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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

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.

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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 idyllic. Ultimately, however, the pilgrim and his friend, an old man named Pedro, are cast upon a beach covered with pearls. Pedro stakes out a claim and is killed defending it from the natives. The natives believe that the earth is divine and cannot be possessed by any person. Pedro has been destroyed by his need for private property in a society that seems to practice a kind of cosmic socialism. He has violated the native utopian tradition that Fuentes (in his essays) hopes will resurface in Mexico.

The society’s anticipation and acceptance of the pilgrim as one of their original princes naturally recalls the Aztec belief that the arrival of Hernán Cortés constituted the long-awaited reappearance of the plumed serpent-god Quetzalcoatl. In each case, the conquest of the New World by the Old is facilitated by the incorporation of an Old World explorer into the New World religion. Earlier, the Spaniards killed the Indians with guns; now, the pilgrim offers them a mirror as a gift, but it is no less fatal. The ancient views himself and dies of terror. The people then claim the pilgrim as their...

(The entire section contains 1123 words.)

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