Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra (1975)

OH MY GOODNESS. I had the idea that I should read more Latin American literature, so--NATURALLY--I decided to start with this extremely long and abstruse novel by a Mexican writer of note. And I finished it, though not before it nearly finished me. So what's the deal?

Well, it's HELLA DIFFICULT to talk about the plot here. Ironically, considering its length, I'm not sure how much I can SAY about it. But: it's about Spanish civilization. It takes place mostly in the sixteenth century and focuses on Philip II, mainly referred to as El Señor. This father, Philip I, also has a part. Well, I should say, an extremely fictionalized version of Philip II (and actually, I'm not even one hundred percent sure what Philip it is; look on wikipedia I was sure it was Philip IV, but everyone else says II, so WHATEVER. It's genuinely unimportant). It's not what we'd typically think of as history. SO what he's doing, basically, is building an enormous, sterile monument to his faith, thinking idiosyncratic and sometimes heretical thoughts, and persecuting Jews, Muslims, and anyone else unfortunate enough to get in his way. There's also his scheming advisor Guzman, his wife whom he refuses to sleep with, ever, and two recurring figures, Ludovico and Celestina, who flit in and out in different capacities. At one point, they have an extended menage à trois with the then-prince, and the result--though it's actually not at all this straightforward; these characters simulaneously come from different places--is three sons, all of whom have six toes on each foot and red crosses on their backs. Um. This is more or less how the first part, "The Old World," goes.

The second, "The New World," is a long story recounted to El Señor by one of the aforementioned sons, of his voyage with an old man who was determined to discover, well, the New World. They reach the Americas (though this whole thing may or may not be a dream), and if the first part is a bit difficult, the second is just hella hallucinatory and dreamlike, as he wanders around this strange, violent world where history and mythology get all mixed up. I don't feel like I can even try to summarize it.

The last part is called "The Next World" (Fuentes is positively obsessed with sets of three), which is back in Spain with the court trying to decided whether this New World actually exists and what to do about it. There are hefty lashings of numerology and Jewish mysticism, and a lot more about what is and isn't real. The aforementioned three sons may be, in turns, dreaming one another in the New World. There's a revolution, violently put down. There are Ludovico's wanderings with his children. There is an ending which--like the beginning--flashes forward to the end of the twentieth century, which is a vaguely-defined dystopian future where people are going extinct. Right. Then the viewpoint character (the author?) unexpectedly has an encounter with Celestina which results in him partially becoming Celestina, and the book is over.

Well. So I have to admit to you: this is hard, and I didn't understand large chunks of it very well. It was, I am told, modeled after Finnegans Wake, and while it's not anything like on that level--it's written in regular, grammatical Spanish (or English in translation), for one thing. Still, its preoccupation with the cyclical nature of time and its mutability of character and setting are certainly Joycean. Point being, though: it is difficult, and it would require a lot of study, I think, to really get down to it. But here's the other thing: I think it is comparably difficult to Ulysses or Gravity's Rainbow (though for different reasons), but both of those novels, though challenging, are also kinda lovable when you get down to it. By contrast, I have rarely read a less lovable novel than Terra Nostra. There's no one to remotely identify with; it's all very emotionally sterile. You get the impression that Fuentes really, really wanted to create a gigantic literary monument, and by God, he did that--but was it really worth it? It's impressive, for sure! Extremely impressive! But is that enough? I feel like there's the tendency to feel the need to genuflect before the sheer massiveness of an edifice like this, but man alive, I kinda wish it was more than a massive edifice.


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