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The Old Gringo


The fate of journalist Ambrose Bierce has intrigued Americans since 1914 when he vanished in Mexico. Now Carlos Fuentes has spun a novel around that ... Show synopsis

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Reviews of The Old Gringo

Overall customer rating: 4.500
by grilli on Nov 1, 2007

A fascinating tale, covering the imagined last days and death of Ambrose Bierce , a famous (sometime muckraker) journalist, satirical poet, Civil War hero, short-story writer par excellence, who actually was last seen entering Mexico during their revolution ca. 1913. He wrote one letter from Chihuahua, and was never heard from again. Drawing from some of AB's verse, Fuentes constructs the interior monologues and fantasies of the old man, and bases events upon Bierce's purported statement that "Mexico is a good place to die". After the Old Gringo demonstrates his skill as a marksman, the local revolutionary commander allows him to join the fight against the Federales. The Old Gringo charges into enemy fire and, somewhat to his dismay, returns unscathed. Bierce's name is never mentioned in the text, although an American governess guesses his identity. While including swahbuckling protagonists and steamy love scenes the story is nevertheless subtle, and psychologically gripping.


Crossing borders: inside one's own mind

by TealeTheSlowReader on May 20, 2007

Judging by previous comments on The Old Gringo, many readers are perusing the novel for the content relating to the fate of American writer Ambrose Bierce. To read Fuentes? novel for that purpose is to miss the fine points of the novelist?s craft. Or, perhaps, The Old Gringo has simply gotten better since it was first published in 1985. It seems to me that the main premise of The Old Gringo is that Mexico and the United States should get to know each other, become less of a mystery to each other. This premise has become more true over the past two decades--particularly as the immigration debate heats up. Near the end of the novel, the revolutionary fighter Inocencio Mansalvo, looks from Mexico toward the border near El Paso, Texas, and says to Harriet Winslow, ?What a shame. They?re right when they say this isn?t a border. It?s a scar.? To understand that view, the reader has to have read the previous 185 pages. As a reader, I feel I ought to offer a compelling reason for others to seriously pick up this book--something more substantial than simply to read how Fuentes fictionalizes Bierce, a real person with a well-documented life. What I find so wonderful here is that Fuentes manages to teach me about Mexico and the United States without preaching, without stopping the flow of the story. First of all, the key to how Fuentes constructed the plot is that he knew enough about American life--he spent much of his youth in Washington, D.C.--that he could see very clear reasons how an American journalist like Ambrose Bierce would purposefully go to Mexico in the 1910s. The conjunction of actual, historical events gave Fuentes the main structure: the Mexican revolution coming as Bierce was aging, feeling bitter about his broken family, regretting that he had written lies for a William Randolph Hearst newspaper. It?s believable that Bierce desired to escape his own life but didn?t want to commit suicide. The author?s masterstroke was to invent the main character, Harriet Winslow. Fuentes was confident enough as a writer that Miss Winslow is entirely believable. Harriet?s interior monologue, the thoughts that come from her deep consciousness, are real enough--physical enough--to carry the responsibility of serving as the frame for the novel. Harriet is back in Washington, D.C. remembering the old gringo and General Tomás Arroyo, the ?moon-faced? woman, and the other Mexican people she knew. Fuentes provides the music of the text: the careful detail, the balance between spoken dialogue and interior monologue, the Mexican characters? exact reasons for needing a revolution against the oppressive hacienda system. The Mexican characters are very clear about what they hoped for: freedom of movement in their own nation without fear of the wealthy land owners, freedom to choose whom they could love and marry--basic civil liberties. But there is something more. Fuentes makes clear that the human mind has very deep places: if the reader thinks that Americans and Mexican are all surface with no consciousness, read again. The Old Gringo is also an existentialist novel, intensely philosophic, an argument for a profoundly nuanced politics: ?And the frontier in here?? the North American woman had asked, tapping her forehead. ?And the frontier in here?? General Arroyo had responded, touching his heart. ?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.? If we read enough about Mexico and American relations, perhaps we can find healing for the wound, for the scar that is the border. Read. Enjoy. Be intrigued.

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