Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Terra Nostra: Excerpts from a detestable novel

I read Terra Nostra in 2010 and I’ve been trying to write a review ever since, unsuccessfully. The vastness and ambition of its themes, erudition, and technique single it out from amongst all the novels I’ve ever read. Anything I tried to conjure seemed insignificant and inappropriate. In the meanwhile I’ve read another novel by him, A Change of Skin, which reinforced my impression that Carlos Fuentes is not a novelist I like very much, even if some of my favourite novelists vouch for him. The main reason I read Fuentes was because Milan Kundera wrote admiringly about him and particularly Terra Nostra in The Art of the Novel. José Saramago was another reputable writer who held this novel in high regard. “An extraordinary novel,” he wrote in his blog, “that tore open new perspectives for me.” Anyone who compares the construction of the Convent of Mafra in Baltasar and Blimunda to the construction of El Escorrial in Terra Nostra may reasonably believe Fuentes did more than just open new perspectives for him. I usually trust my favourite writers to direct me to new great books; but in this case I was disappointed.

Terra Nostra wasn’t written to be easily described; Fuentes is concerned with nothing less than the whole shared history and culture of Europe and the Americas. Christopher Columbus’ arrival in America in 1492 marked the beginning of a new age in the world: Europeans and natives came into contact, then clashed barbarically, and finally the natives were defeated and conquered thanks to Europe’s military prowess. Due to centuries of occupation and cultural interchanges, however, a new hybrid culture emerged, one with a foot on both worlds, the old and the new (and this reminds me of how Jorge Luis Borges called Argentineans Europeans in exile). Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes is the offspring of this hybrid culture, and in Terra Nostra he retells the story of how this new world emerged. It’s not a historical novel, although Fuentes does not miss an opportunity to parade his historical erudition, and it details the past (including the age of Rome) as much as it points out to the future (published in 1975, the novel ends in 1999, incorrectly termed the end of the millennium). The novel doesn’t exist in historical time but in what Milan Kundera, in the afterword, calls ‘mythical time,’ a time free from the constraints of history and facts that allows Fuentes to use allegory, play with facts and use his imagination to better show the dynamics of the relationship between these the old and new worlds.

Much like Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude (a superior novel, in my estimation), Terra Nostra operates on the logic of circular time, of repetition. But whereas García Márquez’ novel shows the follies of one family repeat themselves over a few generations, Fuentes’, encompassing the history of the world from the decadence of the Roman Empire to an apocalyptic future, reveals the patterns throughout history: violence, oppression, imperialism, social inequity, fanaticism, nationalism, money. The use of this circular time makes sense since the notion of time as an arrow is posterior to the main events of the novel, it’s the product of Enlightenment thinking that envisioned time and history as an upward progress to a discernible goal, namely the perfect, ideal human society. Of course this was contrary to the Christian mentality of Felipe, King of Spain and main character of the novel. If God made the world, then there’s nothing else to improve, nothing else to build or invent, or discover. The world is completed and perfect unto itself, the famous best of all possible worlds, there’s no point trying to perfect it down here when the goal is to prepare life to be accepted in heaven up there. Social mobility is practically non-existing, the sons of peasants will be peasants and the sons of kings will be kings, everyone knows their place in the social order, which is stratified and rigid. This time is static, with variations across the ages, following patterns instead of moving towards a goal. A novel that jumps from Europe to the Americas, from Medieval Spain to ancient Rome, and then concludes with an apocalypse is not a novel that can be easily described, but I’ll make an attempt.

In 1999 a one-armed man living in Paris waked up to an altered world, the news reporting ominous signs. One uncanny incident is the strange birth of children all over the city, children with six toes on each foot and a red cross on their shoulders. The one-armed man wanders through Paris and meets a woman called Celestina, who starts narrating to him a story that takes place in the 15th century.

