Terra Nostra

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes is an epic novel about Spain, Spanish America, and the world. The setting, though localized in the Escorial of sixteenth century Spain, constantly shifts from place to place and period to period. The novel opens in Paris in the year 1999, then moves to sixteenth century Spain, where the major action unfolds despite the frequent shifts to other times and places, such as pre-Columbian Mexico, and the Italy and Palestine of Tiberius Caesar. Interestingly, these times and places are not strictly those of history, for in this novel we encounter a Spain ruled by the Hapsburg, Felipe (ostensibly Philip II), and Isabel (Elizabeth) Tudor; we also find that the New World has yet to be discovered despite the “late date.” By manipulating history in this way, Fuentes examines its many possibilities—what might have been. If events had taken alternate courses, if men had made different decisions, if circumstances had been substantially different, what would have happened? Yet Fuentes is not so much interested in what would have happened, as he is in the historical process itself. In Terra Nostra we find the Hegelian process of thesis and antithesis followed by synthesis, but this pattern is not progressive; it is merely repetitious. In particulars—characters, events, places—history offers innumerable possibilities, but in its general pattern, it does not change.

When the action first shifts to Spain, Felipe’s subjects are completing the Escorial, his huge palace which is also a mausoleum. To Felipe this palace represents the unity he has brought to Spain and the Christian world. Having achieved this unity, Felipe yearns for death and his reward in the afterlife. Actually, he yearns to be taken out of the changing world and placed into an unchanging heaven because he fears that before he dies the religious and national unity he has created will be destroyed. However, his greatest fear, fueled by the very heresies he has suppressed, is that his concept of an unchanging heaven may be false. This fear becomes obsessive when Felipe climbs a staircase leading out of his private chapel, and looks into a hand mirror he is carrying. As he ascends the stairs, he watches his image age step by step until he views his own corpse; however, not until he climbs farther up does he become truly frightened. Indeed he is terrified, when instead of seeing himself in heaven, he sees himself reborn as a wolf, and hunted by his own descendants. Thus, Fuentes, through the techniques of magical realism, develops the idea that personal history moves in cycles similar to those of history in general.

As a young man Felipe had discussed with a group of idealistic young people the possibility of a new world where freedom and variety would flourish. Although he shared the pleasures of free love and discourse with this group, he deeply disagreed with their ideals. Finally he revealed his authoritarian nature when he crushed a Protestant rebellion in Flanders, and defeated the forces of freedom and multiplicity that threatened his concept of order and unity. However, Fuentes makes it clear that the forces of multiplicity are rising from within the very unity of Felipe’s world (the thesis producing its antithesis). Within his very palace, the forces of anarchy are embodied in his own mother and his own wife. His mother, Joanna the Mad Lady (historically the grandmother of Philip II), wanders from city to city with her entourage bearing the embalmed body of her late husband. His wife, Isabel, lives in the only luxurious chamber within the austere palace that is slowly driving her insane. Both these women suffer from the rigid world view of their husbands; both reflect the growing discontent felt by the workers, the townsmen, and the lesser nobles, including Felipe’s secretary, Guzman.

Into this situation Fuentes introduces three archetypal characters—the Pilgrim, Don Juan, and the Idiot Prince—each with a red cross on his back and six toes on each foot. These extremely complex characters provide the links between the main plot and the subplots, between the novel’s different times and places; in a sense they are not characters at all, but roles that may be played by specific individuals in specific times. These characters encompass the many desirable as well as undesirable possibilities of individual personalities and actions that constantly recur in history. But these possibilities are just that—possibilities. Because they often contradict one another, in any one period only a few possible personalities and actions can actually become real. Once they do, however, their reality is challenged by the many possibilities that have not been realized; these challenges must naturally arise from within the existing order, otherwise they remain purely imaginary. Thus, we have the thesis and its antithesis, the unity of reality versus the multiplicity of other possibilities, Felipe’s world versus that of the rebels. Since the Pilgrim, Don Juan, and the Idiot Prince turn out to be Felipe’s bastard brothers and Felipe has no son, Guzman, Isabel, and the Mad Lady each see the possibility of placing his own favorite on the throne.

Just as this threat to the unity of Felipe’s kingdom arises, his entire world is challenged by the news of the discovery of a new world. He receives the news from the Pilgrim who at this point encompasses the role of...

(The entire section is 2210 words.)