Sudden Death (Alvaro Enrigue, 2016)

A duel between Caravaggio and Quevedo, or how a tennis match connects worlds.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, Natasha Wimmer (Translator), Hardcover, 272 pages, Published February 9th 2016 by Riverhead Books (first published November 2013)

Since when did people actually play tennis? And since when have tennis shoes been around, today the most socially acceptable and most widespread footwear worldwide? And how did you make the balls? The Mexican author Álvaro Enrigue, born 1969 in Guadalajara, México, gives the precise answer to the first question thanks to extensive research: since 1451.

Forty years later, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the limping Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo had a falling out in Rome after a night of drinking and abuse. In order to regain the lost honor – so important for all Spaniards in the Golden Age – Quevedo challenged the painter, not to a duel, but to a tennis match. This fictitious game takes place on October 4th, 1599 in Piazza Navona.

It is historically proven that Quevedo spent a time in Rome on the run from the Spanish judiciary. So did Caravaggio, although the two were probably not there at the same time. Enrigue provides details from the biographies of both artists, describing their poverty, the patrons, alcohol, sexuality homosexuality, brawls and even murder, and that gives a powerful picture of Rome at the end of a century, with old and new thoughts on the threshold of the Renaissance clashed.

In the match both have a second: Caravaggio comes with Galileo Galilei, Quevedo with his friend and patron, Duke of Osuna. He had married Cortés’ granddaughter and received a feather amulet (with the hair of the last Aztec emperor) from him, which he wore on Quevedo for the match so that it would bring him luck. Cortés never took it off until his death. This bridges the gap to the story of Hernán Cortés, the conquest of Mexico, the translation skills or misinterpretations of Malinche, Cortés’ lover and still the most hated woman in Mexico today. Enrique has documented himself precisely, and although he only takes up isolated occurrences, the cruelty of the conquest, the dictates of Christianity, the destruction of the Mexican high cultures become clear. The bishop and inquisitor Juan de Zumárraga, for example, had all the works of the Indians burned, but at the same time founded the first library in Mexico, which formed the cornerstone of the first university on the continent. He read them enthusiasticallyThomas More’s Utopia , also gave it to Bishop Vasco de Quiroga, who in turn protected the Indians, used their medicine, built hospitals, and sponsored and promoted the subtle feather art (just as Bernardino de Sahagún or Las Casas later became interested in the culture of the Indians and tried to save them from annihilation). The copy of Utopia with handwritten comments by both bishops is now in the University Library of Austin, Texas.

Enrigue says in the novel: “If there were a world championship of dead humanists, Erasmus von Rotterdam and Vasco de Quiroga would be in the final. Vasco would win big ”. And he does a self-questioning: “Now that I am writing this book, I don’t really know what it is about. Or what he says. It’s not necessarily about a game of tennis. And also not about America’s slow integration into what, in our downright obscene ignorance, we call the ‘Western world’ – for Americans Europe is the East ”. And he ends his reflections: “But I know that while writing I got very angry about the fact that the bad guys always win. Perhaps all books are only written because the wicked always have an advantage and because that is unbearable ”.

But rules apply in tennis and there is luck, chance and tricks that can decide a game. Losers sometimes become winners and vice versa. Caravaggio wins the match but is killed, Quevedo has to go into exile and the victorious Cortés dies alone in Spain.

The three storylines are interwoven in an extremely subtle and successful manner, like in a feather cape that lights up in the light. The book is full of research and yet is easy and exciting to read. Vasco de Quiroga and his fate – a formidable personality – are a find even for those familiar with the story of the discovery and conquest of Mexico.

Enrigue describes not only New Spain, but the conditions in Rome, especially the splendid life of the power-hungry, horny, prepotent popes and their intrigues. The Renaissance and Counter-Reformation fought for supremacy. Dirty Rome (or Madrid or Paris) in contrast to the hygiene of Mexico, hubris and brutal violence versus hospitality and cultivated courtesy: there are many reasons for a Mexican to be angry. Spanish illiterate and stubborn clerics decided the fate of millions of Indians, thousands were sentenced to death by the Inquisition or worn out in countless battles of conquest.

This is a novel that cannot be classified: a book for people who not only want to be entertained by literature, but who demand more. Not told chronologically, Aufschlag Caravaggio with flashbacks and flashes is so informative that the reader will probably rub his eyes often. The 71 mostly small chapters, interrupted by entries from old encyclopedias, make reading varied and always surprising. With biting irony or black humor, with bitter or humorous swipes, linguistically innovative and rich in associations, Enrigue guides the reader through the story on both sides of the Atlantic and confidently transcends the concept of the historical novel.

I would like to point out the work of the translator Natasha Wimmer, who had to use a number of linguistic registers: she always finds the right tone for art-historical picture descriptions, for the tirades of the drunken artists, for the description of Mexican feather headdresses, the old royal tennis game and much more. Everything flows together wonderfully.

And what secret story is hidden in the tennis ball used in this match? It is not to be revealed to the reader here, only this: it is a historical specimen that is connected to the murder of Anna Boleyn, Queen of England (1533-1536).

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue, Natasha Wimmer (Translator), Hardcover, 272 pages, Published February 9th 2016 by Riverhead Books (first published November 2013)

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