First, a chatty postmodern preface of hints and disclaimers, featuring the author’s mother; then, a tennis match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio in 1599; next, a description of tennis from an 18th-century Spanish encyclopedia.
What exactly are we reading?
“Sudden Death,” the first of Álvaro Enrigue’s novels to appear in English, is perhaps his most ambitious. The riotous impurity of his intellectual forays has already made him one of Mexico’s most garlanded writers (“Sudden Death” won the Herralde Prize in 2013). It builds a scrapbook of disparate elements that combines the cheeky freedom of Roberto Bolaño with the narrative telescopings of Mario Vargas Llosa, gradually overlapping to form a shimmer of suggestions about happenstance and the creative imagination.
“Sudden Death” proposes the devastations of the Counter-Reformation and the conquest of Mexico as both cause and image of our violent present, similarly devastated by globalization and the ruthlessness of financiers rather than popes. Though minutely researched, it’s not so much a historical novel as a metaphor of rupture and continuity, enlivening fact with fiction: Anne Boleyn was beheaded by Jean Rombaud, but he didn’t stuff tennis balls with her hair; Galileo knew Caravaggio, but probably didn’t have regular sex with him.
The tennis match between Quevedo and Caravaggio progresses through the novel, game by hilarious game, but around it the scrambled chronologies of different threads are designed to make us lose our way in time. Obviousness has never been Enrigue’s goal.
Enrigue has called the tennis duel a metaphor of geopolitical confrontations, but it’s more riveting as the comically desperate, hung-over contest between two artists with lowlife habits who fancy each other. While he can’t resist the odd metafictional aside (“Maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book”), such modishness pales beside the champion storytelling. The ball traditionally represented the soul; here it’s also the reader, batted between continents, moments, minds.
What makes the novel so enthralling is the intimate humanity of its characters. Enrigue demystifies them using a rich, baroque naturalism, cut by flippancy and goofy jokes (all hail to translator Natasha Wimmer for relaxed perfection in every key). He invents with such empathy that the closest thing to an unmitigated villain is Pius IV, the new Nero presiding over the conflagration lit by the Council of Trent. There’s a dissolute, sexy Caravaggio, inviting Quevedo to lap wine from his mouth. Hernán Cortés has never been more persuasively portrayed, an ascetic Spaniard out of his depth, reckless or cruel in his improvisations, but not the monster of legend, just a graying provincial who “had broken the stewpot of the world without realizing what he was doing.” He’s abetted by La Malinche, a resentful captive noblewoman whose “clitoris . . . changed the world.” Accidents of character or circumstance, plus linguistic or cultural misunderstanding, are the motor of events in these pages.
It’s unclear whether Enrigue thinks that had such details been otherwise, subsequent history might really have been different. With his yen for a spherical time, he regrets that “the future has no place in memory”; it might have made people more careful of consequences. No historian could say a thing like that. But where the novelist and the politicized citizen, the fantasist and the scholar, come together, stunning passages ensue. The most beautiful are also wishfully conciliatory. It’s often forgotten that there was a reciprocity between New and Old World: Indian culture also had an impact on Europe.
Glowing featherwork miters were sent to Europe after 1536 from Bishop Vasco de Quiroga’s utopian lakeside community in Mexico, one of which might possibly have influenced Caravaggio’s concept of color, while by poetic coincidence he and the feather artists worked by night, under controlled light. Quiroga’s project put Thomas More’s “Utopia” into literal practice, and there are two marvelous twists on this: The model worked, because it restored the system prevalent in indigenous societies before the Conquest; and More himself may have known, or dreamed, of those societies, since his 1516 work mentions vestments “composed of the plumes of several birds.”
“Sudden Death” resembles the arts it celebrates: selective, dramatized, all dark gaps and sensual glare, bending naturalism to some post-God purpose, like Caravaggio. Building a luxuriant picture that only ignites into meaning when angled a certain way, like the feather artists. Throughout this mercurial novel, playing fast and loose with facts lets richer truths about the world emerge.
Lorna Scott Fox is a critic, editor and translator based in London.
By Álvaro Enrigue
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Riverhead. 263 pp. $27