Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

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What the fuck did I just read?

That’s not rhetorical, that’s not me being cute, and that’s not a set up to explain to you lovely readers what the fuck I did just read. It’s just the first thought that sprang into my head after closing Alvaro Enrigue’s gloriously weird Sudden Death. Reading this book reminded me of the first time I read Roberto Bolano’s masterpiece 2666 (and in fact the same translator worked on both books. That can’t be a coincidence). They’re both just so joyfully undefinable.

It’s 1599 and the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish diplomat Francisco de Quevedo have a score to settle. Not that either can remember what the score is-they were both impossibly drunk when one challenged the other to a duel. But the challenge was issued, so it must be met. The pair square off in a tennis court, watched by a cheering and gambling crowd that includes Galileo, Mary Magdalene, and a smattering of Popes. And although the men don’t know it, the tennis ball the men are using was made from the hair of Anne Boleyn.

broad confused

The book is divided into three sets (just like the game), sprinkled with historical yarns, scholarly notes, present-day email excerpts and modern-day political tirades. Two objects show up again and again in the narrative. First is the tennis ball made of Boleyn’s hair. We follow the “Heretic Queen’s” executioner, and the men determined to possess the tennis balls. The second object is a scapular made from the hair of the Aztec emperor Cuachtémoc, destroyed by Hernan Cortes, the conquistador who then went for broke and destroyed the whole damn civilization. Both objects show up in the tennis match, talismanic emblems of the centuries of bloodlust and conquest. They pass through the hands of conquerors and popes and kings, leaving bodies of innocent bystanders and conquered peoples in their wakes.

Our narrator is incredibly present throughout this book, often interjecting his opinions and worries. He exchanges emails with his editor about this very book. It can occasionally veer into the farcical, but Enrigue always (well, usually) manages to right his ship. He spends a lot of time ruminating why he’s even writing this book, before finally confessing, “I know that as I wrote it, I was angry because the bad guys always win. Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys always have the advantage and that is too much to bear.”

Sometimes, it feels like Enrigue is working too hard (although not as much as you would think, considering the outrageous plot of the book). The parts of the book that don’t quite ring true are usually sexual-two models are jarringly described as “truly awesome pieces of tail,” Cortez’s mistress is distractingly oversexed, and it’s gay panic that gets our two men on the tennis court in the first place. But those are relatively small parts of this densely packed book.

Sudden Death isn’t an easy read. It’s work. I’d recommend brushing up on your Cortes and Caravaggio and Quevedo (I had to close the book and run over to Wikipedia). Even if you do your research, this is a book you probably have to read twice to get. Hell, I’ve read it twice now and my reaction is still “what the fuck did I just read?” A masterful, joyously cacophonous, indignant, mind-bending, clusterfuck of a ride, Sudden Death is a book that should live, marked up and dog-eared, on your bookshelf.

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