Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: tennis and treachery in the Renaissance
Caravaggio, Cortés and Anne Boleyn head a historical cast in this lively, freewheeling tale
Alvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer
On a sweltering street in Rome in 1599, two men lumber about engaged in a crazy game of tennis conducted as a haphazard duel – which is exactly what it is – and are also battling epic hangovers. What the rivals lack in grace and sportsmanship they compensate for with their chaotic zeal.
More brawl than match, it is frenzied and hugely amusing to the barely sympathetic watching friends and supporters. The players, the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, display contrasting approaches. The artist is reckless and completely out of control while the poet is all too aware of his personal predicament; as his amused second, the duke, rubs in: “You have to keep playing – Spain turns out nothing but soldiers and artists and you can’t let anyone here know that you’ve never been to war.”
Yet while the tennis game is good fun, it is not the only thing going on in Mexican Álvaro Enrigue’s exciting, partly late Renaissance-themed meta-fiction of ideas, historical facts, zoom-in, close-up studies of real-life figures, and murky truths. Tennis balls do get to enjoy centre stage – or perhaps that should be centre court?
Just when the reader is becoming accustomed to the glare of the sun, the sweat, the cursing and the comic-book struggles, Enrigue turns back the clock even further and the scene has moved to the execution day, May 19th, 1536, of rejected queen Anne Boleyn.
French swordsman Jean Rombaud, flamboyantly dressed as well as “beautiful and immoral”, has been summoned. He had, we are told, “drifted coldly in the tight circle of very specialised workers who thrived in the Renaissance courts under the blind eye of ambassadors, ministers and secretaries. His reserve, striking looks and lack of scruples made him a natural for certain kinds of tasks known to all and spoken of by none, the dark operations that have always been unavoidable in the conduct of politics.”
His job is to execute Boleyn using a sword, not an axe. Cad that he is, when faced with her courage he feels badly and, as history records, partly to distract her and himself, wonders aloud where he has put the very weapon he is actually holding.
The deed is done. He refuses money and returns to France carrying the dead woman’s braids. These are then used in the making of bespoke tennis balls. In common with Peter Carey, Enrigue enjoys research and collects details. Several of the objects in this book emerge as characters complete with vivid histories.
The narrative is fast-moving and in ways mimics the action of a tennis match as various stories are volleyed back and forth. It is ingenious and clever, yet never arid. Enrigue possesses a singular tone of laconic bemusement which has here been astutely conveyed by Natasha Wimmer, who has also translated the work of the Chilean Roberto Bolaño, who had spent time in Mexico before moving to Spain. Enrigue, now based in New York via Washington, DC, shares Bolaño’s love of digression, but he is far more economic and more disciplined.
He gives the impression of having a quick mind, and a good-natured intellectual impatience guarantees engagingly original, readable fictions. Sudden Death is the first of his six novels to date to be translated into English, although an irresistible volume of largely anecdotal stories, Hypothermia (2005), was published in Brendan Riley’s translation by Dalkey Archive in 2013.
That book may well have initiated a following and will encourage readers to experience this terrific jaunt which reads as both historical collage and cautionary tale.
Drifter with sublime giftHuman behaviour does not cover itself with glory as the Renaissance yields to the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. In among the brutality and violence; the scandals and the crimes of church and empire, Enrigue examines the art of Caravaggio and succeeds in presenting him as a wayward drifter at the mercy of a sublime gift.
“Basket of Fruit was painted not as fruit appears in nature, but rather as it looks reflected from a certain distance in a concave mirror. In its time, the painting was considered a virtuosic work more in the manner of the Flemish artists than the Italians . . . Painting the fruit, which was on the verge of rotting, couldn’t have taken Caravaggio more than two days.” Enrigue acknowledges it is a revolutionary work “in a way that those of us living afterward can’t imagine . . . we’ve seen it reproduced a thousand times without even realising it. Not only does the perspective extend out into the room in which it’s hung . . . no Italian artist had ever painted a still life before . . . the idea of a ‘still life’ had yet to be conceived.”
Aside from his free-wheeling imagination and humour, Enrigue possesses an elegant prose style – however cerebral the material, his narratives are always accessible and surprisingly conversational, if at times wantonly raucous. He is playful. Readers may shudder, though, at two prostitutes who also double as models for Caravaggio being referred to as “truly awesome pieces of tail”.
It is a minor slip as Enrigue’s fluent delivery is otherwise consistent. It is as if in the very act of writing, he is being struck by his observations. This makes it fresh and immediate, no mean feat considering that a significant proportion of Sudden Death recalls the appalling antics of the ruthless conquistador Hernán Cortés and his destruction of the Aztec culture.
There are traces of Thomas Pynchon’s zany allure as well as the presence of the always underrated TC Boyle, yet a novel which most frequently springs to mind is Julian Barnes’s 1984 Booker Prize runner-up, Flaubert’s Parrot. Many emotions and actions are considered. Enrigue looks to the effect conquest had on the Spanish as spoken in Mexico which he describes as more gentle than that used elsewhere.
For all the fun, though, he makes clear he is sharing stories while also asking questions – and he is not presuming to have the answers. Late in his narrative of many narratives he concedes: “I don’t know what this book is about . . . maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book.” Whatever it is, Sudden Death is rich and lively with warmth which counters the bleakness of history.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent