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The Old Gringo by Carlos Fuentes
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's review
Jan 17, 09

Recommended for: Not too many people
Read in January, 2009


An occasionally entertaining blend of poetically charged "dream-biography", and incoherent babbling.

I would recommend not reading The Old Gringo if you want to know something about Ambrose Bierce; though in all fairness, you should probably never read a novel to teach yourself history. Anyway, it was not Fuentes' intention to be historically specific. The life and disappearance of his subject is a very difficult obstacle for any novelist, and instead of focusing our attention on the broad range of history, Fuentes plants his readers on a 500 square feet region of land in Mexico and talks about mirrors (now she remembers) for just under one hundred and ninety-nine pages.

It is the story of Ambrose Bierce ( a man you should know), Harriet Winslow, an American woman in Mexico to teach the children of a wealthy family, and Tomas Arroyo, a self-appointed general of the Revolution. Bierce is the "old gringo" of the title, though he is not mentioned by name until the very end, and he has come to Mexico to die honorably; Winslow is a sort of half-breed between a self-righteous Henry James heroine and something left in the minds of Mexicans about how Americans are supposed to think and act when out of their country. Arroyo is fairly tragic, and always maintains at least half of an erection, Ms. Winslow lets us know.


It's a book that's desperate to have you love it.

At its best and worst, The Old Gringo, is reminiscent of some of Leonard Cohen's best and worst songs: disturbing, unsubtly libidinous, and chock full of quiet, lonely explosions. I think much of Cohen is awful, and most of The Old Gringo. Its particulars are much more important than its scope.

When Fuentes allows his story to be understood it is quite well-written; for the other hundred pages or so, though, it is worse than a stilted romanticism. Certain phrases grab you with their marginally thought out direction; others just wither in their own incomprehensibility. I like to believe that it's the translator's fault, but I don't really think that's true. Plus, Fuentes helped on this translation, so the best that can be said about him is that he wrote a bad book, and tried to cover it up by assisting in a bad translation.

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01/08/2009 page 155
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