Álvaro Enrigue knows Sudden Death, his newest impossible-to-categorize novel, is more than a little wild. “It gets carried away all the time,” Enrigue laughs. In Sudden Death, the painter Caravaggio plays a tennis match against the Spanish poet Francisco Quevedo. During the game, Galileo is keeping score, and the audience consists of Caravaggio’s models for Mary Magdalene, among other Biblical figures. At the same time, even though it happened decades earlier, Hernán Cortés and Malinche conquer the Aztecs, a string of popes come and go, and everyone is having lots and lots of sex. Oh, and the game is played with a ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.
Enrigue’s book can’t exactly be labeled historical fiction. After all, he makes a lot of it up. Caravaggio and Quevedo never, as far as we know, played tennis, and Anne Boleyn’s hair wasn’t made into tennis balls. “Of course not everything in the novel is true,” Enrigue says. “Most of [the book] is novelistic material and not historical material, but there is a historical basis for everything.”
Enrigue spent years researching Caravaggio, Cortés, Malinche, and the other characters. The result is an imaginative novel rooted in historical fact. “I’m an obsessive researcher,” he says. “I think the book is just a final outcome of a very long, very pleasant process of research and reading. I was very curious about Caravaggio, and I wanted to play with him.”
To a certain extent, Enrigue has been working on this novel his entire career. “I always wanted to write a novel with Caravaggio. I always found him a really interesting character that tells us a lot about how we are modern,” Enrigue says. Yet he didn’t have a way into this story until an accidental discovery changed everything. “I was researching for years, thinking about a future novel, and was reading one of the biographies and found the fact that he was a pro tennis player.”
Enrigue now had a detail that could bring his ideas to life. “To show Caravaggio painting or having a gay life and being ashamed or him being a young criminal would be obvious,” Enrigue says. “But tennis would be interesting and funny!”
Despite his devotion to exhaustive research, Enrigue knew Sudden Death would be as fast-paced as the sport at the heart of his novel. “I was thinking in terms of the rules of the game. Tennis chapters have to be short because even though the game is very long, the sets (or whatever they’re called) are short,” Enrigue says. “I’m dealing with big subjects, school book subjects, so I was very careful to make the chapters fast and efficient and violent so they could move.” The result is a historical novel that invents history and a tennis novel by an author who claims almost proudly to have never watched a tennis match in his life.
Enrigue is one of Mexico’s most acclaimed writers though he now lives in New York with his children and wife, Valeria Luiselli, the acclaimed author of Faces in the Crowd,which won the Los Angeles Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, and the more recent The Story of My Teeth, a finalist for the 2015 Kirkus Prize for Fiction. His first novel, La muerte de un instalador (Death of an Installation Artist), won the Joaquín Mortiz Prize and is considered a key work of modern Mexican literature. He has been awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship and completed Sudden Death while on a fellowship from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.
Despite a career full of acclaim, before starting Sudden Death,Enrigue found himself in an unfamiliar position—reading less than glowing reviews of his books. “I didn’t have anything to lose,” Enrigue says. “My latest books had not been very warmly welcomed, so I felt free to do whatever I wanted. Ever since I was a young writer I was very lucky with the critics in Mexico, and this was the first time when I wasn’t.”
Sudden Death reads like a playful novel written by a master with a wicked serve. Enrigue’s Caravaggio is decadent, hard-drinking, brilliant, and lascivious. In between the tennis chapters, the reader is treated to historical texts (again, often made up) about the history of tennis. He also includes some emails between an editor and a character named “Álvaro Enrigue.” While we never quite see Caravaggio paint any of his masterpieces, Enrigue’s love for the Italian master is apparent.
Not only does the reader get to brawl, drink, and love with Caravaggio, but Enrigue slides effortlessly between the tennis match and discourses that turn into philosophical art history. “An affluent saint in a landscape stands for a world touched by God; a saint in a room stands for humanity in the dark; a humanity distinguished by its ability to continue to believe, in a world in which faith is already impossible; a material humanity smelling of blood and saliva; a humanity that no longer watches from the sidelines, that does things.”
The effect of these quick chapters is dazzling without being inaccessible. In our conversation, the word that kept coming up over and over again was “playful.” To Enrigue, all novels are games, and they should be playful. “I never wanted [Sudden Death] to be read as a historical novel because it’s not. It tells too many lies,” Enrigue says. “I’ve been a novelist for 20 years and was a critic for a long time before that, and I have concluded that the novel is such a fantastic, flexible, free genre. You can put everything there. So maybe the only rule is that it must follow the rules of its own game.”
Sudden Death is Enrigue’s second novel available in English—Hypothermia was published in 2013 by Dalkey Archive Press. Natasha Wimmer, translator of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and The Savage Detectives, selected Sudden Death as her next project, and Enrigue is impressed with her translation. In general, Enrigue has seen a surge in Americans who read translated fiction. “I have the feeling that translation has become a very important ingredient in the literary conversation in the U.S., and that’s great.” Enrigue describes working with Wimmer as like working with a colleague. “Writing looks solitary only in movies. You have friends who read your work, a wife who’s a better writer than you are, and it’s a socialized process, so there’s no reason to mistrust translations,” he says. “In Natasha, I got the best one.”
Despite the importance of Caravaggio’s tennis and paintings, the conquest of Mexico lies at the heart of this novel. To Enrigue, the tension between Mexico’s indigenous and European halves is a key part of Mexican identity. In Sudden Death, the union is represented by Cortés and Malinche, but this conflict is irreconcilable. “I think the beauty of it is that we cannot come to terms with it,” Enrigue says. “Five hundred years is too long to still be full of anger.”
Even though Enrigue isn’t angry, he can’t help but wonder what a world without a European conquest of North and South America might look like. “I’ve been driving over Mexico the past five days with my children and wife, and I don’t remember a period in which I can’t think about how it would have been if we’d let the Americas flourish,” Enrigue says. “These towns are so beautiful, but in Mexico the roots of the culture are difficult. You will never stop wondering how it was [before the conquest], and you’ll always have the suspicion that it was more beautiful. Maybe the most beautiful place in the world.”
Sudden Death doesn’t try to rewrite the history of Europe or of the Americas, but by tossing such monumental characters into a game, Enrigue reminds his reader that despite the stakes, despite the reviews, and despite the blood, it should always be fun.
Richard Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. His work has appeared in numerous places, including the Rumpus, the Morning News, Nimrod, Kill Author, and the Huffington Post. He’s currently working on his first novel.