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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In Carlos Fuentes’s wide-ranging exploration of the early years of European colonization of the New World, the sixteenth-century events are contextualized within the turn of the millennium that looms large over the world’s inhabitants in 1999. One of the projects that the storytellers chronicle is the king of Spain’s dedication to a massive monument to his own grandeur: Philip II’s construction of El Escorial. The brutal Spanish conquest of the Low Countries, proclaimed as necessary in defense of Catholicism, inspired the king (referred to as El Señor) to build a temple to the Eucharist. In gratitude to God for his many blessings, Phillip declared he would

erect a vast edifice, rich, holy, decorative, beneficial, the eighth marvel of the world in rank but first in dignity, a retreat for spiritual and corporeal recreation, not for vain pastimes but a place where one may devote himself to God, where every day divine praises will be sung with a continual choir, with prayer, alms, silence, study, and letters, to confound and shame all heretics and cruel enemies of the Catholic Church.

As the setting shifts away from the Old World, the reader meets one of Philip’s half-brothers—his father’s illegitimate sons—who has set sail for the New World. Following a terrible hurricane, he is shipwrecked along the Mexican coast. As he later recounts his arrival, he finds himself on a beach—which he first thinks is heaven because he must be dead—which is covered with large, priceless pearls. Another sailor, Pedro, apparently reaches the shore as well. Noticing a bunch of tree trunks floating across the sea, he is astonished to see men rise up out of them. Thirty native men, bodies adorned with paint, jump off the canoes and move toward him.

Their bodies were the color of canaries, their lances red, their shields green. And other men like them, similarly armed and naked except for the cloth that covered their shame, erupted from the jungle.
We looked at them.
They looked at us.
Our astonishment was identical, and we were equally immobilized. I could only think that what seemed to me fantastic about them . . . must, to creatures so different, have seemed incredible in us. . . . They looked at us. We looked at them. And from that first exchange was born a fleeting, silent question. “Have they discovered us . . . or did we discover them?”

The Paris setting in which the book begins is invoked once more at the end to complete the frame. The narrator portrays Paris as a city of mirrors and a haven, an endless reflection that draws exiles from all parts of the world who cluster there and reflect on the varied plights that had compelled them to seek refuge there. Ironically, they flee their successes as well as their failures, as the desire for possession only assures the loss of what has already been conquered. As the narrator contemplates the terrible mess that the world is in, the precise date is also given: “Today: the last day of the dying century. Today: the first night of the next one hundred years.”

The exhausted narrator speaks to himself, contemplating the likely end of the world as the millennium turns—the end of history as well as of his own life, as his identity seems increasingly uncertain.

Why preserve these writings? No one will read them now because there will be no one left to read, or make love, or write, or dream, or wound, or desire. Everything that is written will survive untouched, because there will be hands to destroy it. . . . Your body is fatigued. If only you could see yourself in a mirror and know that you were seeing yourself, not other men, other women, other children, motionless or animated, repeating forever the same scenes in the theater of mirrors.

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