Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I first met Álvaro Enrigue at that notoriously inhumane collection of book-people known as BookExpo America. It was 2013. Four years before, I had written a review of the anthology Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, which included Enrigue’s story “On the Death of the Author,” his debut in English. I daresay I was the first American critic to write about him; if not the first, one of a handful. As this smiling man strode up to me in that clusterfuck of commerce, I barely remembered that review. But no sooner did Álvaro grab my hand and pump it up and down than he sang my praises for the words I had given to his story. As we went on to make awkward small talk, it became clear that this opening gratitude was no calculated act—he was genuinely thankful, and he could think of no other way of beginning our very first interaction than by letting me know.
In the years since that meeting, Enrigue’s profile in English has risen. Hypothermia—an excellent book from which “On the Death of the Author” is drawn—was released that spring and became an underground hit. Later that year, he received the immensely prestigious Herralde Prize for his unpublished novel Muerte súbita, which, before it even had a Spanish-language publisher, was already drawing the attentions of major US presses. That book is now published as Sudden Death in an outstanding translation by Natasha Wimmer. It is a suitably strange, light-footed but historically weighty construction that centers around a fake tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo. From this central conceit, Enrigue expands the frame to take in the immense canvas of Counter-Reformation Europe and Cortés’s New World. It is a brilliant synthesis of art, history, religion, power politics, and—yes—tennis, a complex study of our world via the world that gave birth to modernity. It is much like an American postmodern book, except it is very different from, say, a Pynchon or a DeLillo since it is carried along by Álvaro’s very Mexican wit and sensibility, as well as his own intuitive logic. His books are at once morbid and celebratory, somber and slapstick, historic and very much about the present. Precisely how Álvaro reconciles these opposites indicates his unique contribution to our world of letters.
Scott Esposito I want to begin with your novel Sudden Death, your latest book in both Spanish and English, and the one that most people who read this interview will associate you with. It’s very much about the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo, but it’s also about their era, an era that transformed Europe and the New World and instigated what we would call the modern world. I see two main threads in this book: the capital H History that is ruled by the elites and shapes the world we live in, and then the lives of artists, who are legislators in their own right. Let’s start with the artists. What about Caravaggio and Quevedo made you want to explore a relationship between them through a tennis match?
Álvaro Enrigue For years I wanted to write a book not about Caravaggio but with Caravaggio. I thought that the fluidity of his sexuality, his faith in process as an artist, and his incredible ability to get in trouble had something to say about the world we live in, of which he was kind of a pioneer. There are many fascinating things about his life: He was Galileo’s friend, he was a murderer, and he dressed like a charro avant la lettre (that is, a Mexican cowboy). Legend states that his sword said “Without hope” on one side and “Without fear” on the other. When he finally got a commission for a painting for Saint Peter’s Basilica, he used a really vulgar old woman as a model for St. Anne (the painting never did make it to Saint Peter, of course). But I have no interest in historical novels; I didn’t want to represent a period and a character, but rather reflect, in a narrative key, on the first moderns, our true ancestors. So I needed to find a way to talk about Caravaggio—maybe with him—that was not a period portrait in a famous set. While circling these ideas I revisited a biography of his and noted a detail that I had previously missed: before stardom and celebrity, he used to play professional tennis at the Piazza Navona. He actually played pallacorda, an Italian antecedent to the modern game, to earn some extra cash. Showing him as a tennis player, I thought, would let me focus the novel as a study of his figure outside the box of Caravaggio-esque topics.
A novel researches something that was previously not visible. Now we know things about Caravaggio that maybe not even he himself knew—in the period in which he used to hang out with Galileo, the astronomer was just a math professor, no one knew that he would become a radical revolutionary, for example. There were things to say about that, about how liberal the people of the Baroque period were, and so on.
SE So Caravaggio and Francisco de Quevedo made up this rich binary to investigate the period?
ÁE Such a monster as Caravaggio could only play tennis—in a novel, I mean—against another monster, and Francisco de Quevedo had a comparable CV, at least in my heart. He was the most toxic poet to ever exist—the master of the erotic sonnet—the most credible and mean-spirited critic of the Spanish society of his time, a man who defended Catholicism as an ideological tool to keep the empire together when he was obviously an atheist, the translator of Moore’s Utopia, a fearsome swordsman, and, for a time, a pirate of the Adriatic. A moralist with no morals, who could be a better match for Caravaggio? The sensual beast could only show himself honestly if confronting that incendiary brain with legs that was Quevedo. As it must be clear by now, the tennis match is only what holds the book together, a silly anecdote that can be extended in time; it’s there to keep the tempo.
SE The way you chose to create Caravaggio’s relationship with Quevado is very successful: the men express their differences through a tennis match, with each one’s particular style of play reflecting his unique character traits. The ways they swing their racquets, the ways they try to cheat, their serves, their interactions with the linemen and their paisanos, the shots they attempt, their failures … all slowly coalesce into identities. And as the game is seesawing back and forth, you begin to fill in the story of how the two met the night before, and the resulting combustive encounter that gave rise to this tennis match, which is in fact a duel. This athletic negotiation is very much about power, just as the other relationships in the book—between the kings and conquistadors and popes—are also about battling over power. Do these conflicts have something to say about how these men are modern?
ÁE It comes down to where you want to draw the line of modernity: the debate is so wide and has existed for so long that it is almost a personal decision. I have a preference for a term used by academics to define those seventeenth-century braves who threw themselves onto the train of obsessive innovation: “early moderns.” It’s lovely, as the idea of modernity involves the faint smell of decadence; the notion of something newly born yet already rotting is elegant—and maybe it’s precise in political terms, since it is in this period that things went wrong forever. But I tend to prefer definitions that are a bit more extreme: Lyotard says that modernity began the moment that Saint Paul projected history as a line and not a circle, as something with a beginning and an end.
There is something “Pauline” and apocalyptic in the way Caravaggio kept moving forward, destroying the tradition of Catholic art and himself in the process. His was a desperate effort to give testimony of a world that, according to the creed of Counter-Reformation, had been misrepresented. My novel, then, begins closed up in the pallacorda match. Quevedo is nineteen years old—or something like that—and he is there, in the service area of the tennis court at the Piazza Navona, trying to understand this creature on the other side of the net, at the same time unbelievably sophisticated and unacceptably vulgar—as are we, keeping our records of Miles Davis and The Clash in the same box. I don’t have to say that Quevedo’s fascination with the monster is mine. The game is told not from his point of view but perhaps from the perspective of someone who is just behind his shoulders, someone who has accepted his poems’ poisonous advice. Then the picture opens, first to Rome, and then to Europe. When the players change courts, the point of view changes. Now the reader looks at Quevedo and his friends, and imperial Spain and the Americas behind them.
During the hour and a half in which they are playing, the court is the center of the world. A world that had become so big and confusing that it began to demand bigger tools to be understood—Galileo’s theories renewing the way in which reality was organized, and Baroque art too, as a desperate way of representing a universe in perpetual change, or sonnets as the ultimate tools to understand the human soul’s contradictory nature. The modern novel was about to be invented by Cervantes, as a machine to think about what is and what is not moral in a universe that didn’t fit in the Bible anymore. Sudden Death is a novel—we are still there. We are the children of that generation, chasing again and again the volleys of religious fanatics and the abusive politicians who prosper thanks to them, the bankers and capitalists cashing in on the misery they produce in the rest of the world. Sudden Death is not about Caravaggio, Quevedo, and their world, but ours.
SE Indeed, and it’s fitting that a Mexican and an American are having this conversation, as Sudden Death is very much about what parts of Europe were transported to the New World. Your country and mine are both the products of foundational compromises. In the case of Mexico, the people living there when Cortés arrived were massacred and then forced to assimilate into a facsimile of the European political order circa 1600. But of course this did not happen exactly, and Mexico is now known as a challenging union of the indigenous and the European. Similarly, the US’s founding was an attempt to combine two incompatible systems: a feudal, aristocratic order based on slave labor, and an incipient capitalism that tended toward the opposite of feudalism in nearly all possible ways. In both nations the original questions persist to this day, causing great struggles, but I would say that these contradictions are also the source of a certain dynamism. Do art and literature require these historical conflicts? Is the image of Caravaggio and Quevedo—a lowly painter and a poet on the run from his king—volleying back and forth a tennis ball that is in fact a product of the power struggles between the rulers of two European empires … is this image perhaps a metaphor for the artist’s task?
ÁE Clever! The structure of the novel is binary, as defense and attack movements. It is a novel about how the classic value of Roman virility ended up fucking up the world when misunderstood by the kings and emperors of the seventeenth century. The Baroque can be seen as a failed attempt to re-Latinize Europe. Quevedo’s writing is absolutely sexy because he achieved that impossible task: to make Castilian sound like Latin again. It’s a novel that should be read moving your head from one side to the other. A book that shows not el gran teatro del mundo, as the passengers of the Baroque used to call it (the world as a great theater), but the world as a great court. So the heart of the novel is not in the stories told but in the way in which pairs of opposites add up over and over, resignifying what was told before. It’s all about the dynamics of confrontation, to reuse your words. England vs. the Vatican, Spain vs. France, the Aztecs vs. the Holy Roman Empire, and of course heterodox vs. conservative sexualities, poets vs. painters, Mannerism vs. Baroque, revolutionary artists vs. the system, etcetera. At the end, because I have the heart where I have the heart, the only unblemished character is the Aztec artist—as he is left without anything, he has to reinvent the world, he is the only one who integrates instead of destroying, the only one who thinks with his “upper head.”
