The Short Version: A tennis match gets underway between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Quevedo, played with a ball made from the hair of Anne Boleyn. Meanwhile/earlier, Hernán Cortés has conquered the Aztecs and a new breed of Popes arise to start the Counter-Reformation. And author Álvaro Enrigue attempts to write his latest novel by blending history with imagination to the point of no return.
The Review: In all honesty, I should’ve known what I was getting into from the very start. In the opening chapter, untitled and added (I think) for the English translation, the author speaks to us directly. He talks of tennis, of tennis shoes, of a friend’s father reading the novel with the help of a dictionary – and he tells us, right there, that “the only real things in a novel are the sequences of letters, words, and sentences that make it up….” and that “a game that is played in a novel has everything to do with that novel and nothing to do with reality.” But he lets the reader off the hook in the following sentences, acknowledging that we will often claim certain things to be real or more believable than others. Seeing as Enrigue is playing with history, with real people, it’s easy to maybe believe that this book is a real story – but while the players in it and the circumstances surrounding them are often very, very real, I can’t help thinking (even though it took an effort to remind myself of this) that Sudden Death is a most fantastical romp through a history that’s more about how we, today, perceive the world and how we got here than it is about the realities of the 16th Century.
So then the question becomes, I suppose, “is any of this true, at all?” A little Googling will clear you of the questions you may have (for example, and I guess maybe this is a spoiler, but Anne Boleyn didn’t really get her hair turned into tennis balls after she died) – but all of it raises the larger question of what exactly it means for a novel to make these things up and to have them, potentially, presented as truth. It’s a popular saw that history is “written by the victors” – but what, then, does it mean to rewrite a history that people maybe aren’t directly familiar with? This is a novel, after all; it is fiction. And yet it’s very easy for readers, myself included, to believe the events transpiring here. Perhaps this is because they brush up against reality: Enrigue describes little things like Caravaggio walking across a piazza to deliver a painting and while there’s obviously no record of how he would’ve held the canvas and what the day might’ve been like, it’s this sort of light fabrication that paradoxically gives legitimacy to the entirety of the novel – we’re more ready to believe that Caravaggio and Quevedo played a tennis match against each other, even knowing that, as depicted here, it couldn’t’ve played out like this because how on Earth would we know who said what? When what happened? And so on. Those things, we forgive the author and expect – but the larger deception (if that’s what it is) is a fuzzy one, one that’s far more complicated.
In truth, the stories contained herein are about as real as the purported owners of Highway’s teeth. Which makes this novel a slice of historical fiction – but even Enrigue gets caught up in the game, including emails between him and his editor (asking if they can be included in the book, permission that she incidentally denies – so are even these emails real?!) and diverting occasionally into direct address. At one point, not dissimilarly to how his wife’s great novels acknowledge their translator and their translation, he writes the line “Full disclosure: if you are reading this page, you are reading a translation.” This comes in the midst of discussing the culture of diminutives and nicknames in Mexican culture and his exploration of how names and naming got bastardized in the mix of languages between indigenous tongues and colonizing Spanish – and you can’t help but think about the further level in which the story has been shifted, changed, altered by nature in the course of being translated. We are meant, I think, to be fully engaged with this novel from word one – because while it retains a certain pleasure of reading as just a book to read, you only manage the full experience if you really activate your brain for it.
Enrigue helps us, of course. The book doesn’t just sit there, expecting you as the reader to step up and carry the intellectual weight. Not only do you sense the author’s relentless hunger for knowledge and for exploration, pulsing underneath the language – but the language itself, deftly and humorously translated by Natasha Wimmer (best known for her translations of the great works of Roberto Bolaño), can’t help but crackle the synapses. There’s a fire of light to it, like a diamond – or like the Colibrì Mitre (real – look at this thing) – catching the sun. Phrases like “beneath whose leather stays beat Anne Boleyn’s incendiary braids” just take my breath away.
He also delivers one of the best depictions of drunkenness I’ve ever seen – I frankly felt a little drunk while I was reading, at times, because the wooziness he’s able to portray (as well as the flashes of guilt, of insanity, and so on) felt so vivid. Enrigue is a writer who loves words – he loves paintings, he loves poetry, he loves the creation of something out of nothing. You can feel it in every word he writes, how much he loves what he’s doing and how fascinated he is by the world around him.
I suppose it would do to divert, before closing, to talk about the actual plot. This is perhaps the thorniest thing for a reader to get a handle on and the easiest way to dismiss the novel out of hand: the plot is beyond hyperactive. We have this (fictional) tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, featuring Galileo and (if I’ve got this right) at least two future popes in the stands. We also have Cortez conquering the Aztecs, as well as Cortez as an older man failing in health – as well as Cortez’s children and lovers after his death, moving through both Mexico and the Old World. We also have some (mostly true, if my history classes [and some canny Wikipediaing] serve) history of the Counter-Reformation and the way that the colonization of the New World was directly tied to that movement – he doesn’t quite get there, I’ll admit, but Enrigue gets pretty damned close to presenting us with a definitive examination (even within the context of a fictional work) of just how connected the world already was, even by the middle of the 16th Century.
The tennis match scenes are delivered with aplomb – they’re some of the best sports writing I’ve ever read, recreating the game of tennis as it used to be while also still remaining entirely recognizable. You could lift out the chapters about the match and have a thrilling novella that stood entirely alone. As enjoyable as these scenes were, they’re matched in my mind by the joyful way that Enrigue plows through history on both sides of the Atlantic. He is as comfortable making up a conversation between characters of such titanic historical importance as Cortez the Killer (had to, sorry) and La Malinche, the woman who sold out (but also helped found/define) the New World, as he is rattling off the actual history behind Pope Pius IV and the closing sessions of the Council of Trent. He puts plenty of his research onto the page, but he also expects that you’ll either know what he’s talking about or, if you don’t, you’ll look it up – he isn’t, after all, writing a history book. I immensely enjoyed this authorial balance and it strikes me that he has both great faith in himself and in his readers. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for some good digs at the expense of the Catholic Church at the height of its powers (his joke about there never having been a Sixtus VI as evidence of the Church’s lack of a sense of humor will stick with me / be stolen by me).
Rating: 6 out of 5. No, it’s not an easy read. Enrigue bounces (get it? because it’s a book [partially] about tennis?) between a fictional tennis match, real history, fictional interpretations of real history, the present day, and no fewer than two continents and seven countries. And it does zoom around, hopping from thought to thought without much warning. But his warm and ebullient writing won me from the very first page, as did his dedication to not only pushing the bounds of the novel / what it means to be a novelist but also to exploring the ways that history interacts with the present on both the largest and most intimate scales. He writes late (but not too late) that he doesn’t know what the novel is about – but, astonishingly, that ends up being okay because he’s written something far bigger (even in the space of just over 250 pages) than a simple synopsis or simple few sentences could ever encompass, just as the novel doesn’t even really try to encompass the whole of history. In the opening Q&A with the author and Teju Cole that festoons my ARC of the novel, Enrigue cites Borges’ map of the empire as an example of trying to talk about this book – you need the entire book to do it, really.
And, so: what are you waiting for?