Sunday, August 23, 2009

Books: The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes

There's something Under the Volcanoish about The Old Gringo, which is as nostalgic and lonely, even though it's stone-cold sober. And unlike Terra Nostra, the other Fuentes novel I've read (and loved), The Old Gringo is far from epic. Instead, it's a short, bittersweet flurry of repressed emotions, opening at the scene of the old gringo's burial, and flashing back to the days leading up to his death; he came to Mexico purposely to die, clean-shaven, neatly dressed, and carrying Don Quixote, which he intends to read before he does. He plans to do this by joining Pancho Villa's army of rebels.

Instead, he meets a young American girl, come to Mexico to act as Governess for an aristocratic family. The night of her arrival, the rebels set fire to the hacienda and the aristocrats escape. She and the old gringo have an instant, pained connection (he suddenly considers living, so that he can protect her; she is fatherless and refuses to go home). But she has made a bargain with the covetous General Arroyo, the man whose army the gringo has joined on its way to join with Villa. She sleeps with him to save the gringo's life from Arroyo's fire. The gringo, who has come to Mexico to die, has outshone Arroyo with his bravery, which the General cannot tolerate.

The gringo understands Mexico and the corrupt Arroyo in a way that the young girl refuses; patently American, she insists on staying on to do her "duty"—instructing the Mexicans in English "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic" as well as ethics. Insisting that the locals must learn to respect personal property, she orders the destroyed hacienda rebuilt, and places one of the aristocratic family's few remaining treasures—a string of pearls—out on display. She is devastated when they are stolen, despite Arroyo's explanation: the wrongdoing was her own, by creating temptation.

Her ultimate duty, though, is to the gringo, and she leaves Mexico after Arroyo finally shoots him, claiming the old man as her long-lost father. But Fuentes doesn't give us the resolution that she has learned anything or become healed. Like the Consul's wife in Under the Volcano, this woman is hazy, a kind of light-infused shadow. The story is not hers. But neither is it fully the gringo's, with his obsession with his own father, or Arroyo's, with his landowner's papers that he cannot read, being illiterate. The book starts, ends, and is filled throughout with the repetitive pattering voices of the Mexican soldiers fighting with Arroyo, General Frutos García, Innocencio Mansalvo, the boy Pedrito, and the witch-like La Garduña, who gossip about the old gringo, who he was, and what he was doing in Mexico. We have little access to their pasts, futures, or interiors either, but their voices set the tone that makes the book the dream that it is.

No comments: