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...
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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 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 chieftain and founder. He finally sees his aged reflection in a mirror, however, as the original ancient had done. (The mirror also might suggest a variety of external or internal conflicts—between two cultures, two people, and two parts of the self.)
Finally, before returning to the Old World, the pilgrim again meets the original ancient, who explains to him that he has killed his own hostile brother (part of himself). The ancient says that this continual struggle between opposing forces is necessary for life. This life cycle is precisely what El Señor is trying so desperately to avoid by his plan for eternal fixity within the Escorial.
It is also why, at the beginning of the third part of the novel, El Señor resists the discovery of the New World. This section of the novel is called “The Next World.” El Señor is overwhelmed by the knowledge of the New World and also by the philosophy of the ancient, who proclaims that the essence of life is change. El Señor wishes to hide these things from his people so that they will not envision a system other than the one by which he rules them. Most of all, he fears the pilgrim himself, whose task is to achieve freedom. Near the end of the novel, presumably after El Señor dies, he climbs a stairway in his palace, where “on each step the world offered the temptation to choose anew . . . but always in the same, if transfigured place: this land, land of Vespers, Spain, Terra Nostra” Yet Terra Nostra is the known world on old maps, and El Señor has remained there, never venturing to explore his new domains across the sea.
The last chapter of the novel reiterates the opening scene in Paris, where Pollo and Celestina meet in a final embrace. They are fused into one androgynous being that can possess itself continuously in an ecstasy of love. Power struggles are abolished; this act of love abolishes the difference between the self and the other. Their embrace is a wedding that reverses time, since its single self-fertilizing being resembles the figure of Uroboros, an undifferentiated unity imagined in many ancient mythologies to precede humankind’s division into individual creatures of different sexes.
This apocalyptic end is a vision, not a confirmation, of paradise and represents the hope that the “next world” will succeed the known world. Love triumphs here, but it cannot abolish the cruel cycles of history. Thus, at the end of the novel, the reader is left balanced between two visions: unity versus diversity, “ours” versus “yours” or “mine,” love versus power, and satisfaction versus frustration.