Álvaro Enrigue - Sudden Death begins with a brutal tennis match that could decide the fate of the world. The bawdy Italian painter Caravaggio and the loutish Spanish poet Quevedo battle it out before a crowd that includes Galileo, Mary Magdalene, and a generation of popes who would throw Europe into the flames.


Álvaro Enrigue, Sudden Death: A Novel, Trans. by Natasha Wimmer, Riverhead Books, 2016.


A daring, kaleidoscopic novel about the clash of empires and ideas in the sixteenth century that continue to reverberate throughout modernity—a story unlike anything you’ve ever read before.
  
In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII behead Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into the most sought-after tennis balls of the time. Across the ocean in Mexico, the last Aztec emperors play their own games, as conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Mayan translator and lover, La Malinche, scheme and conquer, fight and f**k, not knowing that their domestic comedy will change the world. And in a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that instead of a parody, it’s a manual.
In this mind-bending, prismatic novel, worlds collide, time coils, traditions break down. There are assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, utopias, carnal liaisons and papal dramas, artistic and religious revolutions, love stories and war stories. A dazzlingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Álvaro Enrigue tells a grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era in this short, powerful punch of a novel. Game, set, match.


Sudden Death is very, very funny and it is unfailingly brilliant and I have no idea how to describe it--another one of its rare virtues. I might say it is about tennis, or history, or art, or absurdity, but more accurate would be to say, simply, that it’s essential reading.” —Rivka Galchen

"A story of history plunging forward and the world at a defining moment. Rackets are raised; the court looms large. Finally a tale that truly defies the bounds of the novel." —Enrique Vila-Matas

Sudden Death is a unique object – tropical and transatlantic; hypermodern and antiquarian—a specialized literary instrument designed to resist the deadly certainties of universal history. But don’t let that confuse you. Sure, his method may be all playfulness and multiplicity, but Álvaro Enrigue is the most disabused novelist I know.” —Adam Thirlwell, author of Lurid & Cute
“A full-fledged writer.” —Mario Vargas Llosa

“[Enrigue] belongs to many literary traditions at once and shows a great mastery of them all. . . . His novel 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.” —Carlos Fuentes

“The speculative weight of this novel is brilliant, intriguing. No less brilliant is its unreliable narration.” —El País


In his second work to be translated into English, Enrigue (Hypothermia) ingeniously uses a 16th-century game of pallacorda—a forerunner to tennis—between two hungover players to explore the beauties and atrocities of Renaissance Europe. In his fanciful mixing of historical fact and fiction, as well as his linguistic blend of earthiness and erudition, Enrigue can be compared to Roberto Bolaño. The novel recounts a match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the notorious painter Caravaggio, “brutal and vulnerable, fragile behind his armour of grease, grappa, and cussedness.” During the novel’s changeovers, so to speak, Enrigue delves into the early literature of the sport (including a medieval account in which “four demons” bat around “the soul of a French seminarist”), expounds on Caravaggio’s life and art, and profiles 16th-century political figures in the Old and New Worlds. Two talismanic objects thread their way through the narrative: a tennis ball wound with hair taken from the decapitated head of Anne Boleyn, and an iridescent scapular made from the hair of the Aztec emperor Cuachtémoc, executed by Hernán Cortés. Emblematic of the violence unleashed across the world during the bloody century of conquest and religious upheaval, each object passes into and out of the possession of various monarchs, nobles, or clergy before ending up with the two players exchanging strokes on a Roman court. There are some tonal infelicities—two of Caravaggio’s models are “truly awesome pieces of tail”—and the reader can get lost in the profusion of historical figures. Nonetheless, this is an unpredictable, nonpareil novel that, like the macabre tennis ball at its center, “bounce[s] like a thing possessed.” - Publishers Weekly


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. - Kirkus Reviews




Mexican writer Alvaro Enrigue on Monday won the 31st Herralde Prize with his work "Muerte Subita" (Sudden Death), a story set in the 16th century about two singular opponents, Italian painter Caravaggio and Spanish poet Quevedo, who challenge each other to a game of tennis.
After the Herralde Prize was awarded, the Mexican writer said in Barcelona that the novel takes place on a single day, Oct. 4, 1599 at noon, when on a tennis court in Rome's Piazza Navona the two rivals face off - Caravaggio and Quevedo.
Enrigue reveals the psychology of those two personalities and their different ways of seeing the world.
"Caravaggio, a symbol of the counterreformation, had a very modern concept of celebrity, of fame, and in that he was more like Warhol than Michelangelo, while Quevedo was a solid defender of Hispanic civilization, Catholicism and the empire," Enrigue said.
Caravaggio, Enrigue said, is "a young Lombard artist who has discovered that the way to change the art of his time was not by finding new and original content for his pictures but rather by changing the way of painting them, and with that he laid the cornerstone of modern art."
His adversary is "a Spanish poet, perhaps too intelligent and sensitive for his own good." Both lead lives that are dissipated in the extreme, Enrigue said.
"The two are on the court to defend an idea of honor that no longer makes any sense in a world suddenly grown enormous, diverse and incomprehensible," Enrigue said.
"Muerte Subita" is played in three sets with changes of court in a world that has finally become spherical like a tennis ball.
In writing "Muerte Subita," being published by Anagrama, Enrigue brought back the first documented use of the word "tennis," which is in an edict of excommunication of Bishop Edmundus Lacy dated 1451. - www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/agencia-efe/131104/mexicos-alvaro-enrigue-wins-herralde-prize-historical-novel-about-t


Four-fifths of the way through Álvaro Enrigue’s Muerte súbita (Sudden Death), the narrator admits that he doesn’t know what the book is about. It’s not about the birth of tennis as a popular sport. Nor is it about the European conquest of the Americas, or about the Counter-Reformation. It’s more a book about how one ought to write about these things. Such a book, the narrator proposes, would go back and forth like a tennis match—perhaps like the one he imagines the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo playing in 1599, described set by set over the course of this disorienting, captivating novel.
Muerte súbita does not immerse us in a world, as is usual in historical fiction, but instead alternates between various moments and locations to imagine the world in the process of becoming globalized at the end of the 16th century. Although the events of the novel are interconnected in surprising, sometimes jarring ways, there’s no gee-whiz wonder on the part of the narrator at everything’s being linked to everything else, a perspective thoroughly explored by the Victorian novel and tweely exhausted by movies like Magnolia. What binds the events together is a pervasive, persistent violence: there are beheadings and massacres, and even the most intimate scenes, including sexual encounters between Hernán Cortés and La Malinche, and between Caravaggio and Galileo, are defined by resentment and aggression. The result is a cynical, comical rendering of modernity as a state of indiscriminate carnality.
Enrigue’s novel blends two kinds of historical fiction: fictionalized stories about real history and fantasies of things that didn’t happen. Some of the details are markedly fantastical, but the novel is clearly departing from magical realism; the fantastical parts are fantastical not because they couldn’t have happened, but because they could have, and they hold the uncanny charm of plausibility.
Enrigue wrote Muerte súbita during a fellowship at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, and it reads like a record of reading, an intricate assemblage of facts, memories, and imaginings. Its conceptual and formal experimentation have earned it high praise in the Hispanophone world, where it has won two major prizes, the 2013 Premio Herralde de Novela and the 2014 Premio Iberoamericano de Novela Elena Poniatowska. In 2015, Riverhead will publish a translation by Natasha Wimmer, best known for translating Bolaño.
The links between plot lines are metaphorical, with different people doing similar things, and metonymic, physically connected by real contiguities, as when an object from one narrative thread appears in another. In Rome’s Piazza Navona, Caravaggio and Quevedo face off, settling a mysterious matter of honor. In England, a Frenchman named Jean Rombaud executes Anne Boleyn and absconds with locks of her hair to be used as stuffing for tennis balls. In Mexico, the Mexica ruler Cuauhtémoc dreams of a dog; Hernán Cortés beheads Cuauhtémoc; La Malinche—traitress to her people and concubine to her captors—weaves Cortés a scapular made from the dead chief’s hair; and the bishop Vasco de Quiroga reads Thomas More’s Utopia as a manual rather than as satire. Also in Rome, Pope Pius IV gives Carlo Borromeo, cardinal archbishop of Milan and Caravaggio’s first private client, a miter selected by Quiroga for its special hue of red, a red that Caravaggio later incorporates into his daring depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes. Quevedo misses his college graduation ceremony in Spain because he has fled the country with his patron and partner in crime, the Duke of Osuna, who the day before his marriage to Cortés’s granddaughter Catalina is presented with the scapular made by La Malinche and worn by Cortés until his death. At the tennis match, Osuna lets Quevedo wear the scapular, which features the Virgin of Guadalupe, for good luck. At the New York Public Library, the narrator discovers a legend on one of the Boleyn balls: “Avec cheveux à la vermine hérétique,” which the narrator translates, “very smugly,” as “With the hair of a heretic bitch.”
These threads and many others messily converge. Like a tennis ball filled with the tresses of a murdered queen—an object cheekily invented by Enrigue, playing on the early ball-making technique—the novel is sport on the surface and grotesque brutality underneath.1 Indeed, the tennis ball serves as an emblem of larger European violence: despite the romantic, fetishistic quality of aristocratic victims such as Boleyn, the mass of hair suggests the impersonality of death—whether during the inflammations of Europe and the Americas at the turn of the 17th century or in the hands of the Nazi wigmakers of the mid-20th.
In Muerte súbita and elsewhere, Enrigue is interested in how violence migrates. In his recent novella Un samurái ve al amanecer en Acapulco (A Samurai Sees the Dawn in Acapulco), Enrigue recovers the remarkable history of samurais brought to Mexico in 1639 to defend the port of Acapulco against Flemish pirates; he is now working on a novel about Geronimo. In Muerte súbita, Enrigue connects several forms of violence: the mass, bureaucratized barbarity of European conquest; the rituals of Mesoamerican human sacrifice, the “severing [of] heads and hurling them down the temple steps” (the phrase is from Enrigue’s recent London Review of Books essay on the Mexican narco war); and somewhere between the two, tennis, a sophisticated game in which “heads” bounce back and forth. Cortés tells one of his captains that when “these savages play ball, they cut off the head of the winner.” The soldier scratches his head and replies, “They’re a demonic race. They need to be taught to cut off the loser’s.” Quevedo later realizes that his tennis game with Caravaggio is also a game of “sacrifice,” even though what he stands to lose is not his life.
In Europe, tennis had long been thought demonic. In the medieval Dialogus Miraculorum, a group of devils plays a match with a pious young clerk’s soul as their ball. One of the most engaging and rewarding aspects of Enrigue’s novel is how it interleaves entries from archaic dictionaries and encyclopedias, excerpts from neglected religious and literary texts, and even a 2013 email from the author’s Spanish publisher, Anagrama. As a work of art about artists, Muerte súbita is inevitably self-reflexive, and Enrigue deftly shows that his activity as a writer resembles Caravaggio’s as a painter. The narrator praises Caravaggio for, like Galileo in physics, “opening his eyes and saying what he saw.” In one episode, two prostitutes show up to watch the tennis match, and the Duke of Osuna notices that one of them has a crooked ring finger. We soon learn that when these women recently posed for Martha and Mary Magdalene, Caravaggio depicted the finger as it was: “he didn’t deform reality to fit the biblical story, but the opposite: he deformed the biblical story in representing reality.” Enrigue similarly deforms the history he’s telling. He connects disparate events through thematic resonances, and these strange, unlikely links generate the novel’s sense of humor, which is relentlessly deadpan, and very effective. Fantasy is used not for immersion or escape, but to expose the fundamental brutality of history and art alike. “Even the most chaste novels,” says the narrator, “are a little pornographic.”
The narrator also quips that describing art, like describing a dream, is worthwhile because it reveals the “blind spots” of history. As it turns out in Muerte súbita, in many of these blind spots, just out of sight, there’s an enormous quantity of sex. The Duke of Osuna is placed under house arrest for the “ubiquity of his genitals.” Quevedo keeps getting an erection during his tennis match. Cortés enjoys La Malinche’s “emanations,” and during intercourse she taunts him with Montezuma’s military superiority. Caravaggio nuzzles Galileo’s “unarmed” penis with the tip of his nose. The narrator relates the myth of Hyacinth, who is killed by Apollo’s discus (or, in a later Tiepolo painting, a tennis ball), and whose corpse a grieving Zephyr lifts up in the “intercrural” position. The narrator sees Judith Beheading Holofernes as illustrating “not the heroic moment in which a Jewish nationalist commits the patriotic act of killing her people’s oppressor, but an assassin who takes erotic pleasure in spilling the blood of the man whose semen is still dripping down the inside of her thighs.”
In Enrigue’s short story collection Hypothermia, published originally in 2005 and in English last year, there’s a similarly cavalier quality to the sex described, as when a literature professor happens upon an orgy of students while he searches for his wife and daughter during a tornado and one of the girls removes a penis from her mouth to give him directions. In Muerte súbita, there’s nothing sentimental or redemptive about sexuality. It’s conflict and competition like tennis or anything else. And the characters engaged in sex, like those engaged in execution or conquest, are not so much psychologically distinctive individuals as bouncing heads. Equal parts horror and humor: that’s how one might go about writing a book like this. - Anne Diebel



“The main things in the film are between the shots,” the filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge once told an interviewer. By this he meant that any self-commissioning spectator would construct the meaning of the film, or even its events, during the imperceptible moments of dark time that occur between the frames. He also recognized that any film is shaped by what it leaves out, elides, or rejects — as much as by what it contains.
It’s a powerful way of looking at form, one that cuts against the prevailing view, which tells us that art is defined by what it contains — its content. When artworks are made in the way Kluge describes, we call them “difficult” or “challenging” because they ask us, for just a moment, to remember the world outside of the work. The content view, on the other hand, wants us to believe that everything is on the screen. It shows us everything we need. It asks us to forget. When a work of art is like a chicken nugget, and everything you need is nestled within its skin, you’re more likely to binge.
The same can be said about novels. When a novel contains everything you need — let’s say the entirety of one man’s struggle, or another man’s completist notions of purity or freedom — we call it “crack,” or we turn it into a TV series. The other, difficult books just wither on our shelves like cabbages.
Once in awhile, though, it so happens that a crack (or chicken nugget) novel is really a cabbage novel. In these cases, such a book will give us some things we want (sex, humor, violence) during the chapters, while still demanding a great deal of our imagination between them: to understand the meaning or the story, you have to bring things to the book that aren’t on the page. Not willfully difficult but rather necessarily so, these books are the way they are because they have something to say about the world outside of the book. Also: more often than not, at least in recent years, books that are “fun” but “challenging” seem to be written in Spanish.
One of these is Álvaro Enrigue’s Sudden Death, published this month from Riverhead, and painstakingly translated by Natasha Wimmer, whose years spent translating Roberto Bolaño have rightfully earned her a reputation as a tastemaker. This is to say that if Wimmer translates a novel, there is a good chance that it is a good one. Sudden Death is a very good novel.
The novel’s “content” is easy enough to describe: it is the story of a violent, sex-crazed, drunken, olden-style tennis match between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, intercut with dense, masterfully written bits of narrative about various things, most notably: Anne Boleyn’s beheading and its aftermath, Hernán Cortés’ ravaging of an empire and its aftermath (including the founding of Mexico, where Enrigue was born), the persistent misdeeds of clergy, and the lives of artists — especially Caravaggio — rendered with a deep fidelity to the materiality (and sometimes brutality) of art’s production.
Of course, when attention is paid to art’s production, it sometimes leads to metafiction (because the novel itself is a work of art and the novelist produced it). This is happening enough now in contemporary fiction that we can call it a “happening,” but of course someone will say that it “always happens” (as if we live in a Parmenidean universe). Anyway, it’s a good thing — it’s the best kind of metafiction. Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, published last year, allegorized the labor of art in a way that I’d never seen. So, too, recently, did Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers and Ben Lerner’s 10:04, to name just a few of many examples. (And these books come to mind even if Sudden Death reminds me more of Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot). Here’s what metafiction looks like (in one case) in Sudden Death:
As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match. Nor is it a book about the slow and mysterious integration of America into what we call “the Western world” — an outrageous misapprehension, since from the American perspective, Europe is the East. Maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book’ maybe that’s what all books are about. A book with a lot of back-and-forth, like a game of tennis.
It isn’t a book about Caravaggio or Quevedo, though Caravaggio and Quevedo are in the book, as are Cortés and Cuauhtémoc, and Galileo and Pius IV. Gigantic individuals facing off. All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void. Novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic.
Enrigue here is pointing out that even if the novel’s contents are easy to describe, its meaning is elusive, and it’s elusive because it exists in the gaps between chapters, in conference with the reader’s imagination and what’s on the page. When I put it down, I wasn’t thinking about how funny it is, or the number of erections it contains, or the Counter-Reformation. Instead I began to worry about my friends who are writers and artists: their sometimes clashing spirits, the imperceptible ways they demolish monuments, the threat of political violence that hangs just over the horizon line, like a burning tennis ball. - 


Writing with his customary intensity about his favorite sport, David Foster Wallace described tennis as “chess on the run, beautiful and infinitely dense.” In his droll and erudite new novel, “Sudden Death,” Álvaro Enrigue provides his own distinct take on that chess-on-the-run notion and elevates it to an even more exalted level. Pitting two late Renaissance giants against each other, he transforms their match into a clash of ideologies, a contest that von Clausewitz might have described as a continuation of both war and politics by other means.
It is 1599, and the Spanish poet, nobleman and diplomat Francisco de Quevedo and the Italian painter and hooligan Caravaggio confront each other on a tennis court in Rome. For reasons neither can quite remember after a night of carousing, theirs is not just a grudge match but also a duel. And, though neither is aware of it, they are playing with a ball made from the hair of Queen Anne Boleyn of England, beheaded 63 years earlier. Game by game, set by set, this match — a product of the author’s imagination, not of the historical record — advances, with asides and digressions that reveal Mr. Enrigue’s presence and purpose.
On the surface, “Sudden Death” is a glorious grab bag of miscellanea. Rather like a tennis ball during a sustained volley, the reader is batted from one subject to another, and between the New World and the Old. Besides the players, we also meet Galileo and various Italian, French, Spanish and English monarchs, popes and cardinals, philosophers and artists, rogues and explorers. Even “the expedition of Giovanni da Verrazzano on which Virginia, Maryland, and New York were discovered” gets a mention. It may all seem random at first, but by the end of the match, which is also the end of the novel, a design is clear.
Mr. Enrigue is Mexican, and Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who destroyed the Aztec world, is also a major character in the book, along with his Indian mistress, known as La Malinche. She is usually presented as one of Latin America’s great villains and race-traitors, an antecedent of the Frenchwomen who consorted with Nazi occupiers, but Mr. Enrigue delivers a much more nuanced and sympathetic portrait of her, implying that she is just as much a victim of history as Anne Boleyn.

