Fuentes’s sprawling phantasmagoria acts as an exploration of Spain in the midst of its golden age and on the brink of discovering the new world; a world which replete leaves the reader ensorcelled by the hypnagogic beauty of the imagery which Fuentes conjures up;
“The shipwrecked youth believed he had been embalmed by the sea; blood pounded at his temples; he squinted through half-opened eyes; the sight of this fog-shrouded desert was perhaps not too different from what he would have discovered at the floor of an ocean of fire, for as he fell from the ship’s forecastle to the sea, he couldn’t see the waves he was falling toward, only the blazing corposant above him”
And so the world which Fuentes creates shimmers and refracts in the eyes of the reader as if in a dream, as we meet the court of King Felipe and become embroiled in the intrigue and cruelty which dominates his court, all whilst the nascent possibilities of the new world loom over the characters. In truth Fuentes’s style is a little uneven and the fantastical stories of travellers about South America form some of the weakest part of the book, being burdened by fables and allegories to the point of being somewhat disjointed against the backdrop of the novel.
But perhaps then again that is the point behind Fuentes’s novel, a novel which has constant jumps in time, form the new millennium to the first, from Paris to Jerusalem to the acrid and arid Spanish deserts or febrile coast, from the life of a licentious and quite literal Don Juan to a capricious king. Fuentes’s novel is, at times hard to read, but its startling originality, both in terms of plot and prose more than makes up for this.