It isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtémoc, and Galileo and Pius IV. Gigantic individuals facing off. All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void. Novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic. —Álvaro Enrigue, Sudden Death
The sudden death referred to in Álvaro Enrigue’s new novel (translated by Natasha Wimmer) is not the literal kind. Mystery and true crime buffs, look elsewhere. The title refers to a tie-breaking round in tennis. Sudden Death is indeed a literary tennis novel, the story of a fictional sixteenth century match between a Spaniard, the poet Francisco de Quevedo, and an Italian, the artist Caravaggio. The match is a duel of sorts, which the poet proposes after a night of hard-drinking. Neither can remember exactly why they are on the court fighting for their honor at the novel’s opening, and both are suffering from hangovers. The ball used in the match, which bounces with unusual lightness and spirit, is made of the seductive, curly locks of the beheaded Ann Boleyn.
This is a big book in a small package. Enrigue envisions history’s bigger figures, often making them endearingly small and human. It is also a book of exactitudes, a book that narrowly focuses in on history’s larger sweeping tides. Enrigue builds a disjointed but hinged world in which Ann Boleyn’s executioner, the lover of conquistador Hernan Cortés, and cardinal Carlo Borromeo all bump and whirl up against each other, influencing the world around them and bouncing their balls off each other’s rackets in one grand historic tennis match.
Sudden Death is a bold, lovely, but choppy read, which lobs its ideas fast and low. The crescendo of an ending alone makes the entire novel worth reading.
This review was originally published on the San Francisco Book Review on April 8th, 2016. Check it out there and read my other reviews, which I don’t always cross-post, if it strikes your fancy.