With all of these undercurrents and subterranean connections, “Sudden Death” might seem Pynchonesque but for its tone, which is mischievous and picaresque rather than paranoid and foreboding. For Mr. Enrigue, unlike for Marx, history doesn’t repeat itself “the first time as tragedy, then as farce”: Instead, history is imbued with farce even in the first go-round. “There are few better illustrations of how a whole host of people can manage to understand absolutely nothing, act in an impulsive and idiotic way, and still drastically change the course of history,” he says of Cortés and his men.
This playfulness extends to the novel’s form and language. Mr. Enrigue finds a way to incorporate documents from the mid 15th century and (apocryphal?) 21st-century email exchanges with an editor, and writes one chapter as a kind of playlet whose actors are Pope Pius IV and two courtiers. One character has “small tics that make him look like a piece of unedited footage,” another has “grapefruit-seed eyes”; and Mr. Enrigue pokes fun at himself for his tendency to “often issue complaints, like bad checks.”
This suggests that “Sudden Death” is also a novel about our own time, or at least the origins of the modern era and the consequences of an earlier wave of globalization. “We have bought Torture instead of Compassion. Fear instead of Mercy. Hate instead of Love. Death instead of Life.” That is Mr. Enrigue quoting the Argentine writer Leónidas Lamborghini on the mid 16th century and the Council of Trent, which institutionalized the Counter-Reformation and fortified the Inquisition. But it serves just as well as an encapsulated description of the 20th century.
Occasionally Mr. Enrigue seems to work too hard to establish these long-term correspondences. Toward the end of the book, modern concepts like polymorphous perversity and homosexual panic drive the behavior of some characters, and this seems both artificial and unnecessary except as a too-obvious plot device to force Quevedo and Caravaggio onto the same tennis court.
Over all, though, his approach has both great entertainment value and intellectual appeal, especially as a corrective to a Eurocentric view of history. To cite just one example: The possibility that a papal miter — made of feathers from exotic birds and designed by a newly Christianized Nahua craftsman in a small village in Michoacán — inspired Caravaggio’s explosively exuberant use of colors is not just intriguing, but also an idea, grounded in fact, that upends our understanding of the history of art. And when Mr. Enrigue states, almost as an aside, that “the fall of Tenochtitlan,” the Aztec capital that is today Mexico City, “caused more planetary aftershocks than the equally monumental falls of Jerusalem and Constantinople,” he provokes the same kind of reassessment on an even larger scale.
“Sudden Death” is Mr. Enrigue’s fifth novel, but only the first to be translated into English (and beautifully so by Natasha Wimmer, who has also deftly rendered the most challenging of Roberto Bolaño’s work). He is also the author of collections of essays and short stories, only one of which, “Hypothermia,” is available in English. “Sudden Death” is a splendid introduction to Mr. Enrigue’s varied body of work, but it also raises a question related to the themes of the novel: Why are English-language readers only now getting a glimpse of what this gifted writer has produced in a career that is already two decades old? -


A small leather ball stuffed with the hair of a dead queen is batted back and forth by two of Europe's most innovative artists. They're hung over, Caravaggio probably still drunk; Quevedo, the Spanish poet, seeks victory to maintain his reputation in the eyes of his royal confidante. Across the world, Hernán Cortés, with the help of his indigenous translator, lover and advisor Malinalli, is bringing about a political and religious revolution. Meanwhile, popes and bankers vie for control of land, art and artifacts, their machinations and desires bringing forth a newly vicious historical era. "Never were the connections among politics, money, art, and semen so tight or so murky," Enrigue writes. "Or so unashamedly happy, tolerant, and fluid."
But change isn't confined to church and state; "Sudden Death" is a novel of revolution in the spatial and historical sense of the word. The spin of a ball on a cobbled court in Rome circa 1600 seems to affect the transformation of Latin America begun decades earlier. A scapular, a miter, a tennis ball — objects that change hands simply to appease, charm and protect are simultaneously totems drenched in the bloody, intractable events that destroyed Aztec civilization. Enrigue, a Mexican writer living in New York City, writes precisely about the messy feedback loop between a culture's atmosphere and its products.

Cortés' sexual desire for Malinalli brings about "the greatest religious feat of all time"; Caravaggio's love for his crew of lowlifes engenders painting's modernity in its depiction of "a material humanity smelling of blood and saliva." A muddy brawl, sex on a cape of feathers and the depiction of Mary Magdalene with a crooked finger become acts with more epochal power than tomes of teleological history.
Though portraying grand lives, Enrigue plays with the validity of hagiography. As he says in a later chapter, "Novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic."
And structurally, "Sudden Death" isn't normative: a short screenplay and the author's emails are interspersed with short entries from obscure sporting dictionaries and excerpts from humanist classics. Chapters are short, enticing and written with a casual erudition that whispers to readers that, no matter the apparent surprises of the game, the author is in full control.
Enrigue muses on the nature of the novel and his intentions in writing "Sudden Death" as easily as he holds a candle to the obscure maneuvers of the powerful. And he has a poet's ear, beautifully attended to by Natasha Wimmer's translation; witness Galileo Galilei's description of Caravaggio: "He found him at once brutal and vulnerable, fragile behind his armor of grease, grappa and cussedness."
After detailing a comically lopsided and intentionally mistranslated exchange between Cortés and Moctezuma's emissaries, Enrigue states, "There are few better illustrations of how a whole host of people can manage to understand absolutely nothing, act in an impulsive and idiotic way, and still drastically change the course of history." Honest accounts of these moments evince the dishonesty in our attempts to make history neat.
"Sudden Death" shows us that games are never merely games, because no game is played without consequences — some of which then permanently clouding our ability to look back and understand the procession of bodies that enable our play, our culture.
Enrigue, enraptured by the stark colors of historical discovery, sees world-changing significance in too much. The phrase "that changed the world" occurs at least three times, with respect to an idea, a clitoris and a mistake. The idea that a material world can be changed in one stroke is too modern, too blockbuster, too much of an anachronism. It ignores the strangeness of the dead, the final opacity of the past and the flexibility with which human culture moves.
Yet Enrigue is no fool for simple tales: "Sudden Death" plucks the horizon-line tension between meaning and insignificance, order and chaos. We extinguish the carriers of gods who crave gore only to light the fire of a new god — money — which begins to demand everything from everyone.
In one thread of the book, an educated European attempts to better the lot of indigenous Mexicans by ordering them to re-create the satirical society of Thomas More's "Utopia," a fiction that apes the indigenous culture in place before the arrival of European "humanism" to Mexico. Another European, an archbishop who led many of the intolerant persecutions of the Counter-Reformation, is blamed for having destroyed "in a single generation the medical knowledge accumulated over thousands of years in central Mexico."
One might adopt nihilism after confronting again and again "the pettiness and stupidity of those who believe that winning is all that matters," but this potential for destructive myopia is matched point for point by meaning. As Enrigue writes, "history and stories alike offer the consolation of order," and that "Sudden Death" is "a machine for understanding the world, or the ways in which we name the world."
In Enrigue's construction, every vulgar Caravaggio has his mystical counterpart in a Don Diego Huanitzin, a master feather-worker who seemed to take the conquering of his people and erasure of much of his culture in stride. The novel investigates "the true mystery of the forces that control how we inhabit the earth," "elemental" mysteries that combine — and combust — in an ultimately joyous process of transformation, exultation. The novel functions as a "a parenthesis, a dyke, a moment of rest" from this chemical becoming — but a rest that nonetheless paints a world in which the past speaks to the future to challenge it, and us, to "see in a bigger way."
Late in the novel, the Spanish humanist Quiroga sits by a lake with Huanitzin, the Nahua noble. They're placidly high on mushrooms, staring into the lake and chatting through the visions. As the daylight fades, Quiroga notices the old gods "playing ball, indifferent to their extinction." "Sudden Death" affirms the joys of play amid a drowning world.
So we play games with bits of our dead, using these talismans without reverence or even reflection. To play the game of engaging history in our imagination, we must stand and sweat, hung over from our perpetual night of naiveté and romance. Even if the game seems as clearly stated as "angels on one side, demons on the other," we face ourselves — and "the good guys never win." -




In Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue’s second novel to be translated into English, the great sweep of the sixteenth century is served up and presented to the reader as the unlikely product of imbecilic decisions made by drunken, lusty, bigoted men, who, holding “history in their fists perhaps without realizing it,” tossed the world onto the “pyres of modernity.”
Caravaggio, the Lombard of obscure origin whose revolutionary canvases illuminated the desperate humanity of the Catholic pantheon, squares off in an ur-tennis match against Francisco de Quevedo, the bespectacled Spanish wit whose acid-tipped pen was deployed unsparingly against the intellectual giants of his day. (Galileo, Caravaggio’s sometime lover, keeps score). Hernan Cortés, the provincial Spanish landowner who turned an act of insubordination into history’s single-largest imperial conquest, sits uneasily next to Cuahetémoc, the magnificent Aztec warlord undone by a ragtag band of former feudal subjects, as the two watch a game of Mexica pelota on the island-capital of Tenochtitlan. (Malinalli Tenépatl, Cortés’s lover and translator, is transported by a vision of Cuahetémoc sodomizing the bearded Spaniard.) Back in Rome, Pius IV serenely stuffs his face with boar sausage and lets loose the Inquisitors.
Named for the tie-breaking round of pallacorda, the Renaissance game that prefigured tennis, Sudden Death is not a farce, and nor is it simply a speculative work that asks “what if?” of great historical figures and moments. Indeed, Enrigue deliberately works against the speculative mode by weaving exegetical historiography and laconic fourth-wall-breaking reflections throughout the relatively “straight” narrative lines of the apocryphal tennis match, the Mexican conquest, and the ideological formation of the Counter-Reformation. In a sort of confession toward the end of the book, Enrigue seems to throw up his hands to the reader’s inevitable question:
As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match. Nor is it a book about the slow and mysterious integration of America into what we call “the Western world”—an outrageous misapprehension, since from the American perspective, Europe is the East. Maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book; maybe that’s what all books are about. A book with a lot of back and forth, like a game of tennis.
Enrigue’s coy humility here ultimately cedes itself to the outrage with which he confronts the atrocious costs by which history is made. By making a game central to the book’s narrative momentum, he posits that history’s outcome is as unpredictable as a well-played tennis match (consider the recent defeat of Serena Williams, one of the game’s best-ever players, at the hands of Roberta Vinci, a complete unknown). At the same time he moves toward the conclusion that, often as not, the game is rigged from the start—a lesson Enrigue expertly deploys on the book’s final page.
Contemporary Latin American writers do not have the benefit of the forgetful and redemptive historical logic that shapes much of the literature of their Northern American neighbors. Indeed, Enrigue furthers the project undertaken by the grand Latin American writers of the 20th century—I am thinking primarily of Carlos Fuentes, who wrote a glowing review of Vidas Perpendiculares, Enrigue’s 2008 novel—of wresting gorgeous novels out of the stinking filth of history, the discomfiting facts of their origin.
But rather than come up with a cast of exemplary characters who wrestle—or don’t—with the history imprinted on their bodies and minds, Enrigue chooses instead to inhabit the lives of the men and women who committed the sins that have culminated, some 500 years later, in the figure of Álvaro Enrigue. In Cortés, Enrigue finds a man who, with seemingly little foresight or administrative wherewithal, changed the course of history forever—and who remains as unpopular and ignored as he was during the 16th century. “What a provincial he must have been,” Enrigue notes, “never to receive recognition for having set at the feet of the pope . . . a world complete with all its animals, plants, temples, and little houses with hundreds of thousands of ladies and gentlemen inside.” Today, he fares little better—a back-of-the-envelope calculation by Enrigue suggests that out of the 180 million Mexicans born since Mexico won its independence in 1821, only one of them, the nationalist philosopher and educator José Vasconcelos, considers Cortés to have been a hero.
In the narrative portions of Sudden Death that deal with Cortés, the conquistador is portrayed as the tired and dogged man he certainly must have been. While Enrigue’s representation certainly humanizes him, it by no means excuses his conduct. He is portrayed as the lesser man, the lucky man, “the guardian angel of underachievers and late bloomers” who at age 42 became not only “Europe’s greatest celebrity but [also] the prince of all those who fuck things up without realizing it.”
On the other side of the historical net stands Caravaggio, whose boorish braggadocio was tolerated (and quietly celebrated) by Church fathers and Roman magnates from an obnoxiously young age, and whose work remains the subject of fascination for hordes of tourists and refined art historians alike. Caravaggio, Enrigue notes,
shifted the sacred scenes indoors to focus the spectators of his paintings on the humanity of the characters. . . . 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 historical irony that Enrigue illuminates in Sudden Death is that while Caravaggio’s earthy subject-matter revolutionized the world of painting, it presented no challenge to the winds that swept out over Europe and the Americas from the Vatican. Pius IV may have been a decadent patron of the arts, but his lieutenants raped children, stuffed their pockets with cash, and “turn[ed] torture into the only way to practice Christianity.”
Francisco de Quevedo, Caravaggio’s opponent, is a more ambiguous figure. A spiteful drunk, he rashly challenges Caravaggio to a duel shortly after they are discovered entwined on the bank of the Tiber; it is through Galileo’s intervention that the two play a pallacorda match instead of fighting to the death. Quevedo proves to be a quite capable opponent, crippling hangover and severe physical deformity notwithstanding. He was, like the others, both a product of his time and someone who stood outside it—his jeremiads against Luis de Gongora, the Golden Age poet whose monstrously complex sonnets have tortured generations of literature students throughout the Spanish-speaking world, brought him notoriety; like the rest of the characters in Sudden Death, he died in obscurity and out of favor with the powers of the day.
Natasha Wimmer’s rendering of Enrigue’s unassuming prose is a delight; indeed, the act of translation—done well and poorly—appears and reappears throughout the book, most notably (and hilariously) during Cortés’s misadventures in Mexico. Enrigue, who has lived and worked in the United States for many years now, appears to have worked closely with Wimmer on the English translation; there is an entire additional chapter devoted to explaining, for non-Spanish readers, Mexican Spanish’s debts to Nahuatl, the royal language of the Aztecs. (Other, slighter modifications meant for the English reader are peppered throughout the text, including an explication of the word xingar—I must admit I don’t envy the translator’s task there.)
In the “confession” cited above, Enrigue writes that “novels demolish monuments because all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic.” Following this logic, Sudden Death is an amateur production made by a group of friends who alternate between shy bemusement, periodic fits of nervous chatter, and moments of authentic tenderness. It’s a curious way to represent a moment of great upheaval and bloodshed—and genius—but it works magnificently.
In the book’s latter half, Enrigue describes the first-ever recorded game of tennis, in which a French seminarist’s soul is sent to hell in the form of a ball, where it is smacked mercilessly by a quartet of demons playing doubles. It recalls the end of the book’s introduction.
It’s no coincidence that when speaking of someone’s death in Mexico we say he “hung up his tennis shoes,” that he “went out tennis shoes first.” We are who we are, unfixable, fucked. We wear tennis shoes. We fly from good to evil, from happiness to responsibility, from jealousy to sex. Souls batted back and forth across the court. This is the serve. -


I should tell you right off that by the usual rules of the reviewing business—business, so to call it—I shouldn’t be reviewing this novel. I know the author; I’ve broken bread with him (more of a cracker, actually); I edited his first book to come out in English translation (titled, by the way, Hypothermia). You want to call this an inside job, you’re entitled. You want to say the fix is in, who am I to argue. Still and all, I’m here to tell you that Sudden Death is a pleasure, a serious pleasure, and I say this as a civilian, as a reader for whom pleasure of whatever degree of seriousness is the main event.
“YOU’VE NEVER READ A NOVEL LIKE THIS BEFORE” proclaims the back cover of the bound galley of Death, likening the effect of the book to a “gut punch.” Like much ad copy (for which the author should not be held responsible), I take issue with these statements, not least because I have indeed read a novel like this before. Many, in fact. On those occasions, however, I would have been reading books by, say, Julio Cortázar or Italo Calvino, so it’s in a rather august company that Enrigue has earned himself a place setting.
Death is made up, by my count, of 74 chapters, all of which are brief, some of which run no longer than a single paragraph, all of which have been given their own titles, regardless of length. All the chapters serve one, at most two of the following functions (not an exhaustive list, but a representative one):
a. Describing, in more or less sequential order, set by set and game by game, a tennis match (a duel, really, in tennis form) played between the painter known as Caravaggio and the writer Francisco de Quevedo, author of, most notably—in English translation, anyhow—El Buscón (The Swindler) and Los Sueños (Dreams); which duel is seconded, respectively, by Galileo Galilei and Quevedo’s patron and protector Pedro Téllez-Girón, Duke of Osuna.
b. Describing, in something like reverse order, with many a hop around the timeline, the brutish and fabulously fortunate Hernán Cortés’s expedition into Tenochtitlan, leading to the fall of the Aztec Empire and the foundation of a Catholic, Latin America; including dramatizations of Cortés’s personal, amatory, financial, and family histories both before and after his victory.
c. Presenting several short quotations from the literature of the history of tennis.
d. Staging scenes from the planning of what became known as the Counter-Reformation, centered on the papal machinations concerning the Council of Trent.
e. Staging scenes from Caravaggio’s early career and the development of his revolutionary style.
f. Providing ekphrases on Caravaggio’s paintings and works of art important to his evolution.
g. Ruminating upon the research undertaken into all the above by the author of Sudden Death, up to and including the writing of Sudden Death; for example a supposed e-mail exchange between Enrigue and an editor at his Spanish-language publisher Anagrama.
There is a good deal of dialogue in the book, all of which abjures use of the quotation mark, as well as paragraph breaks separating speakers, a convention usually retained even in those novels where the dash and other such speech-signaling devices have been shown the door. This means that the characters’ words stand cheek-by-jowl with the author/narrator’s, nothing but punctuation to keep them out of each others’ business. The effect is whimsical, permissive, all-inclusive: everyone sounds alike, as they must; the surface of the prose remaining placid, unflustered by the obscenities it might be describing, moving from mind to mind and mouth to mouth, always even-handed and good natured, allowed thereby to locate its narrative anywhere and -when the author deems needful, to enter into whatever mode might be necessary to achieve its ends—scholarly, pornographic, meticulous, indolent—never breaking a sweat.
Indeed, lightness, in Calvino’s sense, is paramount to Enrigue’s approach. The short chapters and breezy tone give the reader the impression that she isn’t engaged in piecing together the tortuous narrative of a world-destroying conflagration—in which, as the narrator himself has cause to remark, the bad guys have already won many times over—but instead popping bonbons into her mouth, enjoying little after-dinner divertissements, only gradually getting queasy, coming down with a bad case of history. History, that is, with its capital aitch, that unending nightmare of murder after murder, war after war, innovation after innovation, erasure after erasure; history the god who goes quite mad quite regularly, swallowing whole worlds in its “pool of blood and shit,” leading to the deletion of cultures willy-nilly, and, in this case, the squelching of all the pluralistic, pagan possibilities that were once open—we can pretend!—to Western civilization. Enrigue’s little flechettes, harmless in themselves, come to describe a cunning and solemn design.
What is that design? I don’t want to elaborate upon it too much here, at the risk of ruining the novel’s great feat of prestidigitation, in which—foreground—a tennis ball made out of the hair of Anne Boleyn and a scapular made out of the hair of the final emperor of Tenochtitlan crisscross the world, changing hands like the titular rifle in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73; while—background—a collection of feather-work miters made by the few surviving Aztec plumería artisans, nominally converted to Christianity, wind up preserving their entire annihilated culture, in concentrated form, in plain sight within the gory artworks of Europe. This much, though, I can say without fear of spoilage: that Sudden Death’s true subject-matter, to my eye, its circus of poets and painters and mathematicians and conquistadors and popes and inquisitors aside, is the ways in which art can serve to poison power, not because of its political content, as such, but simply by means of its being so stubbornly artificial, solipsistic, sybaritic, and other-than-mundane. As poisons go, it’s largely ineffective, I grant you—it not only refuses to kill the host, but can on occasion legitimize its transgressions—but Enrigue nonetheless finds some cause for hope in art’s ability to archive the alternate histories over which avarice and cruelty have steamrolled so consistently. Art in Sudden Death may be read as the tiny vengeance of the massacred; the final resting place of the world’s deleted heresies; the only conquest, however inadequate, of the conquered. “[I]f a work of art, like a dream, is worth remembering,” Enrigue comments, “it’s precisely because it represents a blind spot for history. Art and dreams don’t stick with us because they have the capacity to move things along, but because they stop the world: they function as a parenthesis, a dyke, a moment of rest.”
In this, Enrigue holds Caravaggio up as quintessentially contemporary, a painter serving not the world-devouring god of Europe—not so dissimilar, really, bloodthirstiness-wise, from the Aztec pantheon—but a god we might now recognize, “a god unlike God, remote and uninterested in revealing himself in miracles beyond combustion or the balance of forces; a true god for everyone: the poor, the wicked, the politicians, the rent boys, and the millionaires.” Caravaggio is style, is artifice and attention, triumphant; that’s about all any artist can aspire to, then or now.
It’s for the soul, the future of art, that the real duel is being fought in Sudden Death: it’s Álvaro Enrigue versus oblivion, with oblivion, as ever, the odds-on favorite . . . but, and here’s the thing, you can’t beat oblivion with a straight-on attack. You need to be quick on your feet.
To get back to that book I edited, and on account of which I shouldn’t be writing this review, Enrigue is on record saying something pretty fascinating about it. He said—I paraphrase—that in Spanish, Hypothermia is absolutely and obviously a novel, period and the end, whereas, in English translation, it became, likewise absolutely and obviously, a book of short stories. I didn’t know what to make of this: how could Hypothermia ever have been taken for a novel? Each of its sections—chapters?—is indisputably an independent story; there are no clear through lines of plot, of character. What was I missing? How had this mysterious transformation occurred, and right under my nose?
It strikes me that Sudden Death’s short chapters, its author’s grace on the court, might represent an evolution of this same neither/nor approach to form. While the reader is unlikely to be surprised, I imagine, at who wins Death’s diegetic game of tennis between poet and painter—good luck to anyone hoping to defeat a master of foreshortening—it’s how Enrigue delivers the final serve in his game that elevates Death’s disparate fragments into a whole, a novel qua novel to stand among the best postcolonial comedies.
Granted, in English, we have only part of the picture—Enrigue has published something like seven books, in Spanish—but held up to Hypothermia, Sudden Death represents a great leap forward. Widening the comparison to Enrigue’s compatriots, when did we last have a Fuentes this fun, this friendly, this dangerous? Would we have to go back the 1970s? Earlier? And then, moving closer to Enrigue’s own generation, have any of the novels of the Crack Movement we’ve seen translated ever managed so successfully to escape fussiness, ponderousness, overdetermination?
The fact is, in English too, we tend to suffer from a distinct lack of lightness. We’ve never been too expert at the serious pleasures. Silliness we can do, and seriousness we can do, but we may need some refresher courses on how to combine them.
So, rather than a gut punch—is that really what we want from our novels, these days?—let’s do the obvious thing and call Sudden Death a tennis ball sent hurtling at literature, at the reader, and served by a fleet-footed instructor. It may seem harmless, as it flies, but this is a ball with “a poisonous spin” on it. It may take us a few tries before we can learn how to hit it back. -


Sudden Death, the second novel by Álvaro Enrigue to be translated into English, features a look at history unlike any other. Enrigue juxtaposes historical obsessions, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and the creation of art through an unlikely lens: the game of tennis. The result makes for a work that’s thrilling, epic in its scope, and features a number of nestled tragedies along the way. I spoke with Enrigue about the process of writing the novel and his work with translator Natasha Wimmer. An edited version of our conversation follows.
In the very beginning of the edition of Sudden Death that came out on Riverhead, you refer to the original Spanish-language version. Were there any other changes that were made as you prepared it for its English translation?
I wrote a bunch of pages for the English edition. English is a language that I read and write much better than I speak; my vocation for languages is mostly through literature, so I am very good at reading many languages, but I cannot speak [them]. That is not the case for English: I can speak English, but my writing and reading abilities are higher than in relation to some other languages. There are fifteen or twenty new pages of the novel in English.
There is the human side of it–the temptation of adding little things. Once you’ve tried the novel in one language–in that language, which happens to be my mother language–you know what works and what doesn’t. On the other hand, I’m kind of interested in making a statement about the importance of translation to uphold the literary tradition. I think that is true–in translation, we renew the DNA of literature. Borges has this beautiful conference about the 1001 Nights, in which he says that erroneous translation is how literature improves and experiments and becomes more accurate or more interesting or more seductive. I’m interested in that process. Borges used to believe–and maybe this was one of his ironic beliefs, because he was a writer who had fun with a lot of traditional things–that there was no difference between the original and the translation, in terms of literary value. He had a good reason for that, a book that goes to the very past of literature and comes back in a different voice. I am really interested in all of those phenomena. And that’s why, if you’re an English reader, you must be conscious early in the book that this is a book that was intervened for the English edition.
What was the process of working with your translator like for Sudden Death?
It was fantastic! I am the luckiest man in the world. I got translated by Natasha Wimmer, who is an incredible translator. When I heard that news, I was really, really happy. I knew it was a real privilege, and a perception-changing experience. We worked very closely in the translation of the book. Not that closely, because she’s a master of of her art. But she was always updating me on how things were going. Every now and then, it was good for me to read the translation. We would have many meetings in which she would go word by word–I am not exaggerating–and thinking about everything. You’re not conscious of those things until you get into translation processes. She would work on that until she got the right register of every sentence, and of every word.
I was involved in the editing process of the book. One of the things that I asked of my editor was to treat me as an American writer, not as a translated author. As I can speak and read perfectly, I was a part of the discussion in English. So for me, it was a learning process, and I wanted to be present in that process. I saw Natasha Wimmer changing words and commas until the very moment in which the book went to print. It was very, very impressive. She was producing a book that, in the end, felt exactly like the book I had written in Spanish. Only bigger, a little bit fatter, due to the additions.
You have so many different strands of history woven in here; I was curious where the book began for you. Was it with tennis? Was it with the European or Central American history?
That’s a very fun question, because there was a moment in which I had to make a Cartesian time block in order to know what was going on when. Not when I was writing, because I think that writing is all about freedom and letting go and seeing what one finds in the world, and then returning to find meanings in what finds. During the final organization of the novel, the remix of the novel, I had to record the timing, the dates and everything. The novel really begins with the decapitation of Anne Boleyn, because Thomas More could be present, not at that very moment, but close by. He was still alive, and when the conquest of Mexico was done, he was already dead. But I’m not sure about these things, and there’s not much sense in fact-checking these things for our conversation.
For me, the novel really begins, in my heart–that’s very sentimental and tacky–in the moment in which Hernán Cortés stands in front of the jungle in what will become Vera Cruz, and he says, “Let’s go to Tenochtitlan. Let’s go there, and when we get there, we can hit the Pacific Ocean.” It’s a novel about the birth of the world as we know it, and what is wrong in the world as we know it. Maybe because I am from Tenochtitlan, from Mexico City, I think that the key moment of modernity is that one: the moment in which a safe road is opened to connect Europe and China. And that safe road implies the submission of an impressive and extravagant empire, the Aztec Empire.
How did tennis become a central metaphor within the novel?
To put Caravaggio painting paintings, or to put Francisco de Quevedo writing poems, could be boring. I was really trying to write a novel about Caravaggio. I found him very significant, and I thought that I could use him as a metaphor for many things, all things contemporary that were very important. I was interested in the fear of the artist–he shows up beheaded in his own self-portrait. I think that says a lot about violence in the modern world, and many, many things. I had this intuition about the fear of Caravaggio’s as being an excellent way to say things about the world they lived in. But I couldn’t find the right place to put him where he could attract attention for being as charismatic and fun. He was a great master of art, but he was not a maestro at all. He was a fighter. He was a very common fellow. He didn’t have anything to do with the great “dead white men” [category] in which we try to put everything.
I was reading one of the biographies of Caravaggio, and I discovered all of these passages in which Caravaggio appeared playing tennis. He used to play tennis, or a sport that was similar to tennis called pala corta, when he was young, to make money. He was not earning too much money painting, yet. He would become a superstar of Italian painting, but when he was young he hadn’t made enough money. I thought that the solitude of the tennis court, this idea of the tennis player, of him fighting point by point to victory, to win some money to be able to have dinner–that looked like a way in which I could represent him without falling into any of the obvious categories in which one could fall when writing about a maestro and a grand master.
Are you yourself a tennis player, or was it something that you needed to do some research into?
Not at all. My kids played tennis for a period, so I used to watch their games, but I’m not enough of an aficionado to tennis in general. I like baseball and soccer, so that consumes too much time to add a new sport. I’m more of an aficionado of history than tennis. That is not to say that I wouldn’t watch a tennis match; it’s surely a fun sport. But I have never watched a professional one.
At the end of the book, and within the book itself, you allude to work you did at the New York Public Library. How did that come about?
I just applied. I was living in Mexico. I have spent my adult life coming and going from the U.S. In that period, I was in Mexico, and I had a beautiful job that was too demanding, and would not let me write. I was the publisher of the Ministry of Culture’s publishing house, which is a very exquisite and fun and interesting and beautiful work. It implies, to me, rescuing old book and making new academy editions of classics. It’s really beautiful work–so beautiful that I thought that I could stay there forever and never write another word. So I began to look for situations that would let me sit down and write for a period of time without worrying about the financial pressures of everyday life. I applied to the Public Library. At the time, I didn’t have a single book translated into English–a couple of short stories and some articles, but not much stuff. Whoever decided that the project was good made that strange decision to bring me from Mexico City to the Cullman Center to research and write this book. It’s one of the best places to do that.
You included some emails exchanged with your editor in the text of the novel. When did you decide to incorporate your own process into the text?
It’s a game. It’s always a game. And it has to do with the translation process, too. The email exchanges were really interesting, or I found it interesting, because an editor used this Baroque expression without knowing that she was using it. She said something like, “Now the ball is at the top of your house.” And that’s a reference to the antique tennis game that she was unaware that she was making. In the Spanish version of the novel, it was only that, and it was just something fun. If you’re a novelist who writes in Spanish, you have the mentor of the modern novel breathing down your neck all the time, so it was Cervantes’s idea that everything should fit in the novel, and that everything would acquire a new important meaning if you put it in the right place inside a novel. So it was just playing the Baroque classic game of modern literature in Spanish.
That’s one of the stories. The other is the story of the narrator. I am the not the narrator of the novel. What he is writing is not myself. The novel had a narrator, and that narrator had a story that I subtracted because I thought that it was not necessary to write it. So the voice that, from time to time, comes into the novel making meditations on the contemporary world is not my voice, and is not what I would think.
That was another game. The book means more things thanks to the fact that I am not telling the story that is at the center of this book. That’s all. It worked very well in the Spanish edition. It worked so well that all the critics quote that part where the narrator says, “I don’t know what I’m writing. I really don’t know what I’m writing. I know this and I know that but I don’t know this about my writing.” When I was re-doing the version in English, I took the liberty of pushing that much more. That’s why the exchange of emails with the editor is much more developed in English than in Spanish. In Spanish, it’s one quote from one email that’s very short, just two or three lines. In English, there’s this imaginary exchange between an editor and a writer. I think it adds a different dimension to the book that was not there in the Spanish. That was an opportunity I took–when the book came out in English, I had experience of how the critics would read it. I could add some more meat to it.
Were there any facts or interesting pieces of history that you discovered over the course of the book that you wanted to add to the book, but couldn’t?
You have this idea of a novel in your head always, that’s huge and touches everything and goes everywhere. And then comes reality. There’s this moment where the novel is done. In my case, there’s always hundreds of bridges that don’t show up in the final edition. There was no way to fit things in the novel. There was a line that went into the Philippines to produce a sense of circularity in the world, as the balls and the heads that rolled in the novel were circular. There was also the story of the narrator that’s not in the novel any more. In the English version, there were more parts of the story of the narrator that weren’t in the Spanish edition. But they are very few. So–yes. Between the imaginary novel that one wants to write and the temptations to keep going, and then the things that you noticed while editing that weren’t that good–I don’t know. I have an impression that I write novels and then I publish the structure of those novels. There are missing Legos in that castle. And I like that. You must open a space for the reader. It’s not a frivolous decision, either. I am driven by the perfection of language. I am driven by the functionality of the structural lines of the story that will take you from one place to another. But I am guided, too, by the privilege of the reader–that is, to get into the book and recompose it. When a novel is good, it happens out of the written powers of the writer. It’s because the reader was able to construct something with it. - 


