In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first in this series was with Cercas; the third will be with Marías.
But the middle panel of the triptych is Álvaro Enrigue. His internationally acclaimed novel Sudden Death is a dazzling synthesis of fact and fiction in which a single tennis match ties together the fate of indigenous Mexico and the cultural revolutions shaking Europe at the time of the Conquest. Enrigue is also a scholar and the author of Hypothermia. I sat down to talk to him at a packed Greenlight Bookstore in 2017, on the occasion of Sudden Death’s paperback release. (The audio can be found at Greenlight’s website.) What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion.
The Millions: Your novel, for all that it’s about a tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, is also about exile and empire and vagabondage and translation, and of course, Mexico. So to start with, I’m wondering if you had any initial reflections you wanted to offer on immigration, cultural exchange, or Mexico itself at this particular moment in U.S. history, for which your book seems so suited …
Álvaro Enrigue: It’s interesting, because the seeds of this ugly thing that we’re seeing now were planted precisely when I was writing the novel, which were the years just immediately posterior to the crisis of 2008. I think it is obvious in the novel that I was really, like, politically angry at the time. It was the moment in which Northern Europe had begun to articulate this awful discourse about Southern Europe … as if England or Germany or Denmark could be anything without Greece, without Italy, without Spain, without the freaking South of France, without the material of Mediterranean culture.
Like, what would be of the European culture without that nuts Roman citizen who was St. Paul? What would be of Europe without tomatoes, which are Mexican? Without chocolate, which is Mexican? Without pasta, which is, quote “Italian,” which these Chinese Italians eat, before people begin to move around the world?
TM: You’d have a bunch of white guys in helmets just banging into each other.
AE: So this idea of calling the Mediterranean countries that can be considered the birthplace of whatever we have of culture … the idea of calling that accumulation of countries thieves just drove me crazy.
But now [in 2017] I can see that my indignation [of 2008] was really cute. [Laughter.]
Because subsequently we saw the stadiums, you know: “[Who’s going to pay for the wall?] Mexico!” It’s millions of guys that pee and poo and eat like me, shouting the name of my country, Mexico, as if I were stalking their children. Now I’m used to it, because one gets used to things, you know? But when it began to happen, we would turn off the TV at home so the children couldn’t see. So …
TM: This is so interesting to me—
AE: I don’t know if I have a posture; postures are for politicians—
TM: Postures don’t make for good conversation. But something you said that I hadn’t thought about is that while you were starting this book, you happened to find yourself in a place of political anger … and I mean, I remember writing in 2008, feeling this same sort of sense of political rage, and thinking there could be a connection between fictional history and present-day fact, like, somehow, oh, I know, I can talk about 2008 via the ’70s, 1977. And then I go flipping back through your book today, and you have a moment where Quevedo sort of bids goodbye to the Apollonian side of himself, and it’s like he embraces the dark half of himself where everything is bad, and one of the things you say is, he’s a nationalist, misogynist, homophobe—
AE: He became a monster.
TM: And I’m wondering if in some way you were writing, you know, the present moment in 2008, and also seeing its roots in the 16th century.
AE: Well, very obviously, you know? Not that it’s obvious in the novel or anything, but these ideas come from … well, that may sound too much like a seminar, which I don’t mean it to become by any means—but the first globalization happens precisely in that moment [in the 16th century]. What stood between Europe and China was Mexico City, Tenochititlán, What would make world commerce possible was the fall of Tenochtitlán. Because to cross through the south of Africa was incredibly dangerous, no? Once you passed the Canary Islands, that part of the Atlantic becomes tremendously difficult—
TM: And there are dragons, I think—
AE: Well, people remember that Magellan was eaten, you know? Like, the first guy who circled the world died, eaten by people. So it was not easy. [Laughs.] It was not an easy world. In a moment when Christopher Columbus was completely crazy, in the letters to Queen Isabel of Spain, he says that the purpose of crossing the Atlantic is to reconquer Jerusalem. Which is fascinating. “If we go the other way around,” he thinks, “and we cross this little thing, which is China—”
TM: “We’ll sneak up on them from behind.”
AE: Yeah, yeah, “We arrive from behind and surprise them!” [Laughter.] But there happened to be a little mass of land there.
Anyway, when [the Europeans] stand in front of the Americas, they discovered that maybe they could really make it to China that way. Of course, no one was thinking about Jerusalem—except Christopher Columbus, who had a pass from some monk. What everybody wanted was to connect Europe to China. So when Hernán Cortés is sent to map the coast of Mexico, what they are thinking about is that: opening up commerce with China.
Of course, history must be more beautiful than that, to be told to the children. So the conquest of Mexico becomes an epic in which men who are very manly defeat men who are very manly—what you write an Iliad about. But what they were after, really, was money. And when Mexico City falls, you just have to go a little bit more, to the Pacific Ocean and then you can cross it to China, with no storms, with no problems. There’s a reason why it’s called the Pacific, no? So what they were thinking about was that, and I think that many of the problems of the world we live in now, and more than anything, many similitudes (if that word exists) between that world and ours, come from the fact that there were these moments in which the world kind of crunched and the bad guys imposed a discourse.
Francisco Quevedo wrote a fantastic novel when he was young, called Vida del Buscón, which is very fun, very open, very politically critical of empire … and which shows this very fluid sexuality that was the usual trend in the 16th and early 17th century … and yet when he died, he would be writing this incredible text that we would call fascist. What happened in the middle there? Greed. That was the generation that discovered, “Huh, we can own the world. The world is something you can handle. We can circle it, and we can just extract all the gold we want.”
TM: And one of the ways that you’re binding all this stuff together in the novel is that you’re sort of tracing the movement of objects and people that seem to be connected. So that Anne Boleyn’s hair becomes a tennis ball, the ball gets used in the match … I don’t want to give away the game, as it were, but if you actually follow the objects in the book, part of what you start to see is that this enormous explosion you were just pointing to in Southern Europe, of culture, of ideas, of ambition, is in fact funded—economically but also culturally in some way—by the contact with North America.
I mean, you were just talking about this big sort of myth about manly men beating up other manly men and then taking their stuff. But it seems like in a lot of ways what was taken from Mexico becomes a much more dynamic and subversive and transformative element [for Europe] in the book than does the conquest itself. Like, as you write it, Caravaggio doesn’t become Caravaggio without an encounter with Mexico.
AE: Which was an obscenely nationalist gesture!
TM: Yeah, no, I love it. “No Mexico, No Caravaggio!”
AE: But the thing is, Caravaggio could have seen that mitre [an iridescent feather headdress that, in the book, inspires some of Caravaggio’s greatest effects]. He was in that environment, it was true that he painted these paintings for the owner of the mitre. So he could have seen it, or not. They were certainly miraculous objects.
TM: Can you talk a little about the mitre and the feather art used to make it, for people who haven’t yet read the book?
AE: Well, after the conquest, the Nahuatl artists of Mexico were not used to paint. Or they would make paintings, but instead of paint they would use tiny little bird feathers and put them together and produce shades of color, and create with that. It was a type of art that became very popular in the 17th century. It was very expensive to buy a piece made like that—you can imagine why, you know? It was incredibly demanding and difficult to do. And most of this art also is religious art, and I think that point is important, because for centuries those pieces went into museums, and were only there. And if you see these paintings, they are very, very impressive. More when you learn that they were not made with paint, but were made with feathers.
And there was, in 2006, maybe, in Mexico City, at the international museum of art, a big global exposition about these things, pieces of feather art that had been recovered from all over Europe and all over the world. The creator of that exposition is a friend of mine, a professor of art at Columbia University named Alessandra Russo. She was working with other researchers and historians, but she was in charge of certain parts of it.
So she was one day having lunch with the workers who were setting up the exposition, and they were sitting on the floor of the museum, and the guys tell her, Have you seen the paintings from here, now that you are sitting down here? They were eating a torta.
