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18 May 2016

How a tennis match between Caravaggio and a Spanish poet reveals the “blurriness“ of history

Álvaro Enrigue’s intellectually formidable novel Sudden Death takes an unusual approach to an unusual subject matter – with startling results.

By Randy Boyagoda

The ideal way to review Álvaro Enrigue’s intellectually formidable novel would be to do so while playing tennis at a library that belonged to Borges, located near the papal apartments. Readers of this magazine would be in the stands, along with various powerbrokers high and low, all of whom would be half paying attention to the game while eating, drinking, gambling, gossiping and romancing. Alas, this scheme is not entirely practical, and so a more conventional appraisal must suffice, of this vigorously and ambitiously implausible fiction about religion, politics, art, poetry, history and racket sports.

Sudden Death, which arrives in the UK with the help of English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme, is the first novel by the Mexico-born and New York-based Enrigue to appear in English. Natasha Wimmer, its translator, is best known for her renderings of Roberto Bolaño’s fiction. Like Bolaño, Enrigue is a cerebral and sanguine Spanish-language postmodernist not much concerned with affording his readers a conventional story. Sudden Death takes the form of a tennis match-cum-duel in 1599 between the Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, the playing out of which is interleaved with a vertiginous assortment of other matters.

Beyond biographical backstories and parallel events relating to the match and its players, the other matters include a Borgesian encyclopaedia of the origins of tennis, varied geographical manifestations and appearances in other literary and intellectual works such as Don Quixote and Utopia; a delineation of the strange, centuries-long career of tennis balls made from the hair of the executed Anne Boleyn, “which were by far the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance”; the carnage-filled consequences of Cortés conquering Aztec Mexico in the names of imperial Spain and Holy Rome; and also a light running commentary from the author, which serves as an apology for the book’s eccentric and chaotic nature:

“The question here is the responsibility I bear in the face of the reasonable fear that what is being said won’t be understood. The risk is worth the weight of that responsibility. The sole duty of a writer is to minister to his readers: to liberate them from inexactitude . . . When something is clear to a writer, I think it’s fair to ask him not to obscure it, but when something is unclear I think it should be left that way.”

It takes literary bravery to be this candid as a writer; the reader needs just as much bravery in approaching what is ostensibly a playful and provocative engagement with history that is served up with volleys of ­tennis-inspired puns and metaphors. A prime example of this mode is when Enrigue situates Caravaggio’s extremely streetwise models for St Matthew and Mary Magdalene at the match, where, no matter what they are doing, they are referred to by their biblical names.

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That said, he is not content to offer merely a clever novel about the Renaissance elite, sport and sexual politics, a book “all about balls and courts”, as he puts it at one point. He is far more interested in treating historical experience as a blurred and constantly moving object that is batted and battered back and forth by antagonists shuffling and darting around their respective territories. As such, the book unfolds in short, intense sequences – whether set during and around the Caravaggio-Quevedo match, or in besieged Mexico, or at the papal court.

The momentum of the greater narrative, as a result, is purposefully uneven. On the one hand, this amounts to a persuasive intellectual argument against simplistic or triumphalist understandings of historical experience. But that may not be enough for some readers hopeful of more straightforwardly engaging storytelling. This is especially the case with the tennis match, where all the action – the decadence and melodrama in the crowds and the on-court animosity between the players – rarely ­intersects with a believably exciting rendering of the tennis. It feels like a lost opportunity to draw on the natural drama of a sporting event.

Nevertheless, what is far more memorable than the final scoreboard is the moving revision of art and greater history that Enrigue casually brings off by the novel’s end. It is then that Caravaggio finds inspiration for his decisive chiaroscuro style late one afternoon, when the changing sunlight plays against a varicoloured and beautifully complex bishop’s mitre kept in his studio. The mitre has been made by newly colonised and evangelised Mexican craftsmen and sent to Rome as a gift to the pope. Beyond the globe-spanning injustices and all the (sorry) double faults that can come of politics and religion, “Whoever made this, he thought, can read God’s design.”

Randy Boyagoda’s most recent novel is Beggar’s Feast (Penguin)

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue is translated by Natasha Wimmer and published by Harvill Secker (245pp, £14.99)

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This article appears in the 11 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump