What they call dying
is merely the last pain
– Ambrose Bierce (epigraph)
In December 1913 American writer, journalist and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce travelled through Louisiana and Texas to El Paso in Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He travelled onto the city of Chihuahua, writing a letter to a friend dated 26 December 1913. He was not seen again.
Although not specifically pointing out that the “Old Gringo” is a fictionalised Ambrose Bierce there are enough breadcrumbs throughout the text alluding to him, he’s a journalist who works for William Randolph Hurst, he refers to his two sons who had died, one by his own hand the other from complications due to alcoholism, the character carries books written by Bierce. Therefore, naturally a number of readers head to Bierce’s works to enrich their reading of Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Old Gringo’. However, whilst the work is a fictionalised account of the American writer’s last days in Mexico, it is also a much deeper work than simply an exploration of an American writer, the novel reflects on subjects such as the border between Mexico and the United States, the Holy Trinity, identity, the desert and writing itself.
The novel centres on three main characters, the nameless “Old Gringo” an American travelling to Mexico “to die”, rebel leader Tomás Arroyo and Harriet Winslow and American schoolteacher who has travelled to Arroyo’s lands to teach English to the children of the Estate (they have left, being overthrown before she had arrived).
Are these three the Holy Trinity?
…the body of Christ (the mystery that enlivened her memories, the mystery that teased her imagination: a body in a piece of bread, the body of a man born from a woman who had never known man’s flesh, you know, Miss Winslow, we speak in terrible circumlocutions here, we were taught as girls never to say legs, but that’s what I walk on, never buttocks, but that’s what I sit on – she laughed softly, almost sighing; the body of a man who was God, the body of a man who shares his Godliness with two other men; she imagined them as men: a second bearded man, old and mighty, sitting on a throne, who was at the same time the young man nailed to the cross; and a third, spectral, ageless man, a magician who called himself a Ghost, and Holy at that, and who was surely responsible in her childish imagination for all the other transformations: one into three, three into one, one into the virgin, then out of the same virgin, then dead, then resurrected and presumably back into three without ceasing to be one and then three-into-one into wafer, many, many millions of tiny pieces of bread all containing Him, and the Magician working away, the Ghost of a Spectral World). (pgs 150-151)
Besides the physical movement across borders, by the old gringo and Harriet Winslow, the clash of cultures, and national identities bubbles along;
…each of us carries his Mexico and his United States within him, a dark and bloody frontier we dare cross only at night (p187)
“They’re right when they say this isn’t a border. It’s a scar.” (p185)
The desert, a harsh environment, where the oppressive heat shimmers are reflected in the oneiric prose. I recalled French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s descriptions of the desert in his work ‘America’ (translated by Chris Turner) – although America, the desert descriptions felt apt;
Geological – and hence metaphysical – monumentally, by contrast with the physical altitude of ordinary landscapes. Upturned relief patterns, sculpted out by wind, water, and ice, dragging you down into the whirlpool of time, into the very remorseless eternity of a slow-motion catastrophe. The very idea of the millions and hundreds of millions of years that were needed peacefully to ravage the surface of the earth here is a perverse one, since it brings with it an awareness of signs originating, long before man appeared, in a sort of pact of wear and erosion struck between the elements. Among this gigantic heap of signs – purely geological in essence – man will have had no significance. (p 3)
Desert: luminous, fossilized network of an inhuman intelligence, of a radical indifference – the indifference not merely of the sky, but of the geological undulations, where the metaphysical passions of space and time alone crystallize. Here the terms of desire are turned upside down each day, and night annihilates them. But wait for the dawn to rise, with the awakening of the fossil sounds, the animal silence. (p 6)
A diversion by myself, however I feel this landscape description, from another writer, is warranted as Carlos Fuentes prose in ‘The Old Gringo’ reflects the harsh desert environment, a shimmering dreamlike approach where each of the character’s thoughts and musings meld into a blur of experience. And their experiences are looked at in detail, a reflection of themselves;
“Did you look at yourself in the mirror?” (p 43 – and repeated many times)
The mirrors in the ballroom of the estate have been preserved, with the local workers finding amusement in being able to see their reflections, the old gringo and Miss Winslow using the mirror to muse on their own places here.
Harriet looked at the old gringo exactly as he wanted to be looked at before he died. He felt that her gaze completed the fragmented sequence of his imagination of Harriet Winslow that had begun in the reflections in the mirrors in the ballroom that was but a threshold of the road to dream, atomized into a thousand oneiric instants and now joined again in the words that told the old gringo that Harriet would not allow a living testimony to her sensuality, that she was giving the old man the right to dream about her, but not Arroyo. (p149)
A shimmering novel of travel to find oneself to search for one’s own death, this is a complex and multi layered work;
They reminded her of Mantegna’s Christ, so lonely at his death table, His feet, His whole body jutting out of the canvas, kicking the spectator as if wishing violently to arouse him or her to the fact that `death was not noble but base, not serene but convulsive, not promising but irrevocable, unredeemable: the glassy half-opened eyes, the skimpy two-week beard, the ulcerated feet, the breathless half-opened mouth, the clogged nostrils, the blood-clotted flanks, the matted hair soaked in dust and sweat, the terrifying sensation of the presence of the newly dead, of their swearing and bearing and walking and standing erect just a few hours before. (p191-192)
To boil this novel down to a narrative about Ambrose Bierce is too shallow an approach.
Think of the circular hint Carlos Fuentes is providing with the opening and closing sentences being identical, the epigraph about death, the musings on finality, this is a complex but highly engaging novel, one that demands re-reading, the nuances would become more fruitful at each visit.
A wonderful find in the local charity shop, the edition being the 1986 first edition (in English), a bargain for $4, making me happy to extend my Carlos Fuentes collection.