cover image Sudden Death

Sudden Death

Álvaro Enrigue, trans. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. Riverhead, $27.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59463-346-1

In his second work to be translated into English, Enrigue (Hypothermia) ingeniously uses a 16th-century game of pallacorda—a forerunner to tennis—between two hungover players to explore the beauties and atrocities of Renaissance Europe. In his fanciful mixing of historical fact and fiction, as well as his linguistic blend of earthiness and erudition, Enrigue can be compared to Roberto Bolaño. The novel recounts a match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the notorious painter Caravaggio, “brutal and vulnerable, fragile behind his armour of grease, grappa, and cussedness.” During the novel’s changeovers, so to speak, Enrigue delves into the early literature of the sport (including a medieval account in which “four demons” bat around “the soul of a French seminarist”), expounds on Caravaggio’s life and art, and profiles 16th-century political figures in the Old and New Worlds. Two talismanic objects thread their way through the narrative: a tennis ball wound with hair taken from the decapitated head of Anne Boleyn, and an iridescent scapular made from the hair of the Aztec emperor Cuachtémoc, executed by Hernán Cortés. Emblematic of the violence unleashed across the world during the bloody century of conquest and religious upheaval, each object passes into and out of the possession of various monarchs, nobles, or clergy before ending up with the two players exchanging strokes on a Roman court. There are some tonal infelicities—two of Caravaggio’s models are “truly awesome pieces of tail”—and the reader can get lost in the profusion of historical figures. Nonetheless, this is an unpredictable, nonpareil novel that, like the macabre tennis ball at its center, “bounce[s] like a thing possessed.” (Feb.)