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About 80% through “Sudden Death”  the author, Álvaro Enrigue, admits he does not know what his book is about. He just knows he was mad. Mad because in every game the bad guys have the advantage.

This too, is probably not true.

He does tell you it isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Vasco de Quiroga; Cortés or Cuauhtémoc; or Galileo or Pius I; although they are all characters. The book is not about the birth of tennis, although Caravaggio and Quiroga are engaged in a duel by tennis, the reason for which they were both to drunk to remember. It is not about the Counter-Reformation, the Council of Trent, or Carlo Borromeo, although the period of the novel is a bookend that squeezes the life out of the Renaissance. It is not about the ironic use of Thomas More’s Utopia by the conquistadors in New Spain.

It ends with art maybe being the salvation of history.  The ending, maybe the only weak part of the book in my view.

The inspiration for the novel was the exhibit at the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, “El vuelo de las imágenes. Arte plumario en México y Europa 1300 – 1700” [Images take flight: feather art in Mexico and Europe]. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPZxD9D84ZI 

This novel is a work of  incredible imagination.  Scalped hair is substituted for feathers in the composition of the tennis ball. It is made from the hair of the beautiful, but unlucky, bride of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn. The scapular worn by Cortés and ultimately by Quiroga in his tennis match, was cut from the hair of the emperor Cuauhtémoc after Cortés had him killed.

The author dedicates the book to La Flaca Luiselli. This is likely intended affectionately to his wife, the author Valerie Luiselli, the other half of this esteemed Mexican literary couple. I previously reviewed her experimental novel “The Story of My Teeth”, a collaboration with factory workers.

Carlos Fuentes, who I think writes some of the best first paragraphs in modern fiction, has an apt description of “Sudden Death”.

“Enrigue belongs to many literary traditions at once and shows a great mastery of them all… His novel belongs to Max Planck’s quantum universe rather than the relativistic universe of Albert Einstein: a world of coexisting fields in constant interaction and whose particles are created or destroyed in the same act.”

The novel is part art criticism of Caravaggio’s paintings. Some real, some imagined. “Caravaggio was to painting what Galilei was to physics: someone who took a second look and said what he was seeing, someone who discovered that forms in space aren’t allegories of anything but themselves, and that’s enough; someone who understood that the true mystery of the forces that control how we inhabit the earth is not how lofty they are, but how elemental.”

This novel is a whimsical romp through late Renaissance political, art, Catholic, and social history with a tour through Spain’s vanquishing of the Aztec empire in Mexico. They are equally bad guys to the author.

The chapter “Regarding Most Popes’ Utter Lack of a Sense of Humor” is about Cardinal Montalto.

“… Montalto also spent those years planning how the city would look it really was the center of the world- a plan he executed with violence and perfectionism once he was named Pope Sextus V. He invented urbanism, though his name wasn’t Urban. It goes without saying that he never played pallacorda. The fact that no subsequent pope was called Sixtus after Montalto, who was the fifth, is proof that the Catholic Church is an institution without a sense of humor.”

The novel was awarded the Herralde Prize in Spain and the Elena Poniatowska International Novel Award in Mexico. Forget get the awards. If you admire good con- artistry and illusion you should read this book. It is fun, entertaining and educational in the same time and space.