Saskya Jain reviews Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer (Riverhead Books, 2016)

“Tennis uses the language of life,” Andre Agassi writes in his memoir, Open. “Advantage, service, fault, break, love, the basic elements of tennis are those of everyday existence, because every match is a life in miniature.” Contest, desire, risk, sacrifice, regret, mistake, loss, potential—each match offers a micro-lesson in human endurance. Or, as David Foster Wallace succinctly put it in his 1991 essay “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes”: “Midwest junior tennis was my early initiation into true adult sadness.”

However, for the same reason that it can rudely propel a teenager into adulthood, a match played out on the page with all its inherent drama and conflict can become a writer’s ideal feeding ground. Though Álvaro Enrigue insists his new book is not really about tennis, the main plotline and the title, Sudden Death, derive from the game. And yet he is right: Sudden Death is about so much more than tennis, for in the hands of a brilliant writer such as Enrigue, it is not just a lifetime but an entire segment of human history that a tournament between two individuals can bring to life.

Sudden Death explores the nexus between colonialism, religion, art, popular culture, language, and the concept of history via a deadly tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and a Spanish duke in sixteenth-century Rome. The palimpsestic narratives that Enrigue exposes in the process are not only vigorous and compelling but also deeply illuminating, placing the book in the tradition of Borges, Sebald, and Calasso, and such recent bricolage novels as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. Yet the scope of Sudden Death, spanning multiple continents, centuries, and genres in a mere 260 pages, makes these novels appear traditional in comparison: besides the two main plot lines of the tennis match and a fictionalized account of Hernán Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, other chapters consist of medieval dictionary entries; a list of tennis-related phrases from “Mechuacán” from an encyclopaedia dated 1558; reflections on art and on the writing of this book; an email exchange between the author and his Spanish editor; and a conversation between a sixteenth-century Pope and his successor, written in the form of a film script. Remarkably, these elements feel neither haphazard nor contrived. If the main plot is the heart of the book, these are its other vital organs. There is no shortage of wonderful books with pumping hearts but it is much rarer to find one that resembles a fully functional organism—complex, bloody, relentless yet subtle, and ultimately glorious in its humanity and inventiveness.

The anatomy of history is often far less ennobling, albeit as complicated: “The conquest of Mexico happened in three languages,” Enrigue said at a recent reading in New York. The same can, of course, be said of many colonised nations, and in the case of territories as vast and heterogeneous as India there were many more languages involved. It is important to think of colonialism in those terms in order to understand the role that processes of translation—not just of a textual but especially of a socio-historical and geopolitical nature—played in the creation and consolidation of colonial might: after the brutal siege of Mexico City, the stones from the destroyed Aztec capital were used to build the Viceroy’s palace and the cathedral there, allowing them to instantly translate the existing history into their own and replace what they had just finished killing. But old memory has a strange resilience: “In our mental hard drives, the file of the mother tongue still opens at certain prompts, even though it’s been two or three hundred years since we spoke it.” The scars of language, so Enrigue seems to suggest, are where we feel the itch of old memory.

Yet the author makes no claim to have unearthed a secret passage to the past. He continues: “If you are reading this page, you are reading a translation.” This is only partially meant to be tongue-in-cheek. It is also a reminder of the fact that novels routinely translate history into fiction as much as fictions are necessarily translated into history over time and through the concomitant shifts in memory, leaving us with a hazy personal landscape of the past that might flourish or wither from generation to generation. Enrigue writes: “Facts were confusing in their own time, and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be confusing in a novel that doesn’t aspire to accurately represent that time, but does want to present it as a theory about the world we live in today.”

If every novel has a hidden message, in Sudden Death it is that Cortés’s arrival in Mexico changed the modern world more than any other single event. The Spanish brought together all the nations of Mesoamerica against the Aztec empire, a feat never before achieved by an indigenous ruler—like the British in India, they represented a force outside of the local feuds and intrigues. It was a classic case of the appeal of unfamiliar power—the new kid on the block—which Marcel Proust in Swann’s Way describes in the domestic context as “the charm of not being [the servant’s] usual masters.” In return, these nations asked to maintain their independence as a kingdom, a promise that was cunningly broken almost as soon as it was made: the kingdom was left intact but the Spanish eradicated its ruling and military elite. By retelling Mexico’s story as he sees it and at the same time reflecting on his approach, Enrigue not only gives us a glimpse of that history but launches an exploration of our world today via the lingering hauntings of the past.

Yet this story of barbarity and vulgar adventurism is interwoven to its core with the sublime. Enrigue’s descriptions of artists at work—be it Caravaggio or “Mexica featherworkers”—are exalting, and so a small detail of “light . . . swell[ing] along the bottom of the barred door” of the craftsman Huanitzin’s workshop evokes an entire universe of a lost art. The sublime also manifests itself in the writing through the author’s indomitable bawdy humour. We have “balls still throbbing like two melons with lungs” next to “the most defiant pair of tits in the history of art” and “a face that drooped to the sides, like a pair of buttocks.” The Mayan princess Malinche, now Cortés’s translator-cum-sex slave, is synecdochically referred to as “the clitoris that changed the world.”

In the end, each segment of this powerful book, skilfully rendered into English by Natasha Wimmer, enhances the magic of the storytelling and reinforces its underlying argument: all of our collective actions and thoughts, whether in the present or past, are connected in the most mysterious, baffling, and yet entirely real ways that we can never fully grasp, though we must continue to try because only then do we stand a chance of soothing that itch from the invisible scars of our past. This novel strives to do precisely that: “to name what is lost, to replace the void with an imaginary archive,” to quote from the book—and the result is a funny, thought-provoking, and enchanting novel with the rare power of turning us into slightly better human beings simply by having read it.