This book is physically daunting. It’s big. Dense. Heavy. Flipping to a random page reveals a tightly woven blanket of text, tightly packed and in small type. The prose is occasionally impenetrable. It took me a month to finish. Its themes are no less than Time and History and Religion.
Terra Nostra follows an alternate history of Spain’s past, with King Philip II (El Senor, Don Felipe!) married to Queen Elizabeth. Sick of war and government, El Senor has dedicated his life to raising a necropolis to the dead where he plans to shut himself away from the world while slowly awaiting death and unity with God. His plan is stymied by a trio of identical youths, born with crosses imprinted on their backs and six toes on each foot. In this version of history, it is one of these youths who discovers the New World and the entire middle section of the book (separated into The Old World, The New World, and The Next World) is his journey and immersion in the myths and religion of the Aztecs.
Along the way we meet Don Quixote, Don Juan, view a literal transcript of the first page of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis written and stuffed into a bottle by this universe’s Cervantes analogue. We also hang out in ancient Rome with Tiberius in a scene reminiscent of the Pilate scenes of The Master and Margarita, and no doubt countless literary references I am forgetting or missed. The power of books and the written word — the past conversing with the future — comes up frequently. El Senor only believes what is written, not spoken.
The cast is a cadre of terrible, awful people. Murderers intent on genocide, rapists, oppressors of chaotic nature. The way Fuentes handles women is questionable even in this supra-cruel world peopled by the worst of scoundrels. And the way he handles the sole little person is downright deplorable. There is a lot of sex. The sex is weird. Sex with animals, sex with skeletons, sex with god-beings, sex without jaws, sex with the supernaturally elderly, sex with a Frankenstein-like conglomeration of corpse pieces… or did she not actually have sex with that last one but just fantasize about it? The very last scene refuses to disappoint this trend and the reader concludes the book amid bizarre, transformative, cosmic lovemaking.
As I mentioned, Time is the central theme of the novel. In Fuentes vision, time is not linear. Everything happening — El Senor building his necropolis, the pillaging of the New World, the apocalypse of 1999 (haha), Emperor Tiberius being a sadistic prick, The Crucifixion, the creation of the world in Aztec mythology — is happening at the same time. Will happened, but has happened, is happening. Multiple universes of slightly different results occurring in tandem. One scholarly character hypothesizes it’s impossible to become a full and integrated personality until you’ve lived several lives in several times and possible worlds.
There’s a question that runs through the book: if someone could live life over again, would they change the actions they took, the decisions they made? The negative outlook of the novel announces a resounding No. The New World is still raped and pillaged, destroyed and oppressed even though Don Felipe had a chance to alter it. The Spanish Inquisition is just as terrible. In the Year 2000, things have become even worse. In an effort to reduce overpopulation, countries have turned to depopulating measures that match a ‘national character’ — Mexico brings back the blood sacrifices of the Aztecs, France very rationally kills someone for every someone born. It’s a little silly and very dated. Overpopulation may have been a giant, apocalyptic concern in 1975 when the book was written, but I feel like we’ve moved beyond it as a serious fear in 2014. I hope in 2055, global warming based dystopia is a similarly laughable and outdated sci-fi future trope.
Finishing this book I feel like I am climbing, bleary eyed, out of a cave. No, not a cave, a pit. A dank and endless cylinder with stairs spiraling to its interminable depths. I’m crawling out of the mind of Carlos Fuentes and the depravity of Don Felipe and friends. The tone of the book, its self absorbed characters, its physical weight — these are the things that will stay with me, more than any triumph of theme or historic analysis. I liked it, but I’m not even sure I’d recommend it. It’s incredibly overwritten and longer than it should be. I am quite certain several sentences honestly do not mean anything and are complete word-salad nonsense. Yet I am also certain that it will stay with me, long, long after I’ve placed it back on the shelf.