Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue (tr. Natasha Wimmer). Riverhead. $27.95. 272 pp.
I should tell you right off that by the usual rules of the reviewing business—business, so to call it—I shouldn’t be reviewing this novel. I know the author; I’ve broken bread with him (more of a cracker, actually); I edited his first book to come out in English translation (titled, by the way, Hypothermia). You want to call this an inside job, you’re entitled. You want to say the fix is in, who am I to argue. Still and all, I’m here to tell you that Sudden Death is a pleasure, a serious pleasure, and I say this as a civilian, as a reader for whom pleasure of whatever degree of seriousness is the main event.
“YOU’VE NEVER READ A NOVEL LIKE THIS BEFORE” proclaims the back cover of the bound galley of Death, likening the effect of the book to a “gut punch.” Like much ad copy (for which the author should not be held responsible), I take issue with these statements, not least because I have indeed read a novel like this before. Many, in fact. On those occasions, however, I would have been reading books by, say, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino, so it’s in a rather august company that Enrigue has earned himself a place setting.
Death is made up, by my count, of 74 chapters, all of which are brief, some of which run no longer than a single paragraph, all of which have been given their own titles, regardless of length. All the chapters serve one, at most two of the following functions (not an exhaustive list, but a representative one):
a. Describing, in more or less sequential order, set by set and game by game, a tennis match (a duel, really, in tennis form) played between the painter known as Caravaggio and the writer Francisco de Quevedo, author of, most notably—in English translation, anyhow—El Buscón (The Swindler) and Los Sueños (Dreams); which duel is seconded, respectively, by Galileo Galilei and Quevedo’s patron and protector Pedro Téllez-Girón, Duke of Osuna.
b. Describing, in something like reverse order, with many a hop around the timeline, the brutish and fabulously fortunate Hernán Cortés’s expedition into Tenochtitlan, leading to the fall of the Aztec Empire and the foundation of a Catholic, Latin America; including dramatizations of Cortés’s personal, amatory, financial, and family histories both before and after his victory.
c. Presenting several short quotations from the literature of the history of tennis.
d. Staging scenes from the planning of what became known as the Counter-Reformation, centered on the papal machinations concerning the Council of Trent.
e. Staging scenes from Caravaggio’s early career and the development of his revolutionary style.
f. Providing ekphrases on Caravaggio’s paintings and works of art important to his evolution.
g. Ruminating upon the research undertaken into all the above by the author of Sudden Death, up to and including the writing of Sudden Death; for example a supposed e-mail exchange between Enrigue and an editor at his Spanish-language publisher Anagrama.
There is a good deal of dialogue in the book, all of which abjures use of the quotation mark, as well as paragraph breaks separating speakers, a convention usually retained even in those novels where the dash and other such speech-signaling devices have been shown the door. This means that the characters’ words stand cheek-by-jowl with the author/narrator’s, nothing but punctuation to keep them out of each others’ business. The effect is whimsical, permissive, all-inclusive: everyone sounds alike, as they must; the surface of the prose remaining placid, unflustered by the obscenities it might be describing, moving from mind to mind and mouth to mouth, always even-handed and good natured, allowed thereby to locate its narrative anywhere and -when the author deems needful, to enter into whatever mode might be necessary to achieve its ends—scholarly, pornographic, meticulous, indolent—never breaking a sweat.
Indeed, lightness, in Calvino’s sense, is paramount to Enrigue’s approach. The short chapters and breezy tone give the reader the impression that she isn’t engaged in piecing together the tortuous narrative of a world-destroying conflagration—in which, as the narrator himself has cause to remark, the bad guys have already won many times over—but instead popping bonbons into her mouth, enjoying little after-dinner divertissements, only gradually getting queasy, coming down with a bad case of history. History, that is, with its capital aitch, that unending nightmare of murder after murder, war after war, innovation after innovation, erasure after erasure; history the god who goes quite mad quite regularly, swallowing whole worlds in its “pool of blood and shit,” leading to the deletion of cultures willy-nilly, and, in this case, the squelching of all the pluralistic, pagan possibilities that were once open—we can pretend!—to Western civilization. Enrigue’s little flechettes, harmless in themselves, come to describe a cunning and solemn design.
