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Carlos Fuentes: Gringo viejo (The Old Gringo)

This may not be Fuentes’ best novel but it is an interesting take on an obscure part of the Mexican Revolution and the US invovlement in it. It is more or less the story of the last days of Ambrose Bierce. Bierce was an American writer, who fought in the American Civil War, and went on to become a cynical writer. He is now perhaps best known for A Devil’s Dictionary and the story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, which was made into a famous Oscar-winning short film. In 1913, he went to visit Mexico, then in the throes of its revolution. While there, he disappeared and no trace of him has ever been found. Fuentes’ novel is speculation about what he did in Mexico.

Fuentes’ story concerns an elderly American – we do not know till the end that it is, in fact, Bierce – who enters Mexico during the Mexican Revolution with the aim of getting killed, considering that a good way of suicide as any. He meets two key people in Mexico. The first is Tomás Arroyo, a general in Pancho Villa‘s army. The second is Harriet Winslow, who had gone to work as a governess for the wealthy Miranda family. Unfortunately, she arrives as Arroyo’s troops are taking over the family’s estates and she becomes a captive of Arroyo. Arroyo is originally from this estate and is reluctant to leave. Bierce becomes something of a father figure to both characters though he also has sexual feelings for Harriet Winslow. While focusing on this very personal aspect of the war – the triangle between Bierce, Winslow and Arroyo – we also see the real war. Bierce, eager to die, gets involved in the fighting and, of course, the war is going on in the background. But this is one of his most personal novels and, while not his best, it is still very worthwhile.

Publishing history

First published by Fondo de Cultura Económica in 1985
First published in English in 1985 by Farrar, Straus
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden