The Old Gringo
Each of these three very different novels has to do with politics, but each writer in his own way sees politics as destructive; and all three try to express the pathos governing a world that increasingly seems in other respects ungovernable.
Honorable Men is another of Louis Auchincloss’s honorable searches into the moral contradictions within what used to be our ruling class, those well-born WASPs who controlled much of the economy and managed its proceeds on Wall Street and in Washington. The leading character is Charles (“Chip”) Benedict, of Benedict, Connecticut, and Camden, Maine, St. Luke’s School (his grandfather was headmaster) and Yale ‘38. After law school at the University of Virginia and the command of an LST at Normandy, Chip does a little corporate law in Manhattan before taking over the family glassworks, which, after cheapening the product a little, he sells to conglomerate in 1961. (This literally kills his traditionalist father.) After a brief interval of charitable trusteeship, while his wife drifts toward alcoholism, he goes to Washington as a special assistant to the secretary of state, where the story finds him in the late 1960s helping to conduct and justify the unpleasantness in South-east Asia.
The book carries an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and like that earlier patrician, Chip tries manfully to meet the demands of his lineage. Unlike Coriolanus, however, he “could always fool people.” He never quite loved his domineering parents. At St. Luke’s he (reluctantly) accepts the homosexual advances of a classmate, Chessy Bogart, but saves himself by lying when Bogart’s other amours are found out. At Yale he attacks the Honor Societies in the News and vows not to join one, but on Tap Day he goes to Branford Court with everyone else and becomes the last man chosen for Skull and Bones (which for reasons of his own Auchincloss calls Bulldog). At Virginia, editing the Law Review, he finds that Bogart has submitted a partly plagiarized note for publication and self-righteously forces him to withdraw from school, on threat of exposure. He takes his marriage to “the most famous debutante in America” fairly seriously, yet he is continually unfaithful, though he draws the line at married women. His private reservations about Johnson’s war don’t hamper his public efforts to continue fighting it.
The world elsewhere that poor Coriolanus could never find is right there inside Chip Benedict all along. Bogart understandably thinks him a “devil,” but Chip’s wife Alida comes closer when she calls him a “fanatic.” Family and class have given him an idea of life as moral theater, in which the pursuit of goodness becomes more exciting if one privately tastes evil now and then. His private evil is ugly enough, but I’m afraid that his sense of public good often sounds stilted and naive. He thought our victory in World War II divinely empowered; seeing Nagasaki after the bomb suggests to him that his personal war with evil may be ending, since war itself is now impossible; but, twenty years later, though Vietnam offends “common sense and discretion,” it at least affords him a new, heroic image of self, “hacking at the green scaly neck that bore the head of the dragon.” In Shakespeare, Coriolanus himself is the “dragon,” which seems more like it.
Vietnam and its effects in fact cost this St. George dearly. His daughter becomes an activist lawyer and a lesbian feminist, his son escapes to Sweden, Alida (whom Bogart has seduced) addresses envelopes for the Movement. But the war seems to bring Chip a freedom he need not conceal, as he resigns his government post, gains his mother’s unconditional love, and plans to marry his adoring young secretary. But Alida sees the ambiguities—he hasn’t repented his errors (“I did what I thought was best at the time. Now it’s over. We go on.”)—and she has an appalling final vision of his strength,
…like some ineluctable glacier, moving on relentlessly over the frozen bodies of his first wife and offspring, moving on from a past that crumbled to nothing behind it, with hardly a memory, certainly not a regret…. I saw him now as a statue, shining, glowing, unveiled, with alabaster limbs and one arm, like Perseus’ upstretched, holding the head of Medusa.
Though one should make some allowance for sour grapes on Alida’s part, Chip’s fate does seem less than moral victory—the best thing about heroic statues is that their violent subjects are no longer around in the flesh to cause us so much trouble.
As a social and political fable, Honorable Men makes good sense in spite—or because—of its myopia about what lies beyond its narrow social scope. (I wish I were surer that the author smiled when he made Chip’s secretary-lover a Brearley and Vassar girl who’s in the Social Register; she is half-Hungarian, admittedly.) Nor is it easy to hear Auchinclossian dialogue sympathetically:
“…Do you know that he is the heir of the Benedict Company and the very apple of his parents’ eyes?”
“I have surmised it.”
“And have you any idea what Mr. and Mrs. Benedict are like?”
“I understand they are virtuous folk. Very high-minded. No doubt they will disapprove of me.”
“Alida, they will fight you tooth and nail!” Gus was very grave now. “They will use every weapon in their arsenal, and they have plenty. For God’s sake, don’t give up Jonathan before you’re sure of Benedict. You may have been a famous debutante, but think of your family and the fragility of your position. One false step, and the world will have it in for you!”
To such talk I want to say, as (from a different social angle) John Gielgud said in the movie Arthur to Liza Minelli’s plebeian father, “Try not to speak.” But when you turn the sound down to where only inflections of feeling are audible, this book makes its point, not as a novel of manners or politics, but as Christian (or post-Christian) homily. The ebbing away of the conviction of grace within a Protestant elite that has conquered secular reality in God’s name is a major subject, and Honorable Men at least suggests what a major fictional treatment of it would be like.
The world of George Dennison’s Luisa Domic is physically close to Auchincloss’s but light years away in other respects. The novel’s unnamed narrator (whom I shall call “N.”) lives in rural Maine at the end of a town road, at the Frostian point where a recalcitrant nature slowly reasserts itself against human occupation. Like Dennison, N. is a writer who once conducted an experimental school for disturbed children, about which he wrote a well-received book. (Dennison’s The Lives of Children, published in 1969, is a classic document of what was best in the educational revisionism of the 1960s.) Like Dennison too, N. then moved with his wife and three children to Maine, where we find them in 1971 in a kind of alternative culture Eden. They are distant from but not indifferent to the turmoils outside—the story begins just after N.’s wife “drove off to her antinuclear conference in Augusta” much as city folk go to the office or the plant.
The story centers on two visits by old friends from the outside world. Harold Ashby is a gifted musician from New York who once set some of N.’s poems to music. In a crossing and reversal of N.’s own career, Ashby has given up composing to conduct a kind of musical therapy for autistic or retarded children. He draws them into a mimicry of their own incoherent wailing, which he improvises at the piano, and he leads them toward the recognition of the “world” which they so pitifully lack:
The crying continued [as N. recalls one such session], and the music accompanied it. But the boy’s awareness of the music had altered his crying, and this small change entered immediately into the music. Again the boy noticed; the noticing was audible…and the music took up this new element and displayed it in the musical structure, which itself had no parallel in the boy’s voice but was the otherness, or world, into which he was being lured…. And I could not help but believe that the beauty of the music was essential to the therapeutic task.
The second visitor is Marshall Berringer, a poet and radical activist whom N. was once close to. Berringer brings with him Luisa Domic, a Chilean woman fleeing from as yet unspecified horrors during the overthrow of the Allende government; Berringer is conducting her to sanctuary in Canada.
The visitors come from opposite worlds. Berringer is a Marxist, an egoist, a poet of formless passionate assertion whose commitment to action N. respects even though he senses that their friendship is ending. Berringer has no interest in music or psychology; he likes to mutter things like “Our civilization is not what we think it is”; he drives a battered VW Beetle. Ashby, who arrives in a “glossy red” rental car, is apolitical, homosexual, devoted to close, intricate personal relations and the formal subtlety that corresponds to them in art. Though these men are good friends of N.’s and live only a few blocks apart in New York, they have not previously met. They suggest conflicting claims upon our attention, the claim of collective political seriousness and that of the imagination’s narrower but more intimate affection for particular people and things.
N. is in effect the audience that must judge this drama of alternatives, but Luisa Domic is its stage. Not even Berringer knows exactly what has happened to her in Chile. Upon arrival she seems dazed or sedated; the next morning they find her sobbing in the barn, though she then is soothed by their concern, especially that of N.’s very likable children. But when one of the children falls down the cellar stairs, Luisa becomes hysterical and recovers only when Ashby plays for her as he does for his young patients.
Luisa is herself a musician, an accomplished pianist whose favorite modern composer in Harold Ashby, and she plays them a number of his pieces in her excitement at finally meeting Ashby himself. Her children are promising young virtuosos, she says proudly; her husband, a prominent radical journalist, lacks musical talent but is a passionate listener; once, when he was ill, Luisa and the children gave him a private concert of works by Ashby. Her strange elation ends after a while, but she enjoys a homemade play performed for her by N.’s children before bedtime, and she is calm and appreciative as she and Berringer leave for Quebec the next morning.
That same afternoon Berringer calls to tell them that Luisa has killed herself shortly after their arrival. As the news from Chile becomes clearer, what they had suspected is confirmed—the family she so proudly spoke of in the present tense is in fact dead, her husband murdered early in the rightist coup, her children later, before her eyes, in the National Stadium along with hundreds of other Allendeists. Ashby’s curing art had led Luisa back into a world of life but could not hold her there, as he later tells N. he had feared it could not. The world of force that concerns Berringer wins her finally, though art and imagination can do something for those who survive—N.’s older daughter intently practices on her flute after hearing of Luisa’s death, and N. himself pictures the rocky landscape around them as Luisa’s monument.
I have made this book sound more schematic than it is. In the reading it resists its tendency toward parable and becomes an indirect, mysterious, often haunting story whose thematic points are absorbed into realized human occasions, as when Ashby tells the children about one of Houdini’s great escapes. The tale comments both on the power of illusion and on its basis in manipulative deception, but it is told simply as a bedtime story; and in fact its burden is unfair to Ashby’s own kind of art, whose illusions come less from manipulation than from compassionate concern for their human effect, his reason for telling the story at all. Luisa Domic is a small, pure contemplation of a terrible world, but it shows some sense of community persisting, though reduced to the scale of a strong and affectionate family like N.’s own; and it shows that though the imagination makes nothing happen, it can make living in such a world a little more endurable.
The Mexico of Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo lies farther away in space and time. The old gringo is Ambrose Bierce at seventy-one; his famous disappearance is accounted for (rather plausibly) as the intended result of his crossing the Rio Grande in 1916 to join Pancho Villa’s irregulars. Bierce is “pursued by alternatives” that spring from his own embittered past and also the America whose fatuity he so scorned, and he seeks their resolution in dying for a cause he doesn’t believe in. In rural Chihuahua Bierce meets another American, Miss Harriet Winslow, a thirtyish spinster from Washington, DC. Harriet has come there to be governess to the children of rich landowners, the Mirandas; although their hacienda has been captured by rebels and the family has fled to Paris, Harriet insists on staying to meet her contractual obligations. She is now reduced to saving what she can of the estate and trying to “civilize” its revolutionist occupiers.
We are thus shown two different versions of the Anglo spirit—Bierce’s proud determination to control his own destiny even as his irony shades into despair, Harriet’s stubborn attachment to duty and self-reliance. Now Fuentes introduces a third character, Tomás Arroyo, who commands Villa’s forces in the area. Arroyo is young, proud, macho, suspicious of foreigners, yet responsive to Bierce’s reckless courage and Harriet’s self-assurance. He is devoted to his cause even though it may only be an imprisoning illusion that will not redeem Mexico no matter who wins the revolution.
This triptych of characters risks being too obvious a device to show the distance between Mexican and American minds, and Fuentes sometimes forces the point he wants to make about them on the reader—there are a few too many remarks like “each of us carries his Mexico and his United States within him” or “be us and still be yourself” or “I want to learn to live with Mexico, I don’t want to save it.” Americans can learn something here about why our southern neighbors don’t love us, but the book’s very considerable power lies not in its international theme but in the richness with which it is managed. Fuentes’s brooding Faulkneresque sentences (as conveyed by Margaret Sayers Peden’s quietly fluent translation) and his complex manipulations of narrative sequence express not the linear movement of events through time, but the connecting and highlighting of discrete moments that the historical imagination performs in trying to make the past intelligible. The book begins, for example, with the exhuming of Bierce’s corpse by soldiers who know scarcely more than we do about why this is being done; in effect, the old gringo is dead before he is alive, and both his life and his death are continuously immanent in the mind of Harriet Winslow, who as an old woman “now…sits alone and remembers” in both the first and last sentences of the book.
