Terra Nostra

by JDP

This behemoth of a creation story hops genres, rewrites history, and drugs the reader with labyrinthine prose and interminable internal monologues. The payoff from reading such a book is great, but the investment is debilitating.

Carlos Fuentes / Mexican / 1975 / 790 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden

In elementary school, we are all instructed in the ways of plot. You begin with the exposition, the stage setting, the construction of foundation and of walls. Next comes the rising action, the building tension, the emerging cracks in a previously smooth facade. The plot line peaks at the climax, where something breaks, snaps, or explodes. We end with a resolution, a falling action, or — if you can swing the pronunciation — the denouement. In high school, you practice diagramming plots, labeling the rising and falling actions, discussing how the expository treatment foreshadows the climax. It’s all a bit too formulaic and stilted, this idea that we can dismember the great works and chart them along a line that resembles the rise and fall in the price of financial markets. I think we’re often given a view of literature at this level that adheres too readily to these conventions and it reinforces some bizarre expectations about fine novels: I’m going to be bored for the first 200 pages, the next 50 or so will really get cooking, Chapter 18 in particular was a barnburner, and I twiddled my thumbs through the last couple dozen pages.

So you can understand how Catch-22 completely destroyed me at the age of 16. Heller wrote a book where the plot line resembles more of a spiral than a mountain. Events are repeated from different perspectives, the narrative arch folds back on itself, and it’s not until the final chapters of the novel that we can completely understand some of what we read in the first handful of pages. You can also understand how — nearly a decade later — Hopscotch almost ended me. There, Cortázar didn’t subvert the plot line so much as he leeched it of its driving force by interpolating countless backstories, supplementary texts, and philosophical sidebars. The effect was staggering; he seemed to demand of the reader: “Suspend your anxieties about my characters and their experiences. Listen to my words instead. Focus on the novel as a thing autonomous from its pages.” I came to a conclusion when I was 16 that I still harbor to this day: perverting the traditional plot line is one of the surefire ways of writing a fantastically engaging novel.

Carlos Fuentes does this incomparably in Terra Nostra. I have never seen anything like it. The plot proceeds like a melted scoop of ice cream, on a hot summer’s day, recently decapitated from the waffle cone on which it had been perched. It spreads out on the sidewalk, sticks in the cracks, hardens fast and remains there through rain, snow, and a new spring. A year later, the same child drops a different flavor of ice cream in the same spot and it melts, mingling with the tiniest sucrose molecules left over from the previous accident. The new dairy deposit spreads further, reaches deeper, is more permanent than its forerunner. The next year, repeat the incident; the next, again; and so on. At the end of the age of men, a bedraggled forager collapses in the middle of the sticky mound that was years in the making. Eons go by and his body slowly decays, becoming one with the ice cream remnants. This amorphous, gelatinous, primordial ooze is the spreading out of the plot of Terra Nostra. It assimilates everything and reads like an hallucination.

Fuentes restructures the origin myth of contemporary Latin America by borrowing figures from Spanish and Aztecan history, literature, and culture. Much of the action takes place inside the construction site of El Escorial, the famous Spanish royal palace commissioned by King Felipe II around 1560. Although  Fuentes’ account is largely fictional, Felipe II was an actual king of Spain who oversaw the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation as well as his own country’s “discovery” and exploitation of the Latin American continent. The legacies of his lengthy, fierce, and highly doctrinal reign are felt both around in the world and throughout time in Fuentes’ renderings of Paris in 1999 and Mexico in the mid-1900s. In addition, we catch glimpses of the ancient Roman empire, Central American civilizations before their contact with Spanish conquistadors, and strange permutations of classic Spanish tales like that of Don Quixote. We also witness the author’s apocalyptic vision of the end times and are personally invited into the bedroom of the last two living people in Paris at the dawn of the new millennium.

But none of this is of great import. Far more than the particulars of these events — and, as you can see, they are particular indeed — Fuentes is interested in their resemblance, their repetition, reincarnation, and reinterpretation. A peasant revolt during the reign of Felipe’s father is repeated almost identically during his own reign. A boy with twelve toes washes up on a beach; then a second boy with twelve toes turns up the next day; then a third identical child arrives the following day. Characters who appear in the portions of the book set in ancient Rome have extremely similar analogues in the time of Felipe and again during the Parisian portions of the novel. They bear similar features, outlooks, and names. On occasion, the passage of time is not quick enough to deal with their rate of reproduction: Celestina, as an adult, accidentally bumps into Celestina as a child and behaves as if this is entirely within the realm of plausible happenings. The book’s themes, often articulated in dialogue between characters, become rote prayer, sometimes spoken verbatim by countless people throughout the book’s many pages.

All of this would be a bit easier to manage if the setting wasn’t so occult, macabre, and fantastical. The repetitions take place in a dreamscape where quad-amputees are wheeled around in special pushcarts by dwarfs, a corpse governs from the throne, people turn into bats, rivers boil, walls of buildings turn into transparent crystal and virginal births dominate the landscape. These outlandish events often fulfill prophesies, dreams, or visions that had been earlier reported by at least one — and sometimes many — characters. Felipe, Celestina, and the rest of the ensemble experience déjá vu and you, as the reader, are not far behind them. The first time you hear a phrase repeated in someone’s mouth, or read the exact same description of a tree, you can easily remember the earlier point at which you read this. Later in the novel, however, as the pages progress and never end, you can no longer contextualize your recollection. You’re sure you’ve seen this (or some permutation of this) before, but you’re not sure where. By the end of the novel, you’ve become so assimilated, so complicit in the actions of the characters that you’re not sure whether your own bouts of déjá vu are linked to the book itself or your own life. You simply can’t remember.

This is no small accomplishment on the part of the author and it has led critics to suggest that Terra Nostra is a “total novel” — a complete and self-contained work of art that operates on its own plane and is governed by its own rules. I agree with them, but it makes me uncomfortable. The novel is so dense and bizarre, at times perverse, at others Kafkian, that it becomes something of a dangerous ride. It is divided into three sections (the first and third rather long and the middle comparatively shorter) that, at least for me, garnered somewhat disparate levels of appreciation. The first section — “The Old World” — is outright brilliant. Fuentes’ prose resembles a hand that leaps from the page, grabs you by the jugular, and refuses to let go for the next several hundred pages. You, as a reader, are not yet habituated to his tricks and the result is an exciting, inexplicable romp through genres. The second section — “The New World” — is a completely different affair. The entire section is one pilgrim’s rambling and hallucinatory account of arriving on the coast of Latin America for the first time and being mistook for a deity by the indigenous peoples. It reads like an endless chronicle of fairly uninteresting events where Fuentes works overtime to create tedious parallels between the cast of the Latin American continent and European. The concluding section — “The Other World” — returns to Fuentes’ previous tact of shifting perspectives and evocative dialogue but, at this point, the reader is so weary that it’s difficult to resuscitate the novel. As we watch the reign of Felipe II degenerate, so too does the very narration seem to spin itself out. The rote repetition of the book’s themes borders on the pedantic and I was left to weigh the awesome audacity of the book’s opening against the dull thud of its end. That we are given occasional glimpses of brilliance throughout the closing 200 pages is too little substance to motivate our consumption of another conversation about reincarnation, another meditation on religious virtue, another discourse on the merits of empire and legacy.

But Terra Nostra is an impossible book to appraise with the standard metric. It’s like evaluating the quality of a symphonic performance by measuring its decibel level: how do you render a verdict on a wholly unique and self-contained artistic expression? What I can tell you is that, while I’ll certainly be reading more Fuentes in the future, I’m not sure I’d recommend this book for general consumption. From the research I conducted in preparation for writing this review, it seems like the critical merits of Fuetes’ body of work are ambiguous (or at least debatable). There’s no argument though that two of his shorter books — Aura and The Death of Artemio Cruz — are among the most highly regarded works to emerge from the Latin American literary boom. After a good deal of deliberation, my somewhat qualified conclusion is this: Fuentes is required reading, but, perhaps, Terra Nostra is not.

Rating: 8 / 10

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