Think of a spider spinning webs, one after another. Each web is constructed on the same basic, instinctive pattern, but each is unique, adapted to a particular niche in the physical world. The spider is "doing the same thing but never repeating." That is a metaphor (one of many) tossed off casually by Carlos Fuentes, one of the master craftsmen of fiction in our time. It describes the aversion to "predictable behavior" of his protagonist, an orchestra conductor named Gabriel Atlan-Ferrara, who is 93 years old and reminiscing about a lost love when this novel opens in 1999. Gabriel refuses to allow recordings of his work, audio or video, because he hates exact replays -- a paradoxical attitude in a man whose career is built on the repetition of a limited number of musical works. Gabriel believes that music truly exists only when it is happening, as an immediate, spontaneous communication between musicians and listeners.
The spiderweb image also describes a basic structural principle of the novel. Inez constructs a sequence of situations that echo one another hauntingly but never exactly repeat. The primary narrative subject is the stormy, on-again-off-again relationship between Gabriel and Inez Prada (née Rosenzweig), a singer of extraordinary vocal power whom he attempts to seduce, with varying degrees of success, at widely separated intervals -- in 1940, 1949 and 1967. As happens often in Latin American fiction, the border between reality and fantasy is sometimes blurred. After the 1967 encounter, at London's Covent Garden, Inez disappears. In 1999, talking to her ghost (or her memory), Gabriel thinks she may have gone off to a "different life," dwelling in the dream of a primitive world she has been imagining at intervals throughout the novel. Perhaps she is with a boyhood friend of his who disappeared long ago and who may be a figment of his imagination.
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