Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Through the fictional manipulation of history and the Hispanic literary tradition, Carlos Fuentes creates an allegorical interpretation of the Iberian experience from the time of the Roman Empire to the end of the twentieth century.

The episode that dominates the novel is a narrative of building of the Escorial. As the novel moves in a complex temporal mosaic through the periods of the Roman Empire, the destruction of the Aztec civilization in pre-Columbian Mexico, the sixteenth century Spanish Empire, and the apocalyptic Paris of 1999, the Escorial becomes a symbol of the denial of both worldly pleasure and the passage of time. Felipe attempts to contain all historical experience in his monument to the ascetic ideal, duplicating within its walls everything that exists and gathering together all knowledge, thus creating a space that contains all spaces and a time which embodies all time. Meanwhile, Felipe’s wife cultivates her hedonism, seeking in vain to ward off the devastating effects of the passage of time.

The Escorial represents Felipe’s attempts to solidify and protect his power in the face of threats from all sides. Within the central narrative are many other narratives, all concerning the eternal struggle for power. The Roman emperor Tiberius Caesar dies at the hands of the reincarnated Agrippa, the ruler that he himself had assassinated. In pre-Columbian Mexico, the struggle for power is played out in human sacrifices and assassinations. In the time of Felipe, the mythical sons of Agrippa are reincarnated in the three mysterious bastard sons, each with the mark of the cross on his back and six toes on each foot, whose individual identity can be established only by the manuscript contained in each of three green bottles floating in the ocean.

Terra Nostra is an interpretation of Iberian civilization as a quest for supreme power, exemplified in Felipe, who is portrayed as the quintessential despot. Knowledge is power, and the King’s desire to create a repository of all things and all times is a desire to gain ultimate knowledge, which implies ultimate control. His denial of the possibility of a New World is an attempt to negate the existence of anything beyond the limits of his own ordering of the universe. The truth contained in the manuscripts and the truth held by the mouse in Isabel’s nightmare are threats to the king’s ordered world.