An eternal mystery
The last days of Ambrose Bierce
Basic Books, 267 pages
Riley Dugall, The New York Times
Ambrose Bierce -- renowned 19th century author (civil war stories;
The Devil's Dictionary),
journalist and all-around cynic and satirist -- went to Mexico in October 1913,
to investigate Pancho Villa and the Mexican revolution.
He went out of boredom and to look for adventure. Once across the border
Bierce hooked up with Villa’s army and traveled as far south as Chihuahua.
From there, on December 26, 1913, he sent his last letter to a close friend.
Ambrose Bierce was never heard from again.
To this day biographies give his life span as "1842 - 1914?"
Some historians assume he was killed in battle, while others speculate of suicide.
There is simply no evidence either way, but the historic void does suggest he did not
die of natural causes.
‘Famous Writer Disappears in Mexico’ is wonderful grist for an author who wishes to
invent Bierce’s last months. Cicely Morgan has taken on the task, and done an admirable job.
(Her last book was the non-fiction Mexican Revolution, 1910-1940: a 21st Century
Perspective). She begins her novel with what we know: Bierce’s last year in the U.S.,
reasonably famous and retired as successful columnist for the San Francisco Examiner.
At 73 he was divorced (his ex-wife had since died), with 2 of his 3 children dead.
The Mexico adventure was just the medicine for a life winding down in loneliness.
Without any specific portfolio Bierce decided to see the revolution up close and personal.
There was nothing to lose; if he died in battle, so what?
Bierce was not one to sit around and wait for a final, lingering illness to end his life.
In one of his last letters to his niece Lora he wrote:
"Good-bye -- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to
rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life.
It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico --
ah, that is euthanasia!"
To keep the juices flowing Morgan invents several compelling interests:
a young Mexican widow who falls for the elderly Norte Americano; a diary kept by Bierce;
a short story written in the field that he plans to publish in the U.S.;
and a relationship with Villa that is based on mutual respect but which is also painted as
fragile and one that could turn at any moment. Villa is a revolutionary,
not a journalistic mogul like William Randolph Hearst, Bierce’s long time employer.
Villa’s way of dealing with problem workers is apt to be a tad more violent.
This is not the first novelization of Bierce’s Mexico disappearance.
Carlos’ Fuentes novel
The Old Gringo was published in 1985 and in 1989 adapted into a
forgettable movie of the same name,
starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda. I find Morgan’s
novel more enjoyable, and more plausible. Whereas Fuentes’ female protagonist falls in
love with a Mexican general, in Last Days she falls for Bierce. Morgan also
centers the story much more around Bierce himself. We read snippets of his diary which,
true to form, remain cynical and sardonic to the end. And the short story is wholly
contained within the novel. While it’s often treacherous to attempt someone else’s style, Morgan’s
concoction is a small gem, quite in the Ambrose-ian style. That is to say,
slightly off balance, with a twisty ending.
(Briefly, a Villa lieutenant disobeys an order that should never have been given,
then has to explain why to Villa.
He is prepared to die for this transgression, and really must be killed as example
or the revolutionary soldiers will lose respect for their leader. Or will they?)
This is historical fiction at its best, based on real events and people, with invented
parts wholly plausible and not at risk of contradiction.
Bierce does die in this novel, and we learn why no one ever heard about it (or the circumstances).
Beyond that, I won’t tell, except to reveal that he doesn’t meet his end against a stone wall.
More than The Old Gringo, Bierce fans will definitely enjoy The Last Days.
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