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Mini Dragon Group (ages 6-7)

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Thomas White
Thomas White

Old Gringo

The audience for this movie may never realize who the gringo is - because Bierce, I fear, is little known to most moviegoers, and the screenplay is almost willful in its refusal to explain who the man is or what he accomplished. Under the circumstances, Peck does a manful job of investing Bierce's shadow with character and idiosyncrasy, although Peck, so straight-forward and stalwart, was a strange casting decision (I see Bierce as someone more like Harry Dean Stanton).

Old Gringo

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Most of the story revolves, however, not around the old gringo but the young gringa. It is startling how soon Winslow adjusts to the fact that she is no longer living in her mother's claustrophobic household. Perhaps a deep romantic streak was always present in her personality; she seems fated to end up in the arms of the handsome young revolutionary, Gen. Arroyo (Jimmy Smits), and they embrace in the ruins of a mansion once occupied by the landowners who oppressed the local peasants. Fonda feels right in the role, but oddly enough (since she produced the movie), her character is given little to say - and many of her lines come in the form of an arch, self-consciously literary narration.

What the movie lacks is a clear narrative line from beginning to end. It's heavy on disconnected episodes, light on drama and storytelling. An occasional scene stands out - my favorite is the one where the old gringo and a local prostitute make a deal that respects their mutual standards - but despite all of its blood and death, the movie never generates much urgency.

It is in this Mexican mind that Carlos Fuentes sets his most ambitious novel, the first in which he attempts to integrate all that he knows and can call up of history, myth and thought. He uses the opposition between nations, the tension of unequals that share a common border, to drive the plot of the novel and to motivate the revelations of history and analogue. He calls North America ''the land without memory'' and says there is a ''memorious dust'' in Mexico that blows across the river, all the way to Washington, where the heroine of the novel, Harriet Winslow, now sits and remembers. So begins the story of ''The Old Gringo,'' looking down through the topmost layer to the exhumation of the body of the old writer who had said, ''To be a gringo in Mexico, that is euthanasia.''

The exhumation and manner of death of the old gringo echo the killing of William Benton by one of Pancho Villa's generals during the revolution that began in 1910. Benton, a British citizen with connections to the great landowners of northern Mexico, was bludgeoned to death, causing an international scandal. Pancho Villa ordered the body dug up, properly executed, and sent home. It is a grisly incident even in a revolution, but Mr. Fuentes uses it as a turn of plot and a layer of imagination. Before half a dozen pages have gone by, the mind of the reader has been awakened to the author's dissatisfaction with history. The Miranda ranch in the novel will resemble the famed Terrazas ranch, which before the revolution was so large the owners replied to an order for 10,000 head of cattle by asking, ''What color?'' The generals of the novel will resemble the generals of history, but nothing will be exact, everything will be imagined from the shards of history and made to serve the fiction. Even Ambrose Bierce's famous story of patricide, ''A Horseman in the Sky,'' will appear in the novel as past and present, imagination and history, part of the distinction between Mexicans and North Americans. Quotations from his stories will be revised to fit the Ambrose Bierce invented by Mr. Fuentes. I N a novel of layers and connections such as this, the surface action must move quickly, there must be a good story to keep the reader from drowning in the depths. The genius of ''The Old Gringo'' is the choice of a character as rich as Ambrose Bierce, who is at the center of a famous mystery. At the age of 71, tossed between memory and death, Bierce crossed the border into Mexico in search of Pancho Villa, perhaps to find the stuff of stories again, perhaps to soldier as he had during the Civil War, perhaps to die. His last message came out of Mexico in December 1913, and he is presumed to have died the next year, some say in the battle of Ojinaga, but no one really knows.

Carlos Fuentes picks up the story at El Paso, loading Bierce's suitcase with sandwiches and symbols to carry across the border: ''If they opened his suitcase at customs, all they'd find would be a few ham sandwiches, a safety razor, a toothbrush, a couple of his own books, a copy of Don Quixote, a clean shirt, and a Colt .44 wrapped in his underclothes.'' Bierce soon encounters the troops of Gen. Tomas Arroyo, makes a show of his nerve and marksmanship and is invited to join Pancho Villa's Northern Division. It is clear to the young Villista general that the old gringo wants to die. The Villistas occupy the remains of the great Miranda ranch. Arroyo's troops destroy everything but the mirrored ballroom of the hacienda. In the ruins Arroyo and Bierce meet Harriet Winslow, the American woman from Washington who had been hired as a governess and teacher for the Miranda children, and the curious triangle of the novel is formed. Once the three are known and related, lives can be attached to them -Harriet Winslow's father disappeared or was killed in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, and he is or is not buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Suicides and parenticides (as Bierce called them) are connected to Bierce in what may be history, tricks of memory, or the imagination of the artist. But it is Tomas Arroyo whose history and imaginings reach all the way down through the origins of his people under the earth in Aztlan to the mythical base upon which the Mexican character is constructed; the nahual life of his life is allegorical: he belongs to the basic myth of Coatlicue whose son was born full-grown and armed, able to save himself from the murderous jealousy of his siblings, the moon and the stars. To point up the allegory, General Arroyo travels with a woman named La Luna (The Moon), and her relation to him is far more complicated than that of a mere camp follower.

Distance is not a problem in this book, however. Carlos Fuentes is not a cold writer, and he and Margaret Sayers Peden, who translated the book together, have maintained the tem-perature of his style, as in this description of a scene at the Miranda ranch: ''A never-ending fiesta, a proliferating energy that fed on its own excesses of color and fever and sacrifice. The old gringo did not want to read omens or perceive destinies in the thronging life surrounding him, pressing and pushing him slowly into the chapel, a strong and irradicable snaking of faith incarnate and sacrifice and waste, toward the altar, farther and farther from them, the old man separated from Arroyo and Harriet, the man and woman together now, embraced by a blind destiny the old gringo could understand in Harriet's face but not on his. Arroyo's face. The old gringo's face, saying to Arroyo: Take her, take my daughter. Into the middle of the kneeling penitents, the thick incense and scapulars, rolled a perfect silver peso, and young Pedrito, on all fours like a little animal, scrambled after it, fearful of losing his only treasure.''

The truth of the conflict, however, may be revealed by the dominant symbol in ''The Old Gringo,'' the mirror. In the mirror we see ourselves or the opposite of ourselves; the reflection proves the reality of the viewer or the existence of the nahual. If the father of the schoolteacher from Washington died in Cuba, who is the old gringo who has come to die in Mexico, and how is he related to the teacher and to Arroyo except as a symbol? How is the moon-faced woman who sleeps with the young general connected to the sun? In the intertwining of the schoolteacher and the general, the child of the father and the child of the mother, who will dominate? And what have these symbolic children to do with the death and exhumation of the old gringo? T HERE are devilish bargains, the destruction of a precious patrimony, murder, betrayal and a great deceit, all growing out of the reconstructed, comprehensible history imagined by Carlos Fuentes. It is the kind of work one hoped would follow the brilliant excoriation of a perverted revolution in ''The Death of Artemio Cruz,'' which was published more than 20 years ago; it is the work of an integrated personality, the artist who contains and illuminates all the layers of all the times and cultures of a nation. 041b061a72


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