Written by Álvaro Enrigue
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Published by Riverbed Books
Review by Cynthia C. Scott
Novelist Álvaro Enrigue returns with his fifth novel Sudden Death in a new English translation by Natasha Wimmer. Published in Spain in 2013, it won the 31st Herralde Novel Prize for its monumental yet intimate examinations about the cultural and political revolutions that swept through Europe and the New World during the Counter-Reformation. Considered among a distinguished list of Mexican writers that include Enrique Vila-Matas, Javier Marías, Juan Villoro, and Roberto Bolaño, Enrigue was awarded the Joaquín Mortiz Prize for his 1996 debut novel La muerte de un instalador, which was also named one of the key novels in Mexico in the twenty-first century. His novels, which also include Hipotermia and Vidas perpediculares, are experimental treatises on the disjointed, unreliable nature of narrative. Sudden Death follows in that same vein.
Sudden Death features a dizzying cast of historical figures that includes Caravaggio, Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, Hernán Cortéz and his Mayan translator and lover Malitzen (La Malinche), Galileo, and many others. However it’s central conceit revolves around a tennis match between the Lombard artist and the poet and how its outcome will change the course of history. While that might seem a bit hyperbolic, it cannot be overstated that Caravaggio, whose monumental works include The Martyrdom of St. Matthew and The Calling of St. Matthew, did revolutionize painting, giving birth to modern art with his bold use of light and naturalism, and bridging the Mannerism and the Baroque movements in Europe. Yet Caravaggio’s scandalous and often violent personal life (he fled Italy in 1606 after being sentenced to death for killing a young man) and his visionary work are fitting analogies for the cultural and political upheavals unfolding during the Counter-Reformation.
The Caravaggio and de Quevedo we meet are crude and sexually adventurous men whose creative energies move off the pages and the canvasses into their personal lives. Caravaggio is still a struggling artist who makes a living by playing tennis matches for bets and commissioned artwork for Cardinal Francesco Del Monte and banking heir Vincenzo Giustiniani. De Quevedo’s friend the Duke of Osuna, who shares the poet’s readiness for “insatiable urges,” was the catalyst for their flight to Italy after the Duke’s three separate scandalous trials. There, in Rome, both artists engage in a battle of tennis, wits, and sexual tension. Watching and betting on the matches are another circle of players which include two of Caravagggio’s lovers, Galileo and Mary Magdalene––a prostitute model who is featured in Martha and Mary Magdalene––as well as back alley drunkards, gamblers, and louts. Enrigue describes the scenes with an eye for satire. “He recognized them: [Mary Magdalene’s breasts] were, of course, the most defiant pair of tits in the history of art.”
The match itself would be compelling and absurdly funny on its own, but Enrigue ties the fates of the two men to the larger world canvas. The tennis ball they use during the matches is made out of the hair shorn from the severed head of Anne Boleyn, one of four of “the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance.” A scapular de Quevedo wears under his clothes was woven from the hairs of the last Aztec emperor who was tortured and ordered executed by Cortéz during his brutal conquest of the Americas. Through this and other objet d’art Enrigue is able to spin his tale outward in sketches, segments, and excerpts from other works, crossing both time and space to introduce historical characters and the political, cultural, and religious movements that shaped the modern world.
Aside from Caravaggio and de Quevedo, Cortéz and Malitzen, whose schemes lead to the destruction of the Aztec empire, the bishop who uses Thomas More’s satirical novel Utopia as a guide to build New Spain, and Francesco Maria del Monte who would become Pope Pius IV form the other compelling tales in the novel. In the middle of it all is the author himself, acting as literary curator archiving Boleyn’s balls, Caravaggio’s art, sixteenth century Spanish dictionaries on the rules and nomenclature of tennis, and other historical objects that breathe life into the past. As the novel progresses, collecting more characters, artifacts, and memories, Enrigue returns to the tennis match to balance out his many diversions.
Natasha Wimmer, who translated Bolaño’s work, does an excellent job in retaining the playfulness in Enrigue’s prose, creating in English a lament that never fails to illuminate the author’s intent:
The rest of infinite America still had no inkling that over the next two hundred years, 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.
It would be easy to reduce Sudden Death to a story about the destruction that precedes the rise and collapse of empires and cultures, but the novel is much more than that. Its real purpose is to question narratives, both historical and fictional. As Enrigue writes with an air of resignation and uncertainty, “I don’t know what this book is about. I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win.” In the end, he concludes that “[t]he honest thing is to relay my doubts and let the conversation move one step forward: the readers may know better.” And that is where the heart of the novel rests: its trust in readers.
As an historical novel, Sudden Death is a deeply ruminative and wickedly absurd examination of art and history that deserves your attention. It will leave you wondering about narrative, the stories we choose to tell, and how they shape our understanding of the modern world.
Cynthia C. Scott is a freelance writer whose fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in Hakai Magazine, Graze Magazine, Flyleaf Journal, eFiction, Rain Taxi, Bright Lights Film Journal, Strange Horizon, and others. She’s a lifelong resident of the San Francisco Bay Area.