Allow me to rave. I’ve read several good novels over the past few months, but none has bowled me over like this one.
Sudden Death is bawdy and metaphysical, cheeky and deadly serious, vividly funny and yet written from a place of very deep pain. In other words, it’s totally uncategorizable. And if I try to describe it, I know I’ll only turn most readers off.
It’s set in the sixteenth century, for a start. It revolves around a tennis match. It takes place in Mexico and Italy and Spain. The dialogue is without quotation marks, so you need to hear the speakers rather than read them. And on the very first page, there’s a sentence in Latin, untranslated.
Are you sufficiently turned off?
So let me tell you that the tennis ball in play is made of Ann Boleyn’s red hair, cut off her head just before her head was cut off from her body. And that there was nothing Wimbledon-like about tennis in the Renaissance, when it was a vicious game beloved by gamblers and low-lifes.
Then let me tell you that one of the players is a certain artist by the name of Caravaggio. And that one of the judges is a mathematician who turns out to be, on nearly the very last page… (but no, that would be a spoiler). And that major appearances are made by the conquistador Hernán Cortés, by Aztec emperors, by a Mayan princess, and by an assortment of venal popes. And – the clincher for me – grappa is downed by the jugful.
Or perhaps you’ll be as entranced as I am by tapestries woven entirely of feathers (scroll to the end for a piece made of hummingbird and parrot feathers). Or by the extraordinary mastery of the way Enrigue spans time and distance, finally setting my head spinning as though I was on mushrooms.
This Spanish and Mexican award-winner is the first of Enrigue’s novels to be translated into English, and I want to read all of them, right now. In the meantime, after marveling for a day once I’d finished this one, I began reading it again – and realized that of all the blurbs on the back cover, only the late lamented Carlos Fuentes manages to describe Sudden Death the way I would if I could.
This is a novel, he wrote, that “belongs to Max Planck’s quantum universe rather than the relativistic universe of Albert Einstein: a world of coexisting fields in constant interaction and whose particles are created or destroyed in the same act.”
Precisely (as it were): a quantum novel. No wonder I can’t describe it. No wonder many people will be frustrated by it. No wonder I love it.
In case you take the leap, here’s a rough version of the Latin on the first page (with a bit of help from Google Translate). It’s a quote from the fifteenth-century Bishop of Exeter describing tennis as “profane oaths and gatherings, illicit and full of perjuries, often with fighting.”
And here — miserably flat and two-dimensional — is a Mexican Indian feather-art portrait of Jesus, made with hummingbird and parrot feathers: