Novel by Fuentes ruminates on fate of Ambrose Bierce

The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden and the author. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 199 pp. $14.95. Mexico's most eminent novelist, Carlos Fuentes, has also enjoyed a distinguished academic career and has produced much incisive commentary on contemporary subjects. He seems particularly well qualified to analyze the tensions between his own beleaguered country and the adversary norteamericano culture, whose wealth and power border and mock its struggles.

``The Old Gringo'' is Fuentes's imagining of the fate of the renegade American writer Ambrose Bierce, known to have entered Mexico in 1913 during the height of its 10-year civil war and who simply disappeared. Bierce's well-known misanthropy is assumed to motivate his wish to join Pancho Villa's revolutionaries and sacrifice himself. It's a somewhat stagy conceit -- but the story's sophisticated unfolding more than compensates.

Fuentes involves Bierce with two strongly imagined characters. Harriet Winslow, an idealistic American woman who teaches wealthy landowners' children, stays on after her employers have fled, hoping to ``become part of'' an emergent democracy. Tom'as Arroyo, one of Villa's officers, is a low-born overachiever determined to possess and transform the burdensome past, which Bierce scorns and Harriet innocently worships. The collision and interplay of these three reveal the interconnectedness, indeed the virtual identity, of political commitment and personal destiny.

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