A tennis match between a poet and a painter serves as an extended metaphor on the messy clash between colonialism and art.
It’s 1599. On one side of a court in Rome is the Italian painter Caravaggio; on the other, the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Why they’ve been pitted against each other isn’t immediately clear, but we’re told it’s a “contest of life and death,” and truly enough, the novel becomes an impressionistic study of Europe’s violent conquest of the New World. (As Enrigue himself writes, the book is “not exactly about a tennis match.”) The story returns intermittently to the match, but Enrigue largely eschews a traditional narrative arc. His chapters bound from quotations from priests, Shakespeare, and Sir Thomas More to contemplations of Caravaggio’s paintings to scenes of courtly squabbles during the Counter-Reformation to observations of Aztec culture on its way to demolition by the Spanish conquistadors and comic scenes of the match, which somehow claims Mary Magdalene in attendance. (There’s also a tall tale about tennis balls made with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.) That gives the novel a head-spinning breadth—Enrigue means to capture the many global resonances of sexual, religious, and artistic struggles, most of them bad news for those not in power. But Enrique’s style can be jarring; the high tone of art criticism and history lessons can grate against the more satirical scenes on the tennis court. In one scene, Caravaggio and Quevedo are forced to participate in a foot race between sets: “Bites, elbow jabs, and clutches followed as both men rolled on the stones like children.” As an allegory of the atrocities conducted by countries in the name of liberation, the moment has a certain allegorical force. But Enrigue’s walking a fine line between expressions of sorrow and satire, which can often leave the reader feeling as baffled as a spectator to the match as the participants were for being part of it.
An innovative if knotty study of geopolitics in the Age of Discovery.