Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (tr. Natasha Wimmer). Riverhead. $27.95. 272 pp.
In Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue’s second novel to be translated into English, the great sweep of the sixteenth century is served up and presented to the reader as the unlikely product of imbecilic decisions made by drunken, lusty, bigoted men, who, holding “history in their fists perhaps without realizing it,” tossed the world onto the “pyres of modernity.”
Caravaggio, the Lombard of obscure origin whose revolutionary canvases illuminated the desperate humanity of the Catholic pantheon, squares off in an ur-tennis match against Francisco de Quevedo, the bespectacled Spanish wit whose acid-tipped pen was deployed unsparingly against the intellectual giants of his day. (Galileo, Caravaggio’s sometime lover, keeps score). Hernan Cortés, the provincial Spanish landowner who turned an act of insubordination into history’s single-largest imperial conquest, sits uneasily next to Cuahetémoc, the magnificent Aztec warlord undone by a ragtag band of former feudal subjects, as the two watch a game of Mexica pelota on the island-capital of Tenochtitlan. (Malinalli Tenépatl, Cortés’s lover and translator, is transported by a vision of Cuahetémoc sodomizing the bearded Spaniard.) Back in Rome, Pius IV serenely stuffs his face with boar sausage and lets loose the Inquisitors.
Named for the tie-breaking round of pallacorda, the Renaissance game that prefigured tennis, Sudden Death is not a farce, and nor is it simply a speculative work that asks “what if?” of great historical figures and moments. Indeed, Enrigue deliberately works against the speculative mode by weaving exegetical historiography and laconic fourth-wall-breaking reflections throughout the relatively “straight” narrative lines of the apocryphal tennis match, the Mexican conquest, and the ideological formation of the Counter-Reformation. In a sort of confession toward the end of the book, Enrigue seems to throw up his hands to the reader’s inevitable question:
As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match. Nor is it a book about the slow and mysterious integration of America into what we call “the Western world”—an outrageous misapprehension, since from the American perspective, Europe is the East. Maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book; maybe that’s what all books are about. A book with a lot of back and forth, like a game of tennis.
Enrigue’s coy humility here ultimately cedes itself to the outrage with which he confronts the atrocious costs by which history is made. By making a game central to the book’s narrative momentum, he posits that history’s outcome is as unpredictable as a well-played tennis match (consider the recent defeat of Serena Williams, one of the game’s best-ever players, at the hands of Roberta Vinci, a complete unknown). At the same time he moves toward the conclusion that, often as not, the game is rigged from the start—a lesson Enrigue expertly deploys on the book’s final page.
Contemporary Latin American writers do not have the benefit of the forgetful and redemptive historical logic that shapes much of the literature of their Northern American neighbors. Indeed, Enrigue furthers the project undertaken by the grand Latin American writers of the 20th century—I am thinking primarily of Carlos Fuentes, who wrote a glowing review of Vidas Perpendiculares, Enrigue’s 2008 novel—of wresting gorgeous novels out of the stinking filth of history, the discomfiting facts of their origin.
But rather than come up with a cast of exemplary characters who wrestle—or don’t—with the history imprinted on their bodies and minds, Enrigue chooses instead to inhabit the lives of the men and women who committed the sins that have culminated, some 500 years later, in the figure of Álvaro Enrigue. In Cortés, Enrigue finds a man who, with seemingly little foresight or administrative wherewithal, changed the course of history forever—and who remains as unpopular and ignored as he was during the 16th century. “What a provincial he must have been,” Enrigue notes, “never to receive recognition for having set at the feet of the pope . . . a world complete with all its animals, plants, temples, and little houses with hundreds of thousands of ladies and gentlemen inside.” Today, he fares little better—a back-of-the-envelope calculation by Enrigue suggests that out of the 180 million Mexicans born since Mexico won its independence in 1821, only one of them, the nationalist philosopher and educator José Vasconcelos, considers Cortés to have been a hero.
In the narrative portions of Sudden Death that deal with Cortés, the conquistador is portrayed as the tired and dogged man he certainly must have been. While Enrigue’s representation certainly humanizes him, it by no means excuses his conduct. He is portrayed as the lesser man, the lucky man, “the guardian angel of underachievers and late bloomers” who at age 42 became not only “Europe’s greatest celebrity but [also] the prince of all those who fuck things up without realizing it.”
On the other side of the historical net stands Caravaggio, whose boorish braggadocio was tolerated (and quietly celebrated) by Church fathers and Roman magnates from an obnoxiously young age, and whose work remains the subject of fascination for hordes of tourists and refined art historians alike. Caravaggio, Enrigue notes,
shifted the sacred scenes indoors to focus the spectators of his paintings on the humanity of the characters. . . . An affluent saint in a landscape stands for a world touched by God; a saint in a room stands for humanity in the dark: a humanity distinguished by its ability to continue to believe, in a world in which faith is already impossible; a material humanity smelling of blood and saliva; a humanity that no longer watches from the sidelines, that does things.
The historical irony that Enrigue illuminates in Sudden Death is that while Caravaggio’s earthy subject-matter revolutionized the world of painting, it presented no challenge to the winds that swept out over Europe and the Americas from the Vatican. Pius IV may have been a decadent patron of the arts, but his lieutenants raped children, stuffed their pockets with cash, and “turn[ed] torture into the only way to practice Christianity.”
Francisco de Quevedo, Caravaggio’s opponent, is a more ambiguous figure. A spiteful drunk, he rashly challenges Caravaggio to a duel shortly after they are discovered entwined on the bank of the Tiber; it is through Galileo’s intervention that the two play a pallacorda match instead of fighting to the death. Quevedo proves to be a quite capable opponent, crippling hangover and severe physical deformity notwithstanding. He was, like the others, both a product of his time and someone who stood outside it—his jeremiads against Luis de Gongora, the Golden Age poet whose monstrously complex sonnets have tortured generations of literature students throughout the Spanish-speaking world, brought him notoriety; like the rest of the characters in Sudden Death, he died in obscurity and out of favor with the powers of the day.
Natasha Wimmer’s rendering of Enrigue’s unassuming prose is a delight; indeed, the act of translation—done well and poorly—appears and reappears throughout the book, most notably (and hilariously) during Cortés’s misadventures in Mexico. Enrigue, who has lived and worked in the United States for many years now, appears to have worked closely with Wimmer on the English translation; there is an entire additional chapter devoted to explaining, for non-Spanish readers, Mexican Spanish’s debts to Nahuatl, the royal language of the Aztecs. (Other, slighter modifications meant for the English reader are peppered throughout the text, including an explication of the word xingar—I must admit I don’t envy the translator’s task there.)
In the “confession” cited above, Enrigue writes that “novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic.” Following this logic, Sudden Death is an amateur production made by a group of friends who alternate between shy bemusement, periodic fits of nervous chatter, and moments of authentic tenderness. It’s a curious way to represent a moment of great upheaval and bloodshed—and genius—but it works magnificently.
In the book’s latter half, Enrigue describes the first-ever recorded game of tennis, in which a French seminarist’s soul is sent to hell in the form of a ball, where it is smacked mercilessly by a quartet of demons playing doubles. It recalls the end of the book’s introduction.
It’s no coincidence that when speaking of someone’s death in Mexico we say he “hung up his tennis shoes,” that he “went out tennis shoes first.” We are who we are, unfixable, fucked. We wear tennis shoes. We fly from good to evil, from happiness to responsibility, from jealousy to sex. Souls batted back and forth across the court. This is the serve.
Lucas Iberico Lozada is a writer and translator based in Lima, Peru, and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
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