by Steven Stam
Álvaro Enrigue’s novel Sudden Death, translated to English after its original Spanish publication, is so unique in structure and intent that writing a review presents a challenge. The chapters resemble works of flash fiction. Each varies wildly in location, era, and characters. At one moment we are in New York, the next we watch simple ball games in Mesoamerica through the eyes of Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes. We sit with Cortes’s wife in Europe only to later read the crude details of his affairs during the conquest. Yet somehow each chapter, each story, is interwoven with the theme of tennis.
Enrigue works to paint a picture he admits in emails to his publisher that even he doesn’t fully understand and includes the email correspondence as a chapter. Despite his purposeful lack of clarity, he deftly explores culture, politics, and conquistadors. On the surface, the novel is about tennis and a history thereof, but tennis is far from the only subject. Primarily, the reader is treated to a point-by-point tennis match between Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. The two are locked in a duel of honor, the true nature of which is revealed during the novel’s closing pages. The result of the match stimulates reader interest, but the events surrounding the duel tell the real story. Ranging from papal politics to the use of courtesans as models, Enrigue explores the lives and motivations of both artists. Adding to the intrigue, his game, this challenge for both money and pride, is played with a tennis ball crafted from the hair of Anne Boleyn.
In the early pages of the text Anne Boleyn is executed by Jean Rombaud. In preparation for her execution, her hair, praised for its beauty by both the author and history, is cut off. Capitalizing on a fetish, Rombaud steals the hair and uses it to make tennis balls, balls Enrigue describes as “by far the most luxurious sporting equipment of the Renaissance.” While today the tennis ball is rubber covered in felt, in the past it was filled with what this felt resembles: hair. Rombaud presents his creations to the French King, Francis I, in exchange for nobility, a gift Francis grants before having Rombaud killed in disgust. The Boleyn balls sit at the center of the narrative as Enrigue traces them through an elaborate and peculiar history, pointing out their strange journey through the courts of European dignitaries and papal leaders to the shelves of a New York library.
Across the Atlantic, Hernan Cortes is fascinated by Mesoamerican ballgames and ceremonial Aztec headdresses. His lover and translator La Malinche both loves and hates Cortes. She detests his crude awkwardness and colonial ways; yet, she clings to the hope that his potential greatness is bound to escape and take hold. She downplays Cortes to the very Aztecs that he will one day conquer and even debates negotiating an end to the conquistador.
Enrigue traces Cortes’s imprint in both Europe and the Americas, examining his children (all bearing the same first name), detailing his slow invasion and destruction of the Aztec empire, and his strange fascination with iridescent headdresses. Somehow these headpieces find their way into the same royal hands as the Boleyn tennis balls, into the hands of popes, and even into Caravaggio’s workshop. Be they characters or plot points, no matter how obscure, each branches out and reconnects, each circles back to craft the central narrative that the author himself struggles to fully explain. None of the overlaps feel forced, none of the coincidences coincidental, and through it all the tennis game rages on and on into Sudden Death and a final tennis point neither poet nor painter fully want to win.
Steven Stam is a teacher, writer, and runner from Jacksonville, Florida, where he lives with his wife Adriana and two small children. Steven tends to focus on his home of Florida and the oddities therein. In doing so, he writes primarily flash fiction, believing the model fits modern society’s desire for instant gratification. His work can be found in Fiction Southeast, Kudzu House Quarterly, and the Rappahannock Review, among others.