Then the reader meets El Señor, a Spanish King who orders the construction of a necropolis, El Escorrial, to where he hopes to retire and terminate his royal dynasty because he wants the world to end but before he must make his soul ready to receive grace. Felipe, son of the former king also named Felipe, is tired of the world and dreams only of Paradise. He is a devout Christian who waged war against sinners, blasphemers, heretics, Moors and Jews. He continued his father’s work of persecuting the many Christian sects: the Waldensians, the Adamites, the Cathars, and anyone else who spoke against the official dogmas of the Holy Church. Having conducted this crusade for so long and having become traumatised by its horrors, because he realized it only resulted in more heresies, he orders that a huge Cathedral be erected to preserve the remains of his thirty ancestors and himself. This megalomaniacal project demands thousands of labourers, who are fetched from the fields, whose crops are left to rot, in order to hasten the construction of his monumental tomb. But unbeknownst to El Señor the world is changing. The power of the cities is increasing, people are organising themselves outside his authority, free trade is expanding, personal fortunes are growing and the merchant mentality is spreading, whereas the royal coffers grow empty. Capitalism is on the rise, free enterprise too: the world exists to be manipulated, explored, profited from. While El Señor is seeking death and stagnation, around him people are more active and busier than ever in history. He prepares for the endura, which is a “terminal fast at the end of life,” a ritual form of suicidal fasting in behalf of God. Merchants and businessmen, animated by wondrous news that there are unseen worlds beyond the Atlantic, prepare to conquer these new lands and its riches. El Señor’s world is irremediably lost even if he refuses to see it. El Escorrial does not insulate him from heterodoxy, from change.

The discovery of the New World is one of the most important episodes of the novel. One day three castaways, triplets, are sent to him: they all have six toes on each foot and a red cross on their shoulders; each castaway contains a green bottle with a manuscript inside, and one of the castaways tells Felipe a wondrous tale: he’s visited a new world beyond the ocean. News of the existence of this new world, full of gold, gives rise to dreams of fortune in many men’s minds. Not even Felipe, with his authority and who decrees that no such new world exists, can stop men from venturing to go there; and in spite of his attempts to curb the violence and degradation in the new world, he can’t stop it from becoming another copy of the injustices and cruelties of the old world. For although God is used as an excuse to go there, and even though Christianity’s presence is felt there preponderantly – every new town is named after a saint – it is greed and power that compels the adventurers, merchants and conquistadors to defy the ocean. Amongst the many men affected by the golden legends of the new world is Guzmán, Felipe’s servant and conspirator against him, a ruined nobleman who wants to regain his statute. The age of aristocracy is fading, now is the time of entrepreneurs.

This is the most simplified description of the plot that I can offer. But it doesn’t even begin to do justice to the vastness of the story Carlos Fuentes tells. Countless characters move in and out of the story, including painter Hieronymus Bosch and fictional characters like Don Quixote, Don Juan and La Celestina, characters from classic Spanish literature, and even Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Then there are the many historical counterparts, like the Felipes, Joanna the Mad, Isabel. I can’t say that these are actual historical figures because Fuentes compresses time and personalities here, he takes several figures and merges them in one personality. “One lifetime is not sufficient. One needs multiple existences in order to unify a personality. Every identity is nurtured from all the other identities,” a character says. “It takes several lives to make a man,” it is said somewhere else in the novel. Then there are the fictional characters like Ludovico and Celestina who show up in different generations, several people with the same name. The novel is intricate, dense, and it helps having a notepad to keep track of all the characters. At least it’s what I’d do if I had the stomach to re-read the novel.

And this is the part where I say I didn’t like it. Is Terra Nostra a great novel? It probably is, this novel is the spitting image of that age that consecrated Ulysses as the best of the best, and who am I to raise my voice against the consensus of my time? For my part I only regret Franz Kafka was given so little time to write and Fuentes so much. Another theme in this novel: the world is not fair. My main point of contention, being the lover of stories that I am, is that this novel is rather monotonous. The exquisite prose is all there to be admired, several times per page, under which weight a plot may actually exist, suffocating. The first 200 pages are a joy to read, then you hope something will happen in the next 100; 150 pages later you’re still in the same place; and the last 300 are a struggle to finish because there’s nothing really there to hold your attention anymore but it’s the longest novel of your life and you don’t want to admit to yourself that you threw away two weeks of your life for nothing, do you?

In terms of intricateness and carefully-woven structure, the only book I’ve read in recent times that matches Terra Nostra is Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s La Saga/Fuga de J.B., a Spanish novel that bears more than a striking resemblance with it. It’s equally long, equally divided in three parts, and deals with the same themes of patterns in history. But there’s something Rabelaisian about it that makes it more endearing and digestible. Terra Nostra builds up to something monumental, a powerful revelation, and then just fizzles out, and the journey doesn’t really make up for the disappointment. To this day I’m still trying to figure out what the apocalypse of 1999 (and in spite of his frightening erudition, Fuentes’ editor should have told him that the millennium ended in 2000) has to do with anything. La Saga/Fuga de J.B. is also meandering, and the anti-climax leaves something to be desired, but it is a far more enjoyable journey, and in the company of better characters. Felipe is the only one I cared about. This is all just to say that there are better choices for big, sprawling, ambitious Spanish-language books out there.

None of this invalidates the fact that Terra Nostra has some of the best passages of prose I’ve ever read in my life. It’s beyond my abilities to write a coherent review of this novel; so I’ll just provide brief commentary on some passages:

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

This is the opening paragraph, and it can be interpreted as an ironic prelude of the action itself. This is the novel in a nutshell. The first animal that dreams another animal are no doubt the Europeans who imagine that other worlds exist, specifically a castaway called Ludovico who dreams about tawny-skinned men on the other side of the ocean. The vertebrates that stand up are also the Europeans, who conquer the new world with their military prowess and scientific advancements, enslaving the natives living closer to Nature. The final line is a list of inventions and technical progresses that doesn’t follow any order or hierarchy: a song (art) is as astonishing as a telephone call (science), a relatively crude form of progress (loincloth, clothes) and the more demanding science that produced the telephone. But there’s there a hint of sarcasm here, as if nothing of this really matters, because no matter how advanced people will be, ultimately they’ll be human. This is another important theme of the novel.

The bands of pilgrims are advancing at a rate that can be explained by only one fact: the aid of the Devil. Terror reigns from Toledo do Orléans. They’ve burned the lands, the harvest, and the granaries. They’re assaulting and destroying the monasteries, churches, and palaces. They are terrible: they kill anyone who refuses to join their crusade: they sow hunger in their wake. And they are magnificent! The poor, the vagabonds, the adventurers, and the lovers are joining them. They have promised that sins will no longer be punished, that poverty will erase all guilt. They say the only crimes are corrupting greed, false progress, and individual vanity; they say the only salvation is to rid oneself of everything one possesses, even one’s name. They proclaim that each of us is divine and therefore everything belongs to all of us. They announce the coming of a new kingdom and they say they live in perfect joy. They are awaiting the millennium that will begin this winter, not as a date, but as an opportunity to remake the world.

This is a scene from the first pages, the apocalypse in 1999. Again this scene foreshadows events in the past: these bands of marauding pilgrims are like the Cathars that Felipe exterminated because they threatened the dogmas of the Holy Church. Their goal is the creation of a new, perfect world, another strong theme in the novel. Whether they will build it or not is a mystery, but the bulk of the novel will show that history’s odds are against them.

You cannot prevail against the ecstasy that is ours when we enjoy the sexual act as it was practiced by our parents Adam and Eve. Sex as it was before sin; that is our secret. We realize fully our human destiny so that we may free ourselves eternally from our burdens, so we may become souls in a heaven that ignores earth; and in so doing we also realize our celestial destinies. Your mercenary legions will not prevail against us; you represent the principle of death, and we the principle of procreation; you engender corpses, and we, souls; let us see which multiplies more swiftly from this time on: your dead or our living.

These words are uttered by one of the Ludovicos to Felipe the father, inside a church during a massacre of Cathars. His words foresee the end of the Christian era, which Felipe the son tries to impede. The irony is that its passing does not herald the promised utopia; Felipe’s power is replaced by the power of the money, of merchants and businessmen.

Later he walked to the stream bed that drained the quarry, where several day labourers were cutting stone from the vein and carting it out in hand barrows. Although it was not his work, Martín helped them load the rough-hewn blocks he would later chisel and polish. He nodded to Jerónimo, who was in charge of the quarry forge; better than anyone, this bearded man knew how to sharpen iron tools, how to set the wedges and sheath the iron tools with steel edges to protect them from the ruinous blast furnace. Even so, only yesterday he had been accused of oversharpening the tools. That meant the loss of a day’s wages; it doesn’t matter, Jerónimo told Martín; we just do our jobs the best we can; the supervisors do theirs by finding defects where there aren’t any; they’re parasites, that’s their condition, and if from time to time they don’t criticize some error, soon they themselves would be criticised for not doing anything.

I include this passage only to reinforce my claim that José Saramago’s Baltasar and Blimunda has a considerable debt to this novel. Many are the scenes about the labourers working on the construction of the necropolis, their dreams and philosophies of life, and they remind me of Saramago’s propensity to never forget to write history from the perspective of the downtrodden, voiceless and anonymous.

