creates this effect, along with other elements. It’s a distorted Quixote story (along with some Melville mixed in) with the Old Gringo looking for some kind of moral absolution through his quest, with the daughter-like Dulcinea, and the complicated farmer/foil of Arroyo as Panza. But it’s also a very good reminder to readers like me, reading the book from the US, in translation as an inversion of a white savior narrative, not that the Gringo is at all a savior, even in his own mind.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories
This is just a simple two disk audiobook edition of a few Bierce stories I decided to listen to in preparation for reading the novel. There are three standouts: the title story, “The Damned Thing,” and “An Inhabitant of Carcosa”. The title story is one that I read in 11th grade and was blown away by that way that good, catchy stories, with a fine twist can do. “The Damned Thing” is a really creepy ghosty story. The last story I mention is obviously appealing both because of the twist that is satisfying, but also its connection to season one of True Detective, which is literary in the annoying way of creating tone and atmosphere, instead of meaning. The above novel does the opposite, borrows from literature in an elevating way.