Álvaro Enrigue’s new novel, Sudden Death, is so waywardly intelligent, violently disparate in its settings, and excitingly intricate in its composition that perhaps the best way of beginning a description of the pleasures it offers is to inspect an isolated early chapter. It’s called “Beheading,” and it tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s execution by Jean Rombaud—brought from France for the purpose by Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s fixer.
As told by Enrigue, the execution is a sequence of macabre detail, a snuff spectacle. Anne Boleyn’s braids of hair are shaved by her ladies-in-waiting. Rombaud makes a tenderly deceptive joke: “With his sword raised high and ready to come down upon the queen’s neck, he asked carelessly: Has anyone seen my sword?” And then the sword falls, with a bravura literary sound effect: “Vertebrae, cartilage, the spongy tissue of trachea and pharynx: the sound of their parting was like the elegant pop of a cork liberated from a bottle of wine.” Afterward, Rombaud refuses a proffered bag of silver coins, because his payment has already been given to him in secret—“the categorical braids of the queen of England”:
Rombaud was an avid tennis player, and this seemed sufficient payment: the hair of those executed on the scaffold had special properties that caused it to trade at stratospheric prices among ball makers in Paris. A woman’s hair was worth more, red hair more still, and a reigning queen’s would command an unimaginable price.
Anne Boleyn’s braids produced a total of four balls, which were by far the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance.
This is how Sudden Death functions. Its surface is all dazzlement and gruesome panache. But philosophically, it’s all slyness, for while it’s true that Anne Boleyn was executed by Rombaud on May 19, 1536—and that Rombaud is reported to have made his wacky joke—there’s no evidence at all for this story of the tennis balls stuffed with Anne Boleyn’s hair. It is a fiction invented by Enrigue.
Álvaro Enrigue is a Mexican novelist whose celebrated and fertile talent—at forty-seven, he has published eight works of fiction and a book of essays—is for elaborate novelistic constructions. He uses fiction as a way of making precarious order out of absence and chaos. His previously translated novel, Hypothermia, contained a moment when his anonymous narrator offers his theory of the ideal story. “The stories that I like, the ones that make me jealous and fill me with a wild desire to write ones just like them,” he observes, are the ones where “there’s a piece missing, and that gap transforms them into myth.”
I kept thinking of this sentence while reading Sudden Death—a novel that exploits absences in the historical record and creates absences of its own. (Another clue that the novel might be more playful than truthful is to be found in the names of Hernán Cortés’s fellow soldiers: they’re all taken from the heteronyms of the dizzyingly multiple, modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.) So it might look like a historical novel, in that it uses early modern history, in Spain and New Spain and Italy, as its raw material. But really, as Enrigue’s narrator observes, this book is something else: “A novel that doesn’t aspire to accurately represent that time, but does want to present it as a theory about the world we live in today.”
The novel’s largest invention is its central event: a tennis match in Rome on October 4, 1599, between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, with Galileo acting as Caravaggio’s line judge. The three sets of this tennis match are the line that runs through the novel and from which Enrigue hangs his various exhibits. Sudden Death is a novel that adds essays, art history, anecdotes, and found materials—dictionary entries, sporting manuals—to its basic fictional mode. (For this translation, he has added even more—including e-mails between him and his Spanish editor.) It is a novel as collage—an assemblage of short chapters. No chapter lasts more than a few pages, and some are no more than three sentences—like “Encounter of Civilizations”:
Hernán Cortés to one of his captains at a peaceful moment, serenaded by the clamor of insects in the altiplano night: When these savages play ball, it’s the winner who loses his head. The soldier scratches his beard. Spawn of the Devil, they are, he says; they’ll have to be taught that it’s the loser whose head rolls.
The method of miniature parts allows Enrigue a double satisfaction—luxuriant detail within each unit, and elaborate composition connecting them. That dialogue between Cortés and his captain on winning and losing is part of a larger network on the theme of loss and defeat, enveloping the game between Caravaggio and Quevedo, but also Cortés’s earlier insight “that there’s no point worrying about one’s fate, because all paths lead to defeat: nothing is ever enough for anyone,” and the narrator’s assertion that the function of a novel is “to name what is lost, to replace the void with an imaginary archive.”
While Rombaud’s story, we discover, in two separate later chapters, is also part of the total design. Having advertised his regal tennis balls for sale, Rombaud “declined all invitations to discuss, except that of Philippe de Chabot, minister to the king.” Rombaud didn’t want money, he wanted rank—to be given “a modest title and a position in the royal court as master of fencing and tennis.” Accordingly, Chabot organizes an audience with the king. The king inspects the balls, grants Rombaud the honor—and then immediately has him arrested on grounds of treason, for dealing with the heretical king of England, and sentenced to death.
Like so many characters in Sudden Death, Rombaud has been outplayed by absolute power.
The novel’s plot turns on the tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo. Accounts of each game in this three-set match—and the gradual backstory about why the match is happening at all—give Sudden Death a propulsive energy. But tennis is a game based on movement back and forth. The novel has a similar structure—switching between the two players and their entourages, and from there to their two backgrounds: writing and painting; the Spanish, with their conquest of America, and the Italians, with their Counter-Reformation. The suspense of the match’s progress is enveloped by the slower pleasure of Enrigue’s fantasias.
On one side, therefore, stands the poet Quevedo, on the run in Rome with his protector, Pedro Téllez Girón, Duke of Osuna and Marquis of Peñafiel; this means that the novel can also tell the story of Osuna’s wife, Catalina, who was the granddaughter of Cortés, conquistador of New Spain. The story of Cortés’s conquest therefore includes more stories—of the murdered Aztec emperors Moctezuma and Cuauhtémoc, as well as Malinche, Cortés’s lover, a young Nahua Indian woman, and Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, an indigenous nobleman and feather artist; together with the evangelical colonial bishops Vasco de Quiroga and Juan de Zumárraga. On the other side of the net is Caravaggio, the avant-garde painter and bravo, accompanied by Galileo, and behind whom are ranged his patrons, among them Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte and the banker Vincenzo Giustiniani—who themselves inhabit the Vatican hierarchy: the world of Carlo Borromeo, bishop of Milan, and Cardinal Montalto, both of whom are allies of Pope Pius IV, Giovanni Angelo Medici.
It is a crowded fresco of characters festooned with cartoon appetites—political, theological, comical, sexual. Each chapter adds a piquancy to the general picture: the pope looking out over the ruins of Rome; Quiroga and Zumárraga arguing colonial theology; Cortés in bed with his lover under a mantle given as a gift by Moctezuma. (“Novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste,” writes Enrigue’s narrator, “are a tiny bit pornographic.”) But its central hero, undoubtedly, is Caravaggio: a monster of materialist energy, using hoodlum models for his paintings the way Robert Bresson cast nonactors for his movies.
We see Caravaggio drunk, artistically inspired, criminal, polymorphously perverse. He seems to symbolize, for Enrigue, a moment when the theological spirit was beginning to retreat and reveal itself as an alibi for pure worldliness: conquistador stratagems of power and sex. “Back then, his brilliantly colored paintings must have looked very strange, with characters from sacred history portrayed as the lowly beings who crowded Rome at the end of the sixteenth century,” writes Enrigue. His Caravaggio is a “man with a tendency for insubordination, for conduct that defied the norm of the city of the popes,” and Enrigue is keen to emphasize how, for example, his famous Basket of Fruit is “a revolutionary object,” since “no Italian artist had painted a still life before.”
No one in Rome had offered the physical world this kind of devoted attention. And so it’s only natural, according to this theory, that Galileo should be Caravaggio’s line judge. (Both men were under the protection of the del Monte family.) Galileo’s new physics and Caravaggio’s new art are two aspects of a similarly disabused philosophy:
Anyone who believes that earthly objects are all composed of the same group of substances, and that transformations are accomplished only by mechanical means, will naturally perceive the voice of God in the filthy fingernails—nails that are of this world, a part of history—of Caravaggio’s saints and virgins.
In this universe sketched by Enrigue, objects acquire an alarming, personified power. Consider, for instance, those tennis balls stuffed with human hair. Three of the balls belong to the French king—but a fourth is taken from Rombaud by Chabot. This ball functions like a character—a node connecting points in a disparate network. From Chabot it passes to the pope, then to Cardinal Montalto, then to Montalto’s sister Camilla, and then to Pandolfo Pucci, a priest under her protection. Pucci was Caravaggio’s first employer—and it’s from Pucci that Caravaggio steals the ball, and then uses it for his match with Quevedo. “It wasn’t a normal ball,” thinks Quevedo; “there was something irregular about it, as if it were more talisman than ball.” And maybe Quevedo is not so paranoid. “Probably because of its soul of human matter,” writes Enrigue’s narrator, in one of his asides, “during the Renaissance and Baroque periods the pella [the tennis ball] was associated in Catholic Europe and Conquest-era America with satanic pursuits.”
In fact, many other objects in this novel hover between the sacred and the profane—allegorical meaning and material beauty. There’s a pendant, given to Osuna by his wife, who inherited it from Cortés, containing a featherwork image of the Virgin of Guadalupe—like another piece of sacred feather art, “a miter in iridescent shades that an overseas bishop had sent to one of the popes to be worn at the sessions of the Council of Trent.” This tall iridescent hat, made by Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin as a gift for the pope, and then given by the pope to Cardinal Borromeo, is examined by Caravaggio in Borromeo’s studiolo, where he admires its tremulous, impossible substance: “Made of another material, organic and palpable, that changed in shade with the touch of a finger: a ray of light the tiny pathway along which the feathers had been stroked.” And then there are Caravaggio’s paintings themselves—The Calling of Saint Matthew and Judith Beheading Holofernes—which, like the miter, are also experiments in chiaroscuro pretending to be religious artifacts.
Caravaggio’s Calling and Huanitzin’s miter are both said to have taken eleven days to make. Each object is in some way comparable to the other, just as the feather artist Huanitzin is an analog to Caravaggio. It’s a pattern that depends on yet another rearrangement of history: it’s true that one of the earliest surviving feather paintings, The Mass of Saint Gregory, was done in Mexico in 1539 under the supervision or patronage of Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, nephew and son-in-law of Moctezuma, but to make him the artist of a featherwork is Enrigue’s invention.
