Analysis of Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo

The first novel by a Mexican author to make the New York Times best-seller list, The Old Gringo both discusses and exemplifies the conflicting streams of influence between American and Latin American authors. Written by longtime novelist and former diplomat Carlos Fuentes (1928–2012), the novel fictionalizes the mysterious disappearance of U. S. journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?). Originally published in Spanish by Fondo de Cultura Economica and in English by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, The Old Gringo’s account of Bierce’s demise in the Mexican Revolution evokes the magical realism of Fuentes’s Latin American contemporaries, but places its lyrical asides squarely within the realm of dream and memory. The novel falls between Fuentes’s analysis of family relations in Una familia lejana (Distant Relations, 1980–82) and precedes his imagining a world without the European conquest in Cristóbal Nonato (Christopher Unborn, 1987–89).

Playing upon the question mark next to Bierce’s death year, Fuentes invokes the mysterious demise of an elderly, crotchety, aphoristic U.S. writer as the impetus for a novel of border crossings. Bierce, one of the few men of letters who actually fought in the U.S. Civil War, wrote morbid, gothic tales that eschewed the trends of late 19th-century literary realism and prefigured the psychological/magical realism of the mid20th century’s Latin boom. After a successful career as a Washington correspondent for various publications of William Randolph Hearst, Bierce toured his old battle sites and promptly disappeared. His last letter, dated December 1913, said that he was going to Mexico to die by a Pancho Villa firing squad: “To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia.”

Carlos Fuentes, 2003. Daniel Aguilar—Reuters/Newscom

Fuentes’s novel contrasts the experience of the gringo—not named as Bierce until the closing chapters—against that of a revolutionary soldier (Tomás Arroyo) and an American schoolteacher (Harriet Winslow). The plot unfolds through flashes of Winslow’s memory and various conversations that explain the gringo’s death wish. Arroyo, a self-declared revolutionary general who reluctantly accepts the gringo in his brigade, lingers in Chihuahua at the Miranda hacienda, where he was raised as a worker and illegitimate son. There both the gringo and the revolutionary/bastard meet the 31-year-old Winslow, who has left her spinsterhood in Washington, D.C., to serve as the schoolteacher for the Miranda family. Contrasting the sexual tension between Winslow and Arroyo and the paternal bonding between Winslow and the gringo, the novel examines the shifting nature of U.S. and Mexican political and cultural relations from the Mexican-American War of the 1840s (in which Bierce’s father fought), to the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s (in which Bierce fought), to the Spanish-American War of the 1890s (in which Winslow’s father fought), to the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s (in which Arroyo fights), to the Latin boom of the 1960s and 1970s (in which Fuentes comes to prominence). The result is a lyrical mélange of Winslow’s memories and intertextual snippets from Bierce’s war stories and cynical aphorisms.

The novel contrasts themes of literacy and self-identity as well as dramatizes the similarities among sexual, political, and cultural relations. Arroyo is supposed to have his soldiers join with Pancho Villa to attack Mexico City, but he lingers too long at the Miranda hacienda. He is looking for a set of ancient papers he cannot read that demonstrate how the king of Spain had centuries earlier given the land to the people rather than to the Miranda family. Because Arroyo is an illegitimate Miranda heir, his search both supports and discounts the legitimacy of colonial authority. The longer he lingers at the hacienda, the more his personal ties to the hacienda and its people undermine his duty to the revolution and Mexico. Eventually, he shoots the gringo in the back because of a perceived rivalry over Winslow. After Winslow reports this death of an American by revolutionary troops, Pancho Villa himself orders Arroyo’s execution because of the resulting diplomatic fracas.

In the end, the novel charts the crossing of multiple borders: those that separate countries, those that interrupt an individual’s sense of self, those that interweave within and between cultures, and those that undermine every attempt to re-create the past. By fictionalizing Bierce, Fuentes further invokes a permanently marginal figure of U.S. literary history. In 1989 the novel was made into the film Old Gringo by the Argentinean director Luis Puenzo. Featuring Gregory Peck as Bierce, Jane Fonda as Winslow, and Jimmy Smits as Arroyo, the film has been routinely panned due to poor casting and the convoluted nature of the narrative.

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Boland, Roy, ed. Specular Narrative: Critical Perspectives on Carlos Fuentes, Juan Goytisolo, Mario Vargas Llosa. Auckland, New Zealand: VOX/AHS, 1997.
De Guzman, Daniel. Carlos Fuentes. Boston: Twayne, 1972. Faris, Wendy B. Carlos Fuentes. New York: Ungar, 1983.
Shirey, Lynn. Latin American Writers. Global Profi les. New York: Facts on File, 1997.
Stavans, Ilan, ed. Latin American Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Williams, Raymond L. The Writings of Carlos Fuentes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis

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