When Caravaggio Plays Quevedo In Tennis, The Court Becomes A Sonnet (interview, npr)






Álvaro Enrigue, Hypothermia, Trans. by Brendan Riley, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013.


Click here to read the extract at the White Review


A collection of linked stories, "micro-novels," and vignettes spanning two centuries and multiple continents.


In 2007, Álvaro Enrigue was picked up among thousands of Latin American writers as one the Bogota 39, thirty-nine authors under the age of 39 who in the view of the jurors represented the best storytelling in the Americas. After reading Hypothermia you understand why. This collection of short stories and nouvelles—also the first of Enrigue’s books to be translated into English – is a daring exploration of the universal themes of loss, love, and the identity crisis brought upon the individual by the impersonal forces of modernity. The jaded and oversexed narrator of many of those stories is a Mexican intellectual who trespasses several borders— geographically and socially, but also in time: Latin American baroque is key to his unique understanding of art, language and food. Other pieces are astute retellings of factual stories, such of the last North American Native-American or the last speaker of a forgotten European dialect. More of his production is expected to appear in English soon. - Claudio Iván Remeseira


Despite the chill promised of the title, this collection of short stories from Mexican writer Enrigue ex-udes a warmth that fluctuates throughout and culminates in a scorching final installment. However, the temperature of the plot and language follows a converse trajectory to the subjects' interiority: the ice is simply below the surface, freezing over the characters' hearts and minds. Enrigue's protagonists coolly observe their fellow man, as well as their own place in society, their careers, and roles they've found themselves in, with a detached sense of superiority and emotional distance. In "Gula, or: The Invoca-tion", a doubtful father reluctantly writes a story which sacrifices his pet cat in order to save his fami-ly; in "Outrage" a mentally unhinged garbage collector goes on a crime spree; and in "The Extinction of Dalmation", we find Tuone Udina, the intellectually- and hearing-challenged last living speaker of the Dalmatian language in a remote corner of Croatia. Udina, the subject of a study by a heartless ar-cheology professor, is also the most unexpected and poignant story in the collection. Throughout, En-rigue imaginatively explores identity, isolation in contemporary society, and the breakdown of com-munication. - Publishers Weekly