What is that design? I don’t want to elaborate upon it too much here, at the risk of ruining the novel’s great feat of prestidigitation, in which—foreground—a tennis ball made out of the hair of Anne Boleyn and a scapular made out of the hair of the final emperor of Tenochtitlan crisscross the world, changing hands like the titular rifle in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73; while—background—a collection of feather-work miters made by the few surviving Aztec plumería artisans, nominally converted to Christianity, wind up preserving their entire annihilated culture, in concentrated form, in plain sight within the gory artworks of Europe. This much, though, I can say without fear of spoilage: that Sudden Death’s true subject-matter, to my eye, its circus of poets and painters and mathematicians and conquistadors and popes and inquisitors aside, is the ways in which art can serve to poison power, not because of its political content, as such, but simply by means of its being so stubbornly artificial, solipsistic, sybaritic, and other-than-mundane. As poisons go, it’s largely ineffective, I grant you—it not only refuses to kill the host, but can on occasion legitimize its transgressions—but Enrigue nonetheless finds some cause for hope in art’s ability to archive the alternate histories over which avarice and cruelty have steamrolled so consistently. Art in Sudden Death may be read as the tiny vengeance of the massacred; the final resting place of the world’s deleted heresies; the only conquest, however inadequate, of the conquered. “[I]f a work of art, like a dream, is worth remembering,” Enrigue comments, “it’s precisely because it represents a blind spot for history. Art and dreams don’t stick with us because they have the capacity to move things along, but because they stop the world: they function as a parenthesis, a dyke, a moment of rest.”
In this, Enrigue holds Caravaggio up as quintessentially contemporary, a painter serving not the world-devouring god of Europe—not so dissimilar, really, bloodthirstiness-wise, from the Aztec pantheon—but a god we might now recognize, “a god unlike God, remote and uninterested in revealing himself in miracles beyond combustion or the balance of forces; a true god for everyone: the poor, the wicked, the politicians, the rent boys, and the millionaires.” Caravaggio is style, is artifice and attention, triumphant; that’s about all any artist can aspire to, then or now.
It’s for the soul, the future of art, that the real duel is being fought in Sudden Death: it’s Álvaro Enrigue versus oblivion, with oblivion, as ever, the odds-on favorite . . . but, and here’s the thing, you can’t beat oblivion with a straight-on attack. You need to be quick on your feet.
To get back to that book I edited, and on account of which I shouldn’t be writing this review, Enrigue is on record saying something pretty fascinating about it. He said—I paraphrase—that in Spanish, Hypothermia is absolutely and obviously a novel, period and the end, whereas, in English translation, it became, likewise absolutely and obviously, a book of short stories. I didn’t know what to make of this: how could Hypothermia ever have been taken for a novel? Each of its sections—chapters?—is indisputably an independent story; there are no clear through lines of plot, of character. What was I missing? How had this mysterious transformation occurred, and right under my nose?
It strikes me that Sudden Death’s short chapters, its author’s grace on the court, might represent an evolution of this same neither/nor approach to form. While the reader is unlikely to be surprised, I imagine, at who wins Death’s diegetic game of tennis between poet and painter—good luck to anyone hoping to defeat a master of foreshortening—it’s how Enrigue delivers the final serve in his game that elevates Death’s disparate fragments into a whole, a novel qua novel to stand among the best postcolonial comedies.
Granted, in English, we have only part of the picture—Enrigue has published something like seven books, in Spanish—but held up to Hypothermia, Sudden Death represents a great leap forward. Widening the comparison to Enrigue’s compatriots, when did we last have a Fuentes this fun, this friendly, this dangerous? Would we have to go back the 1970s? Earlier? And then, moving closer to Enrigue’s own generation, have any of the novels of the Crack Movement we’ve seen translated ever managed so successfully to escape fussiness, ponderousness, overdetermination?
The fact is, in English too, we tend to suffer from a distinct lack of lightness. We’ve never been too expert at the serious pleasures. Silliness we can do, and seriousness we can do, but we may need some refresher courses on how to combine them.
So, rather than a gut punch—is that really what we want from our novels, these days?—let’s do the obvious thing and call Sudden Death a tennis ball sent hurtling at literature, at the reader, and served by a fleet-footed instructor. It may seem harmless, as it flies, but this is a ball with “a poisonous spin” on it. It may take us a few tries before we can learn how to hit it back.
Jeremy M. Davies is the author of two novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015), as well as The Knack of Doing (2016), a collection of short fiction. He was for some years Senior Editor at Dalkey Archive Press.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue  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...
- Death with Interruptions by José Saramago Death with Interruptions, José Saramago (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). Harcourt. 256pp, $24.00. Besides, all the many things that have been said about god and death are just stories, and this is another one. —José Saramago, Death with Interruptions José Saramago prefaces his newly translated novella, Death with Interruptions, with two...
- Language Death Night Outside: Poem.Novel by Peter Waterhouse Originally published in German in 1989, Language Death Night Outside falls loosely into the tradition of Waterhouse’s fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard’s monologic novels full of disgust and fury at Austria and its wartime complicity, and also, in its melancholy, bears a resemblance to the novels of W. G. Sebald, who...
- The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody With his latest novel, The Four Fingers of Death, Rick Moody has accomplished something that shouldn’t be possible: he has written a literary novel that is also a highly readable page-turner and an amusing sci-fi adventure yarn. If there are other examples of literary novels that are all those things,...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Jeremy M. Davies