Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

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Translated by Natasha Wimmer

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

There’s some remarkable literature from Mexico being published in English translation at the moment. Writers such as Valeria Luiselli, Yuri Herrera, Paulette Jonguitud, Sergio Pitol, Carmen Boullosa, Juan Pablo Villalobos – and their translators, of course – have all given us fascinating and distinctive works of fiction. Now here’s another one: Sudden Death, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is the first of Álvaro Enrigue’s five novels to appear in English (there has previously been a short story collection, Hypothermia). I can tell you that I’ve never read anything quite like this novel; but I can’t promise that I fully understood it. How to deal with that? Well, Enrigue writes at one point: ‘when something is unclear [to a writer] I think it should be left that way.’ So I’ll follow his suggestion and be upfront about it.

Sudden Death revolves around tennis. Running through the novel is an account of a fictitious game of pallacorda (an extinct sport similar to real tennis) played between an Italian painter and a Spanish poet: Caravaggio and Francisco de Quevedo. The intensity and violence of this match gives it the air of a duel:

The poet bounced the ball on the line, tossed it in the air. Tenez! The artist waited for it to drop from the roof and with three hundred and sixty degrees of force, he pounded it with his racket as if it were a nail in Christ’s wrist. The ball flew straight at the poet’s face again, but this time he took it in the crown, managing to duck a little.

I don’t know enough about Caravaggio and Quevedo to be certain of whether their game stands for something larger; but there is certainly a sense that the tide of history is behind them, because most of Sudden Death is taken up with historical anecdotes (whether real or fictional is beside the point) of the 16th and 17th centuries. The first of these chapters is an account of Anne Boleyn’s execution by French swordsman (and tennis player) Jean Rombaud, who takes some of Boleyn’s hair and has it made into the core of four tennis balls. Rombeaud seeks the favour of King Francis I with these tennis balls, and at first it seems he gains it – but he is summarily executed for treason, having sold his services to the English. Rombaud’s hair does not go to waste, however, duly meeting the same fate as Anne Boleyn’s.

This is only one example of historical irony in the novel. Enrigue takes in grand themes from history – the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire; the Counter-Reformation – but shows them rooted in the messy minutiae of individual lives and relationships. The author’s account of Cortés and Mexico runs mostly in reverse, beginning with the lives of his daughter and grand-daughter, and going back to the moment when Malinalli, Cortés’ translator and lover, twists the words of an Aztec ambassador to suit her own purposes – just one of the banal incidents that will lead to a massacre. Enrigue writes: ‘There are few better illustrations of how a whole host of people can manage to understand absolutely nothing, act in an impulsive and idiotic way, and still drastically change the course of history.’ Quite.

Elsewhere in the Mexican strand of the novel, we come across a feathered mitre which finds its way into the hands of Caravaggio’s patron, and in turn transforms the artist’s sense of colour – and that helps to bring a new sense of earthy reality into his work, one in keeping with the spirit of the contemporary Counter-Reformation:

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.

There’s a sense, then, that what we see in Sudden Death is a world in the process of formation – and one that remains in formation, because its pieces do not settle into a neat whole. The novel includes various interjections from the author, such as the one I quoted from at the beginning of this review, or a series of (fictional?) e-mails between Enrigue and his editor. These serve to underline the artificial, piecemeal nature of the book. If I didn’t grasp everything in Sudden Death, that’s not necessarily a problem, because the novel doesn’t know everything about itself, either. It lives in its incompleteness.

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David blogs at David’s Book World 

Álvaro Enrigue, Sudden Death, trans Natasha Wimmer (Harvill Secker, 2016). 978-1846558832, 245pp., paperback original.

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