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Carlos Fuentes: Terra Nostra (Terra Nostra)

This is Fuentes’ most ambitious novel attempting, as it does, to recreate all of Spanish history as it affects Latin American history. That it is a magnificent failure is a pity but it is still worth reading. Perhaps it is too much for one man or for one book or perhaps Fuentes tried to put too much into a novel, where a work of history might have worked better. Nevertheless, it is a fantastic attempt and not a bad achievement. While it focuses on Spanish history, interestingly enough it starts (and, indeed, ends) in Paris in 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, where apocalyptic events are taking place – the Seine boiling, the Sacré-Coeur has turned black and the Louvre transparent. But Fuentes is not concerned with France but with Spain and this novel revolves around the king we know as Philip II of Spain but who, for some reason, is called Felipe el Señor in both the Spanish version and the English translation. He spent much money on ruinous wars (against the Netherlands, England and France) but was also responsible for expanding Spanish-American colonialism, which enabled him to pay for these wars. Philip is a lonely character in this novel, hiding himself in the Escorial but he is by no means the only character as Fuentes goes back to the Roman times and, as we have seen, comes up to what is the future for him (though the past for us). As well as real people, including Philip II’s grandfather, Philip the Fair and his wife, Joanna of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I of England and Hieronymus Bosch, Fuentes also peoples his novel with fictitious bastard children of Philip the Fair as well as characters from other works of literature, including characters from Les Misérables, Celestina, Don Juan and other characters from Spanish literature. A knowledge of Spanish history and literature are useful but, above all, this is a complex and detailed novel and you may well get lost in it or be inclined to skip over some of the drawn-out parts but, if you do manage to navigate through it, you will find it very rewarding.

Publishing history

First published by Seix Barral in 1975
First published in English in 1976 by Farrar, Straus, Giroux
Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden