(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Although the narrative of this complex novel begins on July 14, 1999, in Paris, and ends on New Year’s Eve of the same year in the same city, the historical time frame of the events spans many centuries. In Paris, Pollo Phoibee meets Celestina, a naive young woman with tattooed lips, who asks him to explain to her the mysteries of chaotic modern civilization. As Pollo slips and falls into the river Seine, the time of the narrative shifts to the first century and the assassination of Tiberius Caesar, and to the sixteenth century of Felipe, King Philip II (also called El Señor), who is engaged in building the Escorial, the massive palace and mausoleum near Madrid. Pollo, transformed into one of the three mysterious, illegitimate sons of El Señor’s father, Felipe the Fair (Philip I), becomes the lover of Isabel, Felipe’s wife (Queen Elizabeth I). Another of the sons washes up on a beach in the New World and is welcomed by the Aztecs as the promised redeemer. When he returns to the court of Philip II with news of the discovery of America, the king refuses to accept the possibility of a world beyond the confines of the known Old World, all of which he has sought to reproduce and preserve in the Escorial.

Meanwhile, Joanna Regina has had the body of Felipe the Fair embalmed and preserved against the ravages of time. She then takes as her lover the third illegitimate son of her dead husband. Felipe continues to build the Escorial, in an attempt to...

(The entire section is 468 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Terra Nostra opens amidst chaotic scenes in Paris: Repentant sinners converge on the church of Saint Germain de Pres and hundreds of women give birth along the banks of the Seine. A man named Pollo Phoibee meets a young woman with grey eyes and tattooed lips, called Celestina, who wants him to explain all these strange events to her. Pollo slips and falls into the Seine. Symbolically echoing The Fall of Icarus, the painting by sixteenth century Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel, the Elder, Pollo—and the reader—fall into the temporal realm of art. There, historical events are shifted out of their traditional sequence and combined with fantastic events. In the next chapter, Pollo, now nameless, has fallen back into sixteenth century Spain. He is discovered on a beach and taken to a palace by the queen of the land, La Señora. This occasion is the first of many instances in the novel in which water serves as a linking device between distant places and times.

The first section of Terra Nostra, called “The Old World,” concerns the activities of La Señora’s husband, El Señor, and his court. El Señor, an imaginary version of Philip II of Spain, is obsessed with the task of building an elaborate palace, the Escorial, to function primarily as a royal mausoleum, and with the prospect of his own death. By sacrificing his life to the building of the magnificent monument, with statues of his ancestors, he hopes to arrest time, to attain eternal life.

El Señor’s religious passion ultimately causes him to neglect and mistreat his queen. She recounts a bizarre scene in which she falls on her back in the palace courtyard and cannot get up by herself because of her heavy iron hoopskirts. Everyone abandons her to the elements for days because only the king is allowed to touch her. Mold grows on her, her skin burns and peels, and she is so lonely that she welcomes the mouse that crawls under her skirts. When El Señor finally appears and has a mirror held before her, La Señora screams at seeing her now-unrecognizable face. She believes that her husband has caused her to fall and to rot, so that their appearances would be equally repulsive. La Señora finally realizes, however, that it is not her husband’s evil nature that has caused his cruelty; his extreme Christian fervor has caused him not to touch her. She decides then that she will choose the Devil to combat him, and henceforth she will follow her own desires.

“The Old World” section of the novel ends with Celestina’s companion, the pilgrim, as he begins to tell a tale to El Señor, the tale that constitutes his adventures in “The New World,” the second and briefest section of the novel. At first, the visions of the New World are...

(The entire section is 1123 words.)