Representative excerpt: “Harriet dancing this night with her ramrod-straight, decorated, brave father at a soirée welcoming the heroes of Cuba, tricolor rosettes on the bosoms of all the women, WELCOME HOME HEROES OF SAN JUAN HILL, her uniformed father, with stiff mustaches and hair smelling of cologne, proud of his slender daughter in her whirl of taffeta, Captain Winslow with a slightly different scent, and she, burying her nose in her father’s scent, smelling the city of Washington there, that false Acropolis of marble and domes and columns sunk in the wet mud of a pernicious tropics that dared not say its name: a Southern suffocation, a jungle of marble like a grandiose and empty cemetery, the temples of justice and the government sinking into an equatorial, devouring, spreading tangle of undergrowth: a vegetal cancer rooted in the foundations of Washington, a city moist as the crotch of an aroused Negress: Harriet buried her nose in Tomás Arroyo’s neck and smelled a Negress’s swollen, velvety sex: Captain Winslow, I am very lonely, you may have me at your pleasure.” (pp. 109-10, trans. Carlos Fuentes and Margaret Sayers Peden)
Carlos Fuentes’ Old Gringo is a journalist and minor author who arrives in Mexico in 1913 and shacks up with Pancho Villa’s army with the intent of committing suicide by Mexican Revolution. He is modeled on Ambrose Bierce, who may have succeeded in euthanizing himself in such a way—but we cannot confirm that because he vanished, so it is natural for authors like Fuentes to fill in the story’s gaps with legend, not unlike the composers who’ve tried to finish Mozart’s Requiem. The Old Gringo is banked on the allure of an unsolvable mystery—on “what might have happened” serving as a nourishing aesthetic substitute for the unknown “what happened”—but that mystery is far from Fuentes’ only concern. In fact, most of the novel’s midsection is devoted to the sexual liaison that American tutor Harriet Winslow enacts with rebel general Tomás Arroyo to keep Bierce safe, once it becomes clear that Bierce—a paternal figure for Harriet—is challenging Arroyo’s authority. The characters spend much of that liaison flashing back to the traumatic events that define them and their relationships with their homelands, and many of the resulting flashbacks deal with sex, abusive parents, Oedipal crap, a scary cellar, and other psycho-mumbo-jumbo. So you see, I’m skeptical. This isn’t because I feel misled by a title and back cover blurb promising a story about Bierce—it’s hardly fair to force an author to conform to all your expectations—but rather, it’s because I’d hoped an author of Fuentes’ stature was above Paddy Chayefsky’s rubber ducky exposition: “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.” Bierce specialized in short stories, poetry and adages, so it’s appropriate for Fuentes to work in a calculatedly incoherent, unfocused fashion, and there is some insightful poetic waxing on the sociopolitical ties between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as between the human body and its landscape, and on Bierce’s curious links to W.R. Hearst. This is a novel of and about substitutions—of myth for history, of surrogates for biological parents and children, of new regimes for old ones, of propaganda for fact, of oral culture for written language. All is mutable. The cognitive impulse to fill in our vacancies and wounds is a natural and potent one. It’s frustrating when Fuentes resorts to the usual trite Freudian psycho-babble to meet that end, but when he is dissecting the constant exchanges of people and territory between his home nation and its imperialist northern neighbor, and when he is actually getting to the heart and soul of the Ambrose Bierce mystery, there is a plenitude of profound moments.
Next week: Another tale of a life-and-death struggle in the middle of nowhere, this time in Tasmania: Nobel winner Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves.