This reveiw originally appeared in The Tishman Review in September 2016. Check out their fantastic website by clicking their name above.
Álvaro Enrigue’s novel Sudden Death, translated to English after its original Spanish
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Enrigue works to paint a picture he admits in emails to his publisher that even he doesn’t fully understand and includes the email correspondence as a chapter. Despite his purposeful lack of clarity, he deftly explores culture, politics, and conquistadors. On the surface, the novel is about tennis and a history thereof, but tennis is far from the only subject. Primarily, the reader is treated to a point-by-point tennis match between Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. The two are locked in a duel of honor, the true nature of which is revealed during the novel’s closing pages. The result of the match stimulates reader interest, but the events surrounding the duel tell the real story. Ranging from papal politics to the use of courtesans as models, Enrigue explores the lives and motivations of both artists. Adding to the intrigue, his game, this challenge for both money and pride, is played with a tennis ball crafted from the hair of Anne Boleyn.
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Across the Atlantic, Hernan Cortes is fascinated by Mesoamerican ballgames and ceremonial Aztec headdresses. His lover and translator La Malinche both loves and hates Cortes. She detests his crude awkwardness and colonial ways; yet, she clings to the hope that his potential greatness is bound to escape and take hold. She downplays Cortes to the very Aztecs that he will one day conquer and even debates negotiating an end to the conquistador.
Enrigue traces Cortes’s imprint in both Europe and the Americas, examining his children (all bearing the same first name), detailing his slow invasion and destruction of the Aztec empire, and his strange fascination with iridescent headdresses. Somehow these headpieces find their way into the same royal hands as the Boleyn tennis balls, into the hands of popes, and even into Caravaggio’s workshop. Be they characters or plot points, no matter how obscure, each branches out and reconnects, each circles back to craft the central narrative that the author himself struggles to fully explain. None of the overlaps feel forced, none of the coincidences coincidental, and through it all the tennis game rages on and on into Sudden Death and a final tennis point neither poet nor painter fully want to win.