“El Señor has united the dispersed kingdoms; he has put down the heretical rebellions of his youth; stopped the Moors and persecuted the Hebrew; constructed this fortress that combines the symbols of faith and dominion. The usury of the cities that destroyed so many small seigniories renders homage to his authority and accepts the necessity for central power. The shepherds and labourers of these lands today are workers at the palace; El Señor has left them with no sustenance but their daily wage. And it is easier to take money from a wage than to collect bushels from a harvest, for the harvest can be seen in measureable fields, while wages are manipulated invisibly. Other great undertakings await El Señor, no doubt; he will not find them behind him, but ahead.”
“If one could begin again… if one could begin better…”
“Begin what, sire?”
“A city. The city. The places we inhabit, Guzmán.”
“El Señor would have to employ the same arms and the same materials. These workers and these stones.”
“But the idea could be different.”
“The idea, Señor?”
“The intent.”
“However good it was, men would always make of it something different from what El Señor had intended.”

Felipe has done monstrous things, and yet he’s not an unlikeable character. He inherited from his father the duty of slaughtering the many sects that threatened the authority of the Church, but he’s traumatised by the horrors caused by his persecutions and massacres. In this passage we can appreciate one of his strongest desires, to create a perfect world. He knows fully well that God’s finite world is detestable, and that’s also why he wants to abandon it as quickly as possible to Paradise. At the same time, Guzmán has a more realistic view of things and suggests that utopia may be ultimately an impossible aspiration for men.

They all sat very close together, contended after their completed tasks, and the savoury food. Pedro said he envisioned a world where there were no rich or poor, a world where neither man nor beast would be governed by arbitrary powers. He spoke brusquely but with the voice of a dreamer who sees a community where every being would be free to ask and to receive from others the things he needed most, where his only obligation would be to give to others what they asked of him. Each man would be free to do what most pleased him, because every job would be natural and useful.

This if from one of my favourite segments of the novel: young Felipe, terrified with the massacres of heretics, runs away from his father’s castle one night and ends up joining Pedro, a sailor, Simón, a priest, Ludovico and Celestina. All five sit around a campfire sharing their dreams and discussing a new world, a perfect world, that may exist beyond the ocean, and their plans to arrive there. It is a crucial scene because then they all break up and go in separate directions: Pedro and Ludovico get on a boat and set out to the new world; Celestina disappears only to reappear years later, as Ludovico does; Simón resumes his preaching and tries to dissuade men from finding the new world; and Felipe accepts his heritage and turns against the ideals of his former comrades.

El Señor screamed; he stretched out his hand and taking a penitential whip began to lash his back, his hand, his face, while the statues of his ancestors stared at him with blank eyes and inviolable marble skin. El Señor was bleeding now. Then he muttered between clenched teeth: “I do not want the world to change. I do not want my body to die, to disintegrate, to be transformed and reborn in animal form. I do not want to be reborn to be hunted in my own lands by own descendants. I want the world to stop and to release my resurrected body in the eternity of Paradise, by the side of God. When I die, I do not want – please, have mercy – I do not want to return again to the world. I want the eternal promise: to ascend to the Kingdom of Heaven and there forget the unchanging world and lose for all time the memory of the life I led, forget that there is life on earth. But in order to reach Heaven, in order for Heaven actually to exist, this, my world, must not change, for only of its infinite horror, from that contrast, may be born the infinite goodness of Heaven. And it was for that reason that as a youth, darkly, not completely aware of what I was doing, I murdered those who dared offer me Heaven on earth (…)”

Felipe is a tragic figure, thrown into a world he doesn’t like, incredibly powerful and yet powerless to do what he most desires. His only desire is to die and even that is forbidden to him because his court wants him to give them an heir, which doesn’t want to create since he wishes all history to end with him.

El Señor wished to complete his palace of death? You have seen that he had to come to me for a loan. Does he wish to send an expedition to ascertain the existence or non-existence of a new world? He will have to come to us, the outfitters, the dealers in commodities, the manufacturers of arms. Does he wish to colonize new lands? He will have to come to men like you, Don Guzmán, and to every last ordinary man in his palace, and to the rogues in the cities, and to the impoverished nobles; the new world will belong to us, we will win it with our arms and our brains, and we shall be repaid for our efforts with the gold and pearls that will flow from the hands of the natives into ours, though we will take care to reserve the royal fifth part for El Señor, and to collect payment for his debts in advance, and to make him content, and deceive him. Oh, yes!