AE: A torta, a tamale, surely. And she turns to the pieces and discovers that if you are under them, looking up, they shine. They stop being a painting and become something that produces its own light. The feathers, even at 400 years old, were still capable of projecting the light of the window, reproducing it. And everybody becomes excited with the discovery, and puts some candles on the floor to see what happens, because that’s how those paintings were intended to be seen. And what they discover is that these things become simply hallucinatory.
TM: I can’t believe you didn’t put these workers in the novel! That’s a great story: “Look at that, up there!”
AE: [Laughs.] I have put them in a dozen interviews instead. It’s amazing.
TM: And so in the book … I don’t even know that “spoiler alert” is apposite to this book, but I will just say that Caravaggio has an encounter with this feather art, which is—
AE: You already spoiled it! [Laughter]
TM: Oh, it’s spoiled?
AE: I have been moving around all over the place with the book now for four years, and no one ever noticed that the book is not about people but about objects. That the characters are the objects, not the persons. It’s a novel in which you can have Galileo and Cortés and Caravaggio and Charles the First and so many important characters, because they are not really the characters. The true characters are the tennis balls … so you already spoiled it.
TM: I think you’re selling yourself a little short, though, on character. I think that Caravaggio is a fascinating character in the novel, and so is the daughter of the emperor, who has three names, one French, one Spanish, none of which I can pronounce. But what I was going to say is, the description of the featherwork is so extraordinary … I read the book when I was in Europe, and I found myself in Milan like three weeks later, and I kept saying, “It says right here in the book that this [featherpiece] is in the Duomo!” and no one knew what I was talking about. And it occurred to me that it could have been entirely fiction, a sort of Borgesian game. So I’m wondering, for example—actually I don’t want you to answer this question, but—you allege that the Anne-Boleyn-hair tennis ball is in a department of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, the Archives of Historic Sporting Equipment. I’ve spent a lot of time in that library, and I’ve never stumbled across these archives. [Laughter.] So I wanted to ask you: Clearly a huge amount of research went into this, but how much did you just make up?
AE: [Pause.] I don’t know anymore. [Laughter.] I don’t know anymore, but my editor is amazing, and the most patient human being ever, and she can give testimony of how many notations were in the last edited version of the book. It was by that time a nightmare. I hope she never tells about this, but I will tell it before she can, and be revealed as a clown: There were many times I would defend historical points that were completely imaginary! [Laughter.] I am a novelist; I have that privilege.
But most of the weirdest stuff is real. It is real that Galileo and Caravaggio were roommates—it’s absolutely real. It’s absolutely real that Galileo was writing his theory of the parabola as he saw Caravaggio playing tennis in the plaza. Many of those things are real. And in the novel, when there are conflicting versions, all of the lists come together. That is the wonder of the novel, you know? It is the great lesson of Cervantes: that you can put in whatever you want, and as long as it somehow relates to the story, it works.
TM: The novel has a very peculiar relationship to facts, just as a form. You can put real facts in a novel and they somehow become fictional, and you can make shit up in a novel, and if you put it across with conviction, it starts to seem more true than truth. And so, you know—
AE: There may also be generational deformation at work here, too. I did a Ph.D.—it’s one of those mistakes that writers make.
TM: Because you think, “Ah! I’ll have lots of time to write while studying for my Ph.D.”?
AE: Exactly. And: “It will not deform my incredibly innocent way of reading!” I did my Ph.D. in the ’90s. We would read historical books, as fictions. If you were going to become a professor, it was fantastic, because—this sounds like fiction but is real—fiction was forbidden in the Spanish colonies [of the 17th century]. You could publish and read fiction in the metropolis, but if you were outside of that, you couldn’t do it, it was illegal to write fiction. Of course, fiction was always written; the way the writers found to express themselves was writing historical fictions. So once this was established—
TM: Like the travel journals?
AE: Yeah, the travel journals, and these incredible histories of Latin American countries, this history of Paraguay that speaks about the Greek gods … they were obviously fiction books, but they were presented as history books, and the author could be giving fake stories, as I do, and readers saying, “No, no, no, this is real, this happened.” So I think that I have this period as formation; I don’t think that what comes from books is much more trustworthy than what comes from your head as a novelist. I just think that the historical data … statistically, you can prove it. That is the only difference. But the privilege of a novelist is that you can put things together in a way that the historian can’t. You don’t have to prove it statistically that people smoked cigars in Cuba in the 18th century; you can just put them there. But if you had everything in front of you, it’s quite probable that they would, you know? And I think that that’s the importance …
See, I feel really guilty about writing novels, because they’re useless.
TM: You should feel virtuous. The world needs more useless things.
AE: Yeah, and we would never accept that they are part of the industry of entertainment. It’s so elegant to be a novelist. Anyway, that would give a sense, a reason, to create novels: In them, you can still propose things to understand the world, without having to offer statistical information.
TM: So was the germ of this novel, Sudden Death, a particular factual discovery that you made, or was it a particular imaginative impulse? I had a fantasy as I was reading … there were a couple of times when I was reading that I came across something I wasn’t sure if you made up or not, but I thought: If that’s true, and he found that in a book, he must have thought, “A-ha! There’s a novel!”
AE: This is it: It was seeing one of the mitres, one of these feather-art mitres. I had been circling the idea for the rest of the novel for a long time, but it would be such a European novel, you know? And I don’t know, but I think Americans have as pretentious a relationship with Europe as Latin Americans do. I now find kind of antipathetic this Eurocentrism of Julio Cortázar, for example. The je ne sais quoi of the characters of Julio Cortázar—I find it annoying. It’s like, lily white.
TM: Not only the ennui, but also the je ne sais quoi!
AE: So the novel [I had in mind] was a very European novel. And the idea of how you introduce Mexico into that mess, that had a lot to do with everything at that moment. But the way you put your question, it was the mitres. And the idea of Caravaggio being a tennis player. For years, I had been researching to write a novel about Caravaggio, because as you say, this character, you could write novels all your life about him. He was such an extreme person.
TM: He’s almost an allegory for the novel as a form in some way, you know? He’s polysexual, he’s in many ways a brute and very unrefined, and in other ways he’s a genius.
AE: He’s sophisticated in his brutality.
TM: His attraction for the novelist as a figure to tell stories about just seems very intuitive to me.
AE: And he drinks from the water of the poetic theory of the Renaissance that demands a certain amount of reality in artwork. Since, like, immediately after Petrarch, there were these moral writings in Italy demanding that art stop being so affected—that art should be real, should represent life as it is, and no one had found the key to do it. I think that it’s not casual, not just coincidental, that at the moment when Caravaggio is inventing modern art, Cervantes, a few miles away in Madrid, is inventing the novel. I think that they are ways of portraying the world that are very similar in their craziness, in their sophistication, in this, like, moral fury, you know? Cervantes is a furious character. He’s as angry at everything as you are! As is Caravaggio. This resentment—of the poor man who will become important as an artist during his life but who, anyway, will never stop being angry—all of that is there in both of them.
TM: And the trick, and sort of the crux, is that somehow the anger doesn’t swallow up the style. Like, they’re both geniuses enough to preserve the stylistic impulse in the middle of this moral fury. You know? And they’re great stylists. And I think that’s in your book in a way, too. It’s a very political book, and I can see in it the skeleton of the very European book it almost was, but you’re such a great stylist—or else you’re a mediocre stylist but you have a great translator—that it turns into something that’s very warm and very human and very real.
AE: I am a great stylist. [Laughter.]
There is this thing that I think is essential, and that doesn’t always go well, and that is that modern art shows its structure. The Quixote is still the most postmodern book, even when it is the first modern book. Remember the beginning of the second part? Quixote gets a copy of Quixote, the first part, reads it, and says, “This was not like that!” [Laughter.] Right? “I don’t know who wrote this, but it was not like that! I defeated those guys. Everything’s wrong here, and everybody’s reading this? Let’s go out again to fix this problem.” So in the Quixote, the threads are completely visible, as they are in Caravaggio. And I think this is inherent to art.