Arroyo’s personal history mirrors the national past. A bastard son of the Mirandas, conceived in a moment of seigniorial pleasure with a peon woman, he sees revolution partly as his personal vengeance on a society that should recognize his right of blood but has defined him as property. Behind this lies an older and more general disinheritance; though he can’t read them (as Bierce mockingly points out), he preserves and treasures some ancient documents that purport to record a royal grant of the land to its early settlers as communal property. He cherishes the belief that revolution is thus endorsed by law and history, that it is not dispossession but restoration.
The ambiguity of the revolution’s justification—is the revolution an illusion or a discovery—Fuentes suggests by the recurrence of the metaphor of “reflection.” When the hacienda is destroyed, Arroyo preserves its grandly mirrored ballroom. His soldiers are awed and delighted by their reflections, and he explains this as revolutionary self-discovery: “They had never seen their whole bodies before. They didn’t know their bodies were more than a piece of their imagination or a broken reflection in a river. Now they know.” But vanity and exploitation created this hall of mirrors; it is ironically not “their bodies” they see but images in a medium of “civilized” self-consciousness that may distort some earlier and perhaps stronger sense of self, just as the revolution uproots and sophisticates people who formerly knew who and what they were—in effect, Americanizes them, as the old gringo senses:
…they had never left their villages before but now they were traveling everywhere, conceiving a child in Durango, giving birth in Juárez, losing it in Chihuahua: from the beginning of time, they had been isolated in their forgotten villages, their huts in the desert, their hovels in the mountains, and now everybody knew everybody, they were riding around in trains to boot: Long live the Revolution, and General Tomás Arroyo!
The old gringo saw all the welcoming faces and felt a sharp stab of recognition, stronger than he had felt in the ballroom. One song was heard again and again around the campfires: Along came the whirlwind and swept us all away.
The revolution breeds dreams. When Arroyo and Harriet dance alone in the ballroom just before she yields to him sexually, she imagines that she is dancing with her lost father, who went to “save Cuba” in 1898 and never came back, officially missing in action but possibly a deserter who found himself a Cuban woman. Arroyo dreams that he is dancing with his dead mother, returned not as a soiled rape victim but as “his father’s legitimate wife, his mother, the straight and clean woman…dancing with her son the waltz Sobre las olas that they had heard so often far away in the big house.”
They are, Fuentes says, “dancing a story,” and stories are both untrue and susceptible of truth. As they both search for a lost father, a new father is close by, Bierce himself. He wants to love them in place of his own lost children yet he is also jealous, as fathers can be, of their attraction to each other and afraid that loving them may deplete his will to solitude and death. In any case, the old gringo gets what he wants when he burns Arroyo’s papers—in revenge for his conquest of Harriet? to release him from the burden of the past into truly revolutionary freedom?—and is shot dead by the enraged general.
This death gains Harriet a father; she concocts a new story, that Arroyo has in fact killed her true father, who had come from Cuba to protect her. And when Villa, the illusionless master of political realism, exhumes Bierce’s corpse and has it properly shot by a firing squad to preserve the legal niceties, Harriet takes the body home to be buried as “Captain Winslow” in Arlington. But Arroyo gets only death—Villa executes him too, to avert the wrath of Woodrow Wilson.
Like Auchincloss and Dennison, Fuentes looks beyond politics to private hope that history itself can be the source of identity and confident action. But he shows how tenuous, at best, that source is, how easily falsified by will and desire. The Old Gringo eloquently expresses how tragically we are implicated in politics, and also how much of our fate, tragic or not, eludes any merely political description.