Guzmán and a businessman talk, and it’s a scene that illustrate the change in the dynamic of power. Monarchs will become more and more irrelevant in order for businessmen, merchants and usurers to become the pillars of society. Guzmán is a character with a foot on both worlds, since he’s of noble stock but has lost his fortune; he wants to become rich again, even if he has to conspire against his master.

This I fear above all, Brother Toribio, that the new world will not in truth be new, but rather a terrible extension of the old world we are living here, did you see El Señor?, did you see how he trembled every time that pilgrim pointed out the similarities between the crimes of that place and our own, the oppressions there and the oppressions here?, I tremble, too, Brother, although for reasons different from those that shake our sovereign; El Señor wishes that his life, his world, his experience, be unique and final, a definitive page written for eternity, unrepeatable; he fears anything that opens outward and divests him of his sense of culmination, the final and unquestionable end; the life he lived was to be the last, forever; not only for him, no, but for the species itself; so great is his arrogant will for extinction; on the other hand, I tremble because I fear that in conquering the tyranny of the new world those of the old world will grow in strength and dimension, ally themselves with greed and cruelty, and all this in the name of our sacred Faith; the powers of Mars and Mercury are waxing; they mask themselves with the face of Christ; war, gold, evangelization: we shall lose the opportunity to transfer to the new world that new world you and I, Brother, had so quickly begun to create with our telescopes and paint-brushes, protected here in the sheltering and indifferent shadows of this palace; fear, Brother, we shall be watched; we shall be persecuted, all I have warned you of is certain: we shall be accused, and in the most innocuous of our preoccupations will be discovered error, heresy, traces of the Jew (…)

An interesting scene for several reasons: first because it acknowledges that the new world was not one without violence, murder and destruction. Indeed when Pedro arrives there he’s immediately murdered by the natives, and Ludovico is taken prisoner and made to witness the human sacrifices practiced by the Mexicans. I think this is important to acknowledge because there’s a terrible tendency to imagine the pre-Columbian Americas as beautiful paradises of grace, and not as places with human beings who did what human beings do. This harks back to Guzmán’s words to Felipe that any idea, no matter how well-intentioned, would always run into the problem of man’s inherent imperfection. Another interesting point is the concern of the priest about religion being used as a façade for profit and imperialism. Thirdly, the speaker worries that the new age that is coming will have little interest in knowledge and art, which is debatable. I think either age had little interest in art, although the important role knowledge has in modern society can’t be ignored.

“Minutiae, minutiae, I visit nothing today, I am ensconced in my villa in Capri, content, imagining, imagining the sublime: how to make my death coincide with the death of my Empire. I cannot bear the thought that someone might succeed me, it would be as if our beautiful Cynthia, instead of offering me her buttocks white as animated marble, had begun in this instant to feel the pangs of childbirth, and had lain upon my sigma to give birth, imagine such horror; the same horror I feel when imagine that anyone could succeed me, lie down in my places, touch Lesbia’s breast, pluck a pubic hair from Fabianus, no, no, they must all die first, I die only with my Empire; Theodorus, there must be alerts, executions at the least pretext, let no one remain, I want to die but I want to die the last death, execute, Theodorus, execute, ejaculate, execute and let the corpses be thrown down the mournful steps of the Forum and dragged on gaff hooks to the Tiber…”

One the green bottles the triplets give to Felipe contains a manuscript about Roman emperor Tiberius. This novel is about how history repeats itself, and to drive the point home it turns out Tiberius’ life had many similarities with Felipe’s. Again this makes the point that there’s something fundamentally flawed about human nature, no matter the place, the era, and the culture; murder, tyranny, perversion exist wherever humans do.

To those curious to read Terra Nostra, I wish a better, more rewarding experience.


  1. Wow Miguel, this book sounds so big in so many ways.

    Indeed some of the passages that you quoted remind me of Baltasar and Blimunda. The reference to the one armed man sounds like a direct allusion to that book.

  2. I had wondered what was in this book. It turns out to be an Omnibook. Of course.

    I am still curious, although who knows when I will indulge my curiosity. Maybe I should just plan to read the first 200 pages!

  3. Brian, I had not yet made the one-armed man connection; you've given me more to think about, thanks.

    Tom, just the first 200 pages won't do; a lot of the good stuff starts right after that. Regardless of what I say, this is an extraordinary novel. I just regret I don't have the right temperament or sensibility to fully appreciate it.