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…
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