The origin of the word gringo is a nebulous one. There is the popular but spurious story that when U.S. American soldiers were in Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century (presumably during the Mexican American War), Mexicans would be subjected to the grating spectacle of unaccountably chipper soldiers singing and marching to the tune of “Green Grow the Lilacs,” of which the Mexicans, knowing only a modicum of English and regarding the grs-grs of the Americans as barbarous, misapprehended the lyrics as “gringo the lilacs.” But the likelier truth is that the etymology of gringo precedes North American militarism and dates back to an early modern corruption of the word griego (“Greek”) in Castilian, used then in the same idiomatic sense that it was once said in English, “It’s all greek to me,” i.e. unintelligible, unfamiliar, foreign. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers the more famous instance of an idiomatic sentiment that dates back to an old Latin saying: Graecum est; non legitur (“It’s Greek; it cannot be read”). In today’s parlance, and particularly in the mind of a Spanish-speaking immigrant beginning to live in the United States, what’s “greek” and cannot be read would translate to: “what’s gringo is what I don’t understand.”
In Álvaro Enrigue’s collection of short stories, Hypothermia, no word seems more salient than gringo. By my count it emerges at least thirty times across a span of twenty stories, in each instance connoting something of a double reality: the literalist reality of the gringo and the figurative reality of the non-gringo resisting gringofication. In Enrigue’s world, el gringismo begins and ends with estrangement. Most of the characters in Hypothermia (at least when they’re presented in the first person) are Mexican males living and working in the United States in the invariable guise of a writer-professor-husband-father struggling with, reinterpreting, or otherwise giving into gringo life. That Enrigue himself is a Mexican author living in the United States brings some ludic level of self-referentiality to the depictions. (For example, the narrator of one story notes that a taxi driver driving him through the streets of Lima, Peru, pronounced his name “noticeably weighting the first accented vowel then letting the rest fall into silence with princely disdain,” a description in which “Álvaro” would naturally fit.)
In “Diary of a Quiet Day,” contained in the first batch of stories collected under the deceptively innocuous title “Scenes from Family Life,” a man watches a baseball game (in many ways the ultimate gringo sport) and ruminates on how “baseball is an Odyssean sport: the batter has to circle round the archipelago of the bases to get back home.” Left alone for a day at a large vacation home on the Outer Banks of North Carolina (his wife and son are away on a trip with the inlaws), the man notices a sign above a doorway that states that the house he is staying in is named “Ithaca.” The irony, of course, is that while he was prefiguring himself as an Odysseus stranded on American Ogygia with the Calypso charms of baseball and all things gringo (he helps himself to copious Diet Cokes, “bags of Tostitos as big as TV sets,” and “a box of Froot Loops the size of a briefcase”) he turns out to be a mixture of Telemachus and Penelope, helplessly awaiting the delayed return of his family. In a more general sense, however, he still is a chilango Odysseus, one of many Mexicans and Latin Americans living out a form of capitalist exile in the United States. In another sense, however, he is also already a gringo who, like other characters in Hypothermia, listlessly has affairs, goes to therapy, and watches baseball (in the USA, as another fellow “exile” puts it, soccer is reduced to a mere diversion for children). Gringo, after all, is just another way of saying griego (again, “Greek”), a pseudo-Odysseus in nostalgia for the epic gesture or, lacking that, another giant box of Froot Loops. “That’s why, sooner or later, all of us gringos end up going to therapy. In a world like this one, the only way to get someone to listen to you is by paying them to do it.”
Other exiles make appearances. In “Heavy Weather,” a professor of Latin American literature (very likely the same narrator stuck in the North Carolinian Ithaca of the previous story) experiences a monstrous tornado while teaching a class on Rubén Darío’s Odyssean travels abroad. At another point he speculates on the life of Mexican author Martín Luis Guzmán, whose “periods of exile, like those of Quevedo, were authentic and obligatory.” Guzmán’s career brings to mind not only Odysseus, but also Julius Caesar and V.S. Naipaul, all who had been in some shape or form strangers in strange lands. The professor teaches in Washington D.C., capital of gringolandia, and endures an estrangement obtusely metaphorized by the tornado, a natural disaster that punctuates and overshadows his own estranged life. Yet again separated from his family, he walks through streets emptied by the tornado to the university sports complex, now serving as a provisional haven from the tornado. An acquiescent orderliness seems to typify gringo life even at the most trying moments: “Gringos are an obedient sort of people: in full compliance with the authorities they were now organized into assigned groups and distributed throughout the gigantic subterranean sports complex…”
In “Saint Bartholomew” (part of the third collection of stories subtitled “Filth”), another Mexican transplant, also living in D.C. and working at the World Bank, carries a story-length conversation with his mistress over cellphone, a technology that “made him tense because – he thought – it conjures up a frustrating and illusory sense of nearness; information is accelerated but nothing is communicated, at least not in the strict sense of the world. No matter how much you want it to, an empty, disembodied voice does not represent an act of communion.” Cellphones (in a time antedating the emergence of the smartphone) distort proximity in the same sense that becoming gringo distorts one’s intelligibility to others; to be a gringo is to be misunderstood, paradoxically, by becoming too literal. In a foreign land, alienation excites an incoherent preponderance on details.
The narrator of another (to my mind the best) story in Hypothermia, “On the Death of the Author,” plans to write a story on the life of Ishi, the last surviving member of the Yahi tribe who eventually lived out his life as an animate museum piece at UC Berkeley. The narrator struggles to overcome the inescapable literalness of Ishi’s history, its too evident resonance as a tale restricted to the gratuitous plainness of its events. As the narrator informs us, Ishi falls into the habit of saving the money he earned from his wages as a maintenance worker at the university (they could find no other way of sustaining his living except by “hiring” him) and periodically would open the safe and “set his boxes of dollars on a table and spend the afternoon looking at them, without ever saying anything or taking the coins out. As if they were something else.” Ishi, suffering from a species of capitalist schizophrenia, stores his money and, instead of spending it, ritualistically gazes at it; the author-narrator attempting to write the story of Ishi, likewise stores up details of Ishi’s life and obsessively gazes at them, “as if they were something else.” But, in a world of literal overkill, the parts never add up to anything other than the single-track machine they constitute; money carries only one, insufferably mindless, meaning. Forced into a temporal (rather than a spatial) exile, Ishi becomes a gringo, that is, he adopts the strange customs of a different culture, and becomes estranged from his own–of which he is, unironically, the last and only member.
Enrigue thus redefines what it means to be a gringo. Neither white nor brown, U.S. American or Native American, the gringo is the cultural manifestation of estranging processes whose assortment of parts adds up to nothing but themselves, parts that interlock but never cohere. “Gringos? We’re African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, German Americans, Irish Americans…We’re neither an empire, nor a republic, nor a monarchy. We’re nothing…We’re whatever slipped through the cracks of history: pure ambition without any ulterior commitments…We’re gringos and we urgently need some national therapy.” In the collection’s first story, “Dumbo’s Feather,” which serves as a prelude to Hypothermia as a whole, the narrator (yet another Mexican author, a failed Odysseus, who seems to serve as the spirit of malaise and mediocrity that infuses so many of the characters) promises to write “stories about people who aren’t working through difficult questions or pathetic feelings; minor characters – people who’ve never visited Paris, people nobody cares about. Gringos, for example. Normal, everyday gringos like the tourists you see on the street in their Bermuda shorts.”
Developing a chain of associations that presents the USA as a land of metaphysical refrigeration (or as Henry Miller had placed it, an “air-conditioned nightmare”), Enrigue constructs a dual image for the expatriate writer living in twenty-first century America: a white backdrop on a plasma screen, and one’s own face, now the face of another, emerging from this whiteness. In the appropriately titled “White,” another Mexican-turned-gringo watches the videotape recording of a snowy day spent with his daughters, “a pure white color” appearing on the screen, until “at last his own face appeared, talking about the snow and the cold.” Even if “he couldn’t stop thinking about his Odyssey, stuck fast in the pristine snow,” the nostalgia for warmth motivates a contrapuntal image of a phantasmal fulgent Mexico shifting in the distance. The literal, we learn, counters but does not completely obliterate the figurative. Though Mexico, specifically Mexico City, as a narrative site is largely absent in Hypothermia (it only appears in the final story, as a sort of libidinal recovery), it remains present in this absence–it represents a robust metropolitan figurality that traverses and overlaps with the snowfields of the literal, an ardor for native lands that sets the homogenous suburbs of east coast America into stark relief. As Heriberto Yépez has written in The Empire of Neomemory, “For the North American, the Mexican is the pseudo-maternal. […] American solitude has to do with the separation from Mexico, with the co-bodies always absent, relative to each other, one with respect to both. The United States and Mexico are doubles.”
More to the point, to turn gringo is to become, culturally and metaphysically speaking, “white,” to turn cold in a consumptive estranging realism, to lose the so-called “warmth” of the indigenous co-body of the south. “After reaching a certain size, a secret generates a zone of silence around the one who carries it. Like a refrigerator, it has its own microclimate that people can poke their heads into but where no one else can remain… The question was: had his deficiencies led him to become a refrigerator or were they one more eventuality in his destiny as a refrigerator?” To become a gringo is to grow into a refrigerated state of bland literalities that never mesh into something else. In a manner of words, to become a gringo is to (figuratively) die of hypothermia from an excess of (literal) air conditioning. - Jose-Luis Moctezuma


The first of Mexican author Álvaro Enrigue’s six books to be published in English, Hypothermia comprises twenty carefully sequenced stories, beginning with an introduction of sorts (“Dumbo’s Feather”) and followed by groups of linked stories arranged in five named sections (“Scenes from Family Life,” “Saving Face,” “Filth,” “Grand Finales,” and “Two Waltzes toward Civilization”). The stories, too, are intricately structured and feature an eclectic selection of epigraphs, narrative voices, and modes, characters, and concerns while set mainly during recent years in Washington, DC, or Mexico, DF. In the words of one of Enrigue’s protagonists, a writer who has been working on a particular story for ten years: “I’ve tried the pastiche technique, direct narration, diary entries, epistolary form, even the dreaded stream of consciousness, but the whole thing keeps slipping through my fingers like a fistful of marbles.”
Nothing slips through Enrigue’s fingers in Hypothermia, though. On the contrary, this neatly woven book gathers force from each text and section to the next. The “scenes from family life” become increasingly ominous, as if to introduce the subtly menacing and vaguely obsessive-compulsive protagonists in the second section or the growing depravity of the family man in the third. And even as these protagonists’ self-indulgence gives way to more academic topics in the following section, the final section crosses into popular-culture territory with a secretive televised cooking competition called Lard and other aspects of foodie culture. The final story also returns to Mexico City, where the book opens, suggesting a narrative cycle underscored in the dateline that serves as the final words of the book: “Mexico City—Washington, DC—Mexico City, 1996–2004.”
The majority of Enrigue’s protagonists are unnamed, well-educated Mexican men, émigrés who live in the United States for career opportunities, maybe even becoming citizens but still trying to negotiate the “gringo universe.” The composite identity of these characters over the course of the book—a professor of Latin American literature, a businessman at the World Bank, and a would-be celebrity chef of nouveau Mexican cuisine who researches Spanish colonial recipes—reveals a progressively more self-absorbed male in various stages of arrested development, from a harmless father gorging on sugary cereal and junk food while his family is away to another, less benign father having an affair with his boss’s wife, and, in the final story, a man visiting his native Mexico City who lives his male fantasy of raunchy sex with different adoring partners for several days.
Brendan Riley’s graceful translation and the inclusion of Hypothermia alongside other distinguished works of Latin American literature in the press’s list of publications bode well for future translations into English of Enrigue’s fiction. (Editorial note: To read an interview with Enrigue, see page 12.)- Catharine E. Wall