The silent rearrangement demonstrates the hidden importance of this transatlantic pattern to the novel. It’s designed, I think, to suggest two ways of reading history. The first is to confuse all attempts at nationalist genealogies. In a recent brilliant survey, Painting in Latin America, 1550–1820,* Eduardo de Jesús Douglas meditates on the problem of describing The Mass of Saint Gregory, and asks: “What stylistic label or artistic and cultural identity do we attribute to artist and artwork: indigenous, European, mestizo, hybrid, mixed, decadent, metropolitan, provincial…?”
That exuberant impurity is corroborated by the crisscrossing movement of Enrigue’s novel—an instrument for registering the beginning of a global era. De Jesús Douglas adds that the use of featherwork in this colonial art would have evoked, for the indigenous artist, “ritual sacrifice and the life or soul force…effected through ritual sacrifice”; whereas for the European recipient it offered purely aesthetic excitements, the delights of “color and iridescence.” And that neutral observation is given a darker tinge in the novel. For the philosophy of Sudden Death is melancholy. Every meaning, it seems to say, is fragile. Its existence depends on who is in power.
Late in this high-speed book, where story tumbles after story, there’s a moment when the narrator admits to a certain confusion: “As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match.” Perhaps, he writes, it’s only a “book about how to write this book; maybe that’s what all books are about.” Of course, this is as disingenuous as every other statement in the novel. It should not be taken literally. It’s a gesture of reticence, as if the novelist were the reader’s butler (“the true art,” writes the narrator elsewhere, “is reading, not writing”)—a clue to its form.
The novel takes the form of a puzzle, for the reader to assemble from its disparate materials. Perhaps the most important addition Enrigue has made to the brilliant, tone-switching translation by Natasha Wimmer is a chapter called “On Names, and the Troubled History and Politics of How Things Are Named.” It is an explanation for the startling way names change throughout his novel. “The emperor Cuauhtémoc becomes Cuauhtemoctzin, Guatémuz, or Guatemotzin, depending on who is speaking to him and in what context.” Or there is Cortés’s Nahua lover, Malinalli Tenépatl, aka Malinalli, Doña Marina, Malinche, and Malitzin. But, he writes, “to dispense with the enigma of the name changes, or to list them at the end of the book and thus create an illusion of clarity where there is none, would be to banish the reader to the stands, to bounce him off the court.” For the confusion is a symptom of a general condition: the names keep changing according to who is in power in the conversation.
The novel offers a series of conquests that are, necessarily, experienced by the vanquished as terrible losses—and the most terrible is the conquest of America, in which
dozens of thousand-year-old cultures that had flourished in isolation, without contamination or means of defense, would inexorably be trashed. Not that it matters: nothing matters. Species are extinguished, children leave home, friends turn up with impossible girlfriends, cultures disappear, languages are one day no longer spoken; those who survive convince themselves that they were the most fit.
The universe is a system of winning and losing, and it is rigged in favor of those in power. Sudden Death evokes a process of loss that would be unbearable if it weren’t expressed with such exuberance. The center of this pattern is Mexican history—from Moctezuma to the current narco corruption. But really, it is visible everywhere. “I don’t know what this book is about,” the narrator continues. “I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win. Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys have the advantage and that is too much to bear.”
Around the same time as he published Sudden Death in Spanish, in 2013, Enrigue also published a book of erudite essays: Valiente clase media (The Brave Middle Class). The essays examined a range of Latin American writers, from 1600 to 1900—and the theme, as in Sudden Death, was money and power. Not even writing, observes Enrigue, is immune from the general power strategy: to write is “to accumulate with the objective of dominating territories.” His emblematic figure was the nineteenth-century poet Rubén Darío, the giant of modernismo, a kind of Latin American Victor Hugo. For Darío was a great poet whose wish was not really “poetic glory” but “to climb the social ladder. He wanted to stop worrying, to escape the middle class and its limitations, its debts.” A great poet, according to this theory, is a great arriviste. All civilization is an alibi that conceals the kitsch pretensions of social desire.
And yet it would be wrong to deny Enrigue all optimism—and in the tennis atmosphere of Sudden Death it is symbolized by sneakers. “We cling to our tennis shoes until wearing them on a rainy day is agony. Anyone in a position of power hates them, impervious as they are to their agendas.” Art may be compromised by its worldly desires, but it can nevertheless still represent a doomed resistance to the general power structures, just by naming what is lost (“to replace the void with an imaginary archive”), by speaking for
the soul of all those who’ve been fucked by the pettiness and stupidity of those who believe that winning is all that matters, the soul of those who’ve been undeservedly obliterated, the lost names, the dust of bones….
And this will mean creating forms as jubilantly mestizo as the iridescent featherwork miter, or this novel that is neither American nor European but both at once—and in which, for a moment, the good guy triumphs with his talent. Sure, his future will be exile and destitution and death. But in the last sentence of the novel Caravaggio, Enrigue’s charming hero, wins the match.