The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Bitters" Bierce and Fuentes's Mexico

"To be a Gringo in Mexico - ah, that is euthanasia!"--Ambrose Bierce

I'm re-reading Carlos Fuentes's novel, The Old Gringo, a remarkable book of fiction that addresses the question of the disappearance and death of Ambrose Bierce. Fuentes stiches together the few known facts (some known only from Bierce's few letters after he went down to Mexico to view the revolution led by Pancho Villa. Little is known; when Bierce departed he was described and quoted in a contemporary article thus:
Traveling over the same ground that he had covered with General Hazen's brigade during the Civil War, Ambrose Bierce, famed writer and noted critic, has arrived in New Orleans. Not that this city was one of the places figuring in his campaigns, for he was here after and not during the war. He has come to New Orleans in a haphazard, fancy-free way, making a trip toward Mexico. The places that he has visited on the way down have become famous in song and story -- places where the greatest battles were fought, where the moon shone at night on the burial corps, and where in day the sun shone bright on polished bayonets and the smoke drifted upward from the cannon mouths.

For Mr. Bierce was at Chickamauga; he was at Shiloh; at Murfreesboro; Kenesaw Mountain, Franklin and Nashville. And then when wounded during the Atlanta campaign he was invalided home. He "has never amounted to much since then," he said Saturday. But his stories of the great struggle, living as deathless characterizations of the bloody episodes, stand for what he has amounted to since then.

Perhaps it was in mourning for the dead over whose battlefields he has been wending his way toward New Orleans that Mr. Bierce was dressed in black. From head to foot he was attired in this color, except where the white cuffs and collar and shirt front showed through. He even carried a walking cane, black as ebony and unrelieved by gold or silver. But his eyes, blue and piercing as when they strove to see through the smoke at Chickamauga, retained all the fire of the indomitable fighter.

"I'm on my way to Mexico, because I like the game," he said. "I like the fighting; I want to see it. And then I don't think Americans are as oppressed there as they say they are, and I want to get at the true facts of the case. Of course, I'm not going into the country if I find it unsafe for Americans to be there, but I want to take a trip diagonally across from northeast to southwest by horseback, and then take ship for South America, go over the Andes and across that continent, if possible, and come back to America again.

There is no family that I have to take care of; I've retired from writing and I'm going to take a rest. No, my trip isn't for local color. I've retired just the same as a merchant or businessman retires. I'm leaving the field for the younger authors."

An inquisitive question was interjected as to whether Mr. Bierce had acquired a competency only from his writings, but he did not take offense.

"My wants are few, and modest," he said, "and my royalties give me quite enough to live on. There isn't much that I need, and I spend my time in quiet travel. For the last five years I haven't done any writing. Don't you think that after a man has worked as long as I have that he deserves a rest? But perhaps after I have rested I might work some more -- I can't tell, there are so many thingsä" and the straightforward blue eyes took on a faraway look, "there are so many things that might happen between now and when I come back. My trip might take several years, and I'm an old man now."

Except for the thick, snow-white hair no one would think him old. His hands are steady, and he stands up straight and tall -- perhaps six feet."
Fuentes uses much of the contemporary material--his description of Bierce's attire comes right from this article. And, back in the 1990s, it was Bierce who was the draw for me. His writings (including his feud with Mark Twain), his sarcasm, his caustic humor, all appealed to me, and, in regulated doses, still do--one difference between Bierce and Twain is that the latter is much less pessimistic than Bierce. Bierce's humor can become nihilistic, life-denying. A little is a tonic, but too much becomes chilling.

But for Fuentes, Bierce was only one part of the story; the Old Gringo--never named in the book until its very end--has a nemesis, a General in the revolution, Tomas Arroyo, and there is an American woman, Harriet Winslow, who becomes Arroyo's lover, and is a daughter-figure to Bierce, two of whose sons have died by their own hands, and whose marriage ended with a separation, much more rare in those days than now. The Old Gringo's ties to life having all snapped, he is less than thrilled when he feels stirrings of compassion for Harriet and Arroyo, who, like Harriet, revives his paternal instincts, albeit in a different way. Arroyo is as central to the book as Bierce; he is illiterate, self-appointed a General, but with real leadership quality, and is the repository of the brutally oppressed peasants' folk-memory, as well as the papers that show (he has been taught) that the land belongs to the people. The novel is as much the story of Arroyo as of the Old Gringo. On that reading, Harriet, the catalyst, may come in third place, but that seems off. Fuentes creates a believable character, not just a Lawrentian spinster of her era.

And so, the tropes that make me want to retch when employed by D.H. Lawrence work better when deployed by Fuentes, perhaps because Lawrence often seems to me to despise his female characters, where Fuentes loves Harriet Winslow, despite her starchiness, her assumptions of cultural superiority. He sees the warm-heart beneath those traits, and explores Harriet's need for order in a sympathetic way. In a way that Lawrence never does, in my opinion, Fuentes grounds Arroyo and Winslow in their life experiences, and makes their attraction-antagonism credible. And in that telling, Bierce is the catalyst for them, just as Winslow is the catalyst between Bierce and Arroyo. And, in yet another view of the novel, Arroyo (in what Harriet sees as the wanton destruction of the hacienda where she has come to teach the children of the long-fled Miranda family) is the catalyst that sparks the relationship between the Old Gringo and Harriet--drawing him back into life.

In other words, each character is both a primary actor and a catalyst in the relationship between the other two. You can view the story as that of Harriet Winslow (who opens and closes the novel), with either the Old Gringo or Arryo as the primary figure impacting her life. Or, if you choose, you can view the book as the Old Gringo's story of his relationship with either Harriet or Arroyo--after all, he's the eponymous character. But you can, and I think this makes the novel even more interesting, view it as Arroyo's story. Because Arroyo is struggling to find a way for the poor out of poverty, into freedom, and is tempted both by revenge and a narrow vision of justice. The Old Gringo and Harriet offer other possible ways for him to go, but each is flawed as well. Neither Bierce's nihilistic, bleak humor nor Harriet's respect for convention is a life-giving choice for him, yet each has a kernel of something Arroyo could use, as he intuits.

Any one of these three readings is supported by the text, and it's a rich novel for just that reason.

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