The first time someone told me the premise of Sudden Death by the Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue (translated by Natasha Wimmer), she followed it up by saying, “but it’s not really about that. It’s about everything.”
She was right, of course.
Sudden Death is about a tennis match between the famous Italian painter Caravaggio and the famous Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo in Piazza Navonna in Rome on October 4, 1599. This tennis match is not exactly a historical fact, but you can’t exactly prove it didn’t happen, either. Tennis, in those days, was an almost unimaginably rough sport, a contest for drunken ruffians and rowdy young aristocrats. Dueling at tennis was an acceptable alternative to dueling to the death. In this duel, Quevedo is “seconded” by Pedro Téllez-Girón, 3rd Duke of Osuna, while Caravaggio’s second is the estimable Galileo Galilei. Each point of the tennis match is narrated in rapturous detail, as if Enrigue were reporting from the sideline at Wimbledon.
The Spaniard felt the leather of the ball between his left thumb and index and middle fingers. Once, twice, three times he bounced it on the pavement, spinning the racket in the grip of his right hand. He swallowed and rolled the ball again in the fingers of his left, looking at the floor, scraping the chalk line that marked the end of the court. With a shout of Tenez! he tossed the ball in the air and felt the catgut tighten as he lit into it with all his soul.
But it’s not really about that, is it?
In between points, this omnivorous novel roams all over 16th-century Europe and the Americas, alighting on Catholic cardinals who financed revolutionary works of art, the role of tennis in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec empire. At times the history is overwrought: “everyone [in the Aztec capital] knew—regardless of how hard they tried to pretend otherwise—that sooner or later the ground beneath their feet would become a mire watered with the thick broth of slaughter.” At other times we find the author researching this very novel in the New York Public Library or emailing his editor in the present day.
Two inanimate heroes emerge. One is a tennis ball stuffed with the unmistakable red hair of the decapitated Anne Boleyn, which travels with her executioner to France, gets stolen by an ambitious Italian priest, and falls into Caravaggio’s hands before the tennis match. The other is a scapular—a Christian necklace—fashioned out of brilliant feathers in the New World, which is passed down through Cortes’s descendants before arriving in Europe, where Quevedo wears it as a good luck charm.
Each digression gives Enrigue a chance to advance his great historical thesis, which is that the 16th century (rather obviously) changed to world—it was the end of Mannerism, the beginning of the Baroque period, the height of the Counter-Reformation, etc.—and the 16th century reached its zenith in this tennis match. Europe vs. America. Artists vs. rulers. Catholics vs. everyone. “This novel is the combat,” Enrigue writes.
For Enrigue, everything—from the prostitutes who pose for Caravaggio’s paintings to the sausage eaten by the ruthless Pope Pius IV—changes the world. The Mayan princess who becomes Cortes’s translator and wife has “the clitoris that changed the world.” One way or another, Enrigue turns every character into a badass.
From the perspective of the Counter-Reformation Curia, so preoccupied as it was with moral hygiene, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte had every imaginable fault. He was Venetian, he represented the sinister interests of the Medici and the French crown in the Vatican, and he was furnished with bottomless coffers that he basically used to corrupt everything—beginning with his own flesh. His list of friends included the major bankers of the city and a distinguished host of cardinals who could, if they chose, make life difficult for the pope. He was also proprietor of a noteworthy assortment of musicians, painters, poets, and castratos capable of circulating the most devastating gossip all over Rome. This confluence of power didn’t make del Monte infallible—no one but the pope was infallible in those days of hard-line bishops and inquisitors with free rein—but he was tolerated to a nearly unique degree. His whims and pleasures far overstepped the incidentally rather foggy line of the acceptable, and even the legal.
Go back and notice the word “basically” in that long paragraph. It’s so abruptly casual, so unlike the dense biography surrounding it—as if Enrigue is shrugging at his own choice of words, admitting that he is putting a spin on things.
The whole novel is like that. Enrigue uses brilliant colors–like Caravaggio’s paints or Nahuatl feathers–to depict the past, and then he comments on it from the present day. I know of other novels that take bold liberties with history, that slip between objectivity and subjectivity, but I don’t know of any other novels that do it as unselfconsciously, as easily and confidently, and as Sudden Death. In an aside about the vagaries of translation, Enrigue lets it slip that a novel is “a machine for understanding the world, or the ways in which we name the world”—so simple, and so right.
Stories converge as the novel rushes to its end. The Anne Boleyn tennis ball and the Hernan Cortes scapular find their rightful places. We begin to see why Caravaggio, the unhinged genius, and Quevedo, the determined young prodigy, challenged each other to a duel in the first place—it’s a juicy story, and, as Enrigue has hinted, all the contradictions and epiphanies of the century are reflected in this one encounter.
I can’t say it’s a flawless novel—although it doesn’t marginalize women as badly as the 16th century did, it doesn’t do them many favors, either—but I will challenge anyone who doesn’t admire and adore Sudden Death to a duel, by which I mean a tennis match. This is a “novel of ideas” that thinks with its fists, a work of history that antagonizes the past, an adventure story whose protagonist is civilization. If life is a game, Sudden Death is a victory for rebels and losers. Enrigue writes for “the soul of all those who’ve been fucked by the pettiness and stupidity of those who believe that winning is all that matters, the soul of those who’ve been undeservedly obliterated, the lost names, the dust of bones.”
Brian Hurley is Books Editor at The Rumpus and an Editor at Fiction Advocate.