When Dante arrives at the focal point of hell, the place reserved for traitors, he finds them enclosed in ice, unable to speak. Inferno is part lament of a man in exile, part special kind of reprimand for those humans with pretension to creation, an assumed and fairly accurate accusation of transplanting the authority of God. Authors are the worst kinds of traitors, refusing their influences, chasing spurious inspiration in foreign lands and regularly succumbing to mind numbing flattery, and yet perhaps a cooler place in hell is reserved for the author who cannot and will not speak. The lack of courage in the writers stasis, in their attachment to a privileged path and in their daily silent commitments, reveal a clinging to a smooth life that is the enemy of creation and the refusal to be afraid.
Álvaro Enrigue’s author, as he sits with his ‘sad little stories’ has chosen, by finally refusing to placate his much-loved son, to begin the decent into hell, born not just of his exile, not just of the departure of his wife and family, but through his mighty pen, its random scribblings bringing him face to face with what he cannot admit he sees. Throughout Hypothermia’s multiple protagonists, the author will casually lose his family, but register it as another of the natural disasters he has to deal with, he will struggle with the irreconcilable problem of feeling more American in his home town and more Mexican in his American town, he will languish in the ugliness of his American surroundings while using his judgement to maintain a faux separation and finally, just before he can see his own death as an author, he will recognise the dark side of a country blanketed in white.
By that time he had spent several days meditating on the spectacle of the snow and the purification ritual it performs in a society that believes itself born to rule by virtue of race. 
Hypothermia is, then a series of short stories, woven together loosely through the overall narrative described above. The Mexican born Enrigue lives in New York, one assumes his citizenry giving much weight to his descriptions of inter-nationality, experiences of isolation that result in a peculiar superiority that inevitably leads to shame. Of particular insight are his descriptions of this world, where one is a perpetual observer of nationality no matter where one lays their head, and despite the ensuing wit and international maturity one becomes a complex battle of comparisons that seem constantly to define by lack, or at least by what is absent. Absence is an important theme in Hypothermia, culminating in a self-imposed refusal of desire brought about by a much-loved but missing wife. It is this lifestyle, sought out to self punish as well as to resist slipping into the indulgent and impotent ease of the American suburbs that quietly makes its way to the fore in the stories, eventually to be replaced when it doesn’t lead to salvation.
He spent all his days off there: the sea is the place where we forgive ourselves for the marbles that slipped through our fingers without our understanding why.
To match this broadness of scope, Enrigue’s language, translated by Brendan Riley is equally as impossible to locate within a style or literary tradition, despite the writer being clearly master of them all. His words often create parallel worlds opposed ideas often orbiting a protagonist whose experience is elsewhere. The stories are sometimes fable, sometimes absurd, sometimes suspenseful events in and of themselves. Many change nature several times within the one story, sometimes coming to a neat or profound conclusion, and other times keeping an open-ended eye on something larger. Despite their cogency, they stand alone, mostly as beautifully apportioned little snippets of immigrant life filled with the wisdom of philosophical analysis wrapped up in the wit of a substantial writer who, despite the broad ambitions of his project, never tries to take himself too seriously. Strikingly, it is this lightness of touch that might be the key to his success, the weight of the Dante connections always hovering as a subtext rather than controlling the multiple texts in a laboured trajectory. The protagonists are all different men and the same men, their domestic arrangements are all different and yet all the same, their relationship to their environment all different and yet the same, their jobs all different and yet all the same, culminating in their journey into and out of hell all the same at different stages, each man a special kind of traitor, each man needing a special kind of redemption.
Sometimes writing is a job: obliquely tracing the path of certain ideas that seem indispensable to us, that we have to set down. But other times it’s a question of conceding what remains, accepting the museum and contemplating balance while awaiting death, asking forgiveness of the sea for whatever was fucked up. Placing our little boxes on the table and knowing that what came to an end was also the whole universe. 
Hypothermia is a delicate collection, one of those rich texts that will stand up to multiple readings. It is the first of Álvaro Enrigue’s six books to be translated into English and hopefully its successful reception results in more of his translated work. Brendan Riley has provided an elegant translation and given Enrigue’s works are already being heralded as among the best of Latin American writers we are (hopefully) bound to see more work in the near future as the English-speaking world continues its passion for Spanish and Portuguese writings. - Lisa Thatcher


“To justify my drinking I’ll begin some story: nothing literary, just a sad little story, to be followed by others like it. They’ll be stories about people who aren’t working through difficult questions or pathetic feelings; minor characters—people who’ve never visited Paris, people nobody cares about. Gringos, for example.”
A university professor takes shelter from an apocalyptic hurricane and stumbles into a crazed orgy. An electrician on assignment is interrupted by a disembodied female voice speaking seductively from the toilet. A rubbish collector transforms his truck into a pirate ship, an astrologer predicts a death that can only be averted through a pet cat, and a Mexican historian turned chef competes on a Swiss reality TV show in a city experiencing a mass suicide crisis. What’s not to love?
In these stories and others, Mexican author Alvaro Enrigue leads us on a wild, dizzying romp in Hypothermia, his first book translated into English. In this collection of linked short stories and brief vignettes, nothing is ever predictable or straightforward, as stories refuse to follow traditional plots and never end in tidy, clean-cut conclusions. It’s as thrilling to encounter writing this good and original as it is terrifying to be confronted with Enrigue’s grim, unflinching gaze towards 21st-century life and the immigrant experience.
Exile and displacement are arguably the collection’s key themes. At times the stories read like a self-help book for survival, or a handbook for (as one character memorably puts it) “how fucked life in the United States really is.” Enrigue’s writing is at its best when it provides one witheringly razor-sharp observation after another about life in “the gringo universe,” where “soccer is a sport for little girls,” “having children is more a self-indulgent whim than a real decision” and boxes of cereal are as large as suitcases.
Enrigue’s narrators struggle to cope with their self-imposed exile, which tends to be more out of choice rather than need, and are never able to escape from the fact that although Mexico is no longer home for them, they are never truly American either. At one point a narrator ruefully calls himself “a high class wet-back”; another finds solace in visiting the Washington D.C. zoo, where the animals remind him of himself, “safer and better fed than in the miserable forests where they’d been captured.”
One of the most cutting moments of the book occurs when a neighbor bluntly informs the narrator that he is no longer Mexican, now that he has American citizenship: “You’re Latino now. Slavery is none of your business and you’ve got nothing to say about it.” Enrigue’s depiction of the uncertainties and ambiguities that result from always being a foreigner, no matter where you are, is one of the collection’s most commendable strengths.
“Descending into the hazy light of Lima and seeing by day how much it resembled Mexico City, I had the dizzy feeling of a Spanish speaker who hears Portuguese for the first time: you feel like you should understand it but something is out of place; it’s your language and it’s not your language—a parallel reality. I was coming back to a place that seemed like home but just wasn’t.”
The impossibility of communication is another key theme that appears in these stories. In “White,” the narrator watches what might be the defining moment of his life as captured by his video camera, as though he is only able to comprehend its meaning if it’s filtered through technology.  In “On the Death of the Author,” arguably one the collection’s strongest pieces, the narrator struggles with the question of how to tell the story of the last survivor of an extinct indigenous tribe.
“There’s something in the tale,” he says, “—or inside me—that makes it elusive… the whole thing keeps slipping through my fingers like a fistful of marbles.” This appraisal serves as an accurate description of Enrigue’s writing itself: the essential meaning of the story is always elusive, but Enrigue is talented enough that the thematic links still add up to a comprehensible, undeniably powerful whole, without ever seeming forced or contrived. “Some stories,” the narrator says in the aforementioned story, “are impossible to tell,” and the question of how to speak of the unspeakable seems to be one of the primary concerns of Enrigue’s fiction.
In summary, if you’re a card-carrying member of the Bolaño or Borges fan club, then you’ll find plenty to savor in this book (as a bonus it even appears in the same font as Bolaño’s own short story collections). Ruthless and thrilling, hilarious and disturbing, this book stares death and the abyss straight in the face and refuses to offer any false comforts—only literature at its bravest and most uncompromising.
“Sometimes writing is a job: obliquely tracing the path of certain ideas that seem indispensable to us, that we have to set down. But other times it’s a question of conceding what remains, accepting the museum and contemplating the balance while awaiting death, asking forgiveness of the sea for whatever was fucked up.” -


Back when Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction came out, by far my favorite story in that collection was Alvaro Enrigue’s “On the Death of the Author.”
There is, however, one story in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction that does bear favorable comparison to Borges, or perhaps the more accurate reference is to the Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas. There are elements of both to be found in the playful, portentously named “On the Death of the Author” by Alvaro Enrigue. Enrigue is such a talented writer that he manages to describe, from within his own story, exactly what makes his story superlative, and he pulls this off without making the inclusion seem the least bit strained:
There is a story, and a very good one at that, told by Bernardo Atxaga. He says that one day, as he walked through a town in his native Basque country, all of a sudden he came upon a man by a door with a hole in it. He chatted with the old man for a spell and then the man asked, Did he know why there was a hole in the door? Atxaga answered, It would be for the cat. No, said the man. They made it years ago, in order to feed a boy who, having been bitten by a dog, had turned into a dog.
The stories I like, the ones that make me wildly jealous and yearn to be able to write that well, have the bedazzling logic of that old Basque: they lack a piece, and this lack transforms them into a myth, appealing to the lowest common denominator that makes us all more or less equal.
“On the Death of the Author” lacks a piece; in fact, it lacks about four or five pieces, as there are four or five “mythical” sub-stories found within this work. Impressively, Enrigue manages to join these sub-stories together with thematic and particular links that make the entire piece come together as a deeply mysterious yet quite comprehensible whole.
Dalkey Archive has just released Enrique’s Hypothermia, about which I’ve heard some incredible things in the Spanish-language press. - Scott Esposito
Álvaro Enrigue's story collection Hypothermia explores identity and isolation through the eyes of garbage collectors, professors, and outcasts. It's also loosely based on Dante's Inferno. Enrigue picked 10 books that took inspiration from books that came before them.


Álvaroo Enrigue was born in Mexico in 1969. He is an essayist, critic, professor, and the author of several novels and short story collections. His first novel La muerte de un instalador won the 1996 Joaquin Mortiz Prize. In 2007, the "Bogota39" project named him one of the most promising Latin American writers of his generation.

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