If I remember well, when I was writing about all those balls and beheadings, I was thinking more of the notion of castration than of the artist’s task. Quevedo, Caravaggio, and Cortés will eventually be raped by politicians with power over them, but, at a certain temporal or geographical distance. The rebels are the ones with the power of fertility in their hands. I’m not saying that Cortés was an artist—he was guilty of genocide—but what a world he produced in his short yet brilliant moment, the brief period portrayed in the novel when he was thinking of annexing the Mexican Empire to the Holy Roman one and not erasing it.
SE This makes me wonder how responses to your work may differ based on the reader’s nationality. Your strange book Hypothermia reached English-language readers in 2013, and deals explicitly with the lines between US and Latin American cultures (in particular Mexican culture), a sort of hybrid story collection/novel. How did the reception of this book differ in each sphere?
ÁE In Spanish Hypothermia is undoubtedly a novel, and in English it is very clearly a short-story volume, though it’s exactly the same book. I worked line by line with the translator and the editor to make sure it was. It’s so mysterious that I cannot add anything else—as though if in one language you were a mammal and in the other one a fish.
SE This strikes deep to the heart of your writing. Your books defy easy categorization because the logic of what makes them a unified whole can be tricky to discern. They have a strong unity, but is it the unity of a short-story collection, a poem, an essay, a novel, or some indistinct category on the borders of these groups? This is much harder to say. Do you feel that perhaps now such books are becoming more acceptable as mainstream fiction, without any modifiers like “postmodern”?
ÁE A writer worried about reception while writing is cooking a dead book, don’t you think? A writer’s job is to produce the best possible book in absolute freedom, so the category “acceptable” does not play in this process, at all.
I don’t want to read a book that I can accept; I want to read a novel that challenges me. As Valeria [Luiselli] said about the novels of László Krasznahorkai: they teach us how to read again. A good literary book is the book and its instructions. It lives, and has always lived, in a different timeline. Susan Sontag’s work was never acceptable, it demanded a general switch of your perspectives, but she wrote a bunch of damned good books that we will keep rereading because we can never understand them completely—we’re always being outsmarted.
SE I’m surprised to see that many of the details I had imagined you wholly invented about Caravaggio are actually backed by the historical record. I suppose the case is much the same for all the characters in Sudden Death. It’s interesting, what you say about having no interest in writing historical novels. I would not call Sudden Death a “historical novel,” nor would I use the term to describe your other fictions that engage historical incidents. But many of the scenes in this book seem to have a certain historical truth to them, an atmosphere, an emotional authenticity. What aspects of history do you seek to portray in your fictions?
ÁE What I care about is not the historical incidents of a period but the space between the reader and the book, in which those incidents become a meditation on the way we do things in the present.
I come from a country torn apart by a civil war that the world’s political and financial elites insist on defining as a police problem. Mexico has been suffering, for almost a decade, the insurrection of a group of bloody capitalist insurgents fighting for their right to sell drugs. No one wants to define the liberal dystopia for what it is because it shows the cracks in the system. Like all Mexicans, I am traumatized by the war, I can’t think of anything else than what is destroying a country deliriously beautiful and generous, the country that gave me everything I have: a language, a serious education, great tolerance for difference, and a love for diversity and inclusion, health, my children.
To ask what went wrong via fiction by researching stories about narcos and cops, politicians and bankers, Mexicans and gringos, would defeat the purpose, because I don’t care about those parts of the problem, I care about its roots: Where does our greed come from as an essential cultural feature? What is the origin of systemic violence and the intense beauty of our resistance? The role of the novelist is to say that A is like B, not that A is like A. That’s why I don’t think of Sudden Death as a historical novel. It was never meant to represent the past but to research the present. It is a non-bullshit novel even when it’s fiction.
SE The European thread of Sudden Death very much centers around the Council of Trent, the meeting of holy men that initiated the Counter-Reformation, which you say “annihilated the Renaissance.” It was a major turning point for Europe, in all ways imaginable. Where does the New World fit into this, absorbing the currents of European modernity but also somewhat insulated from the Council?
ÁE We are running the risk here of turning this conversation into a graduate seminar, so I will not go too deep. That said, to think about this problem one has to get out of the box of the monolithic Anglo-Protestant negative take on the Counter-Reformation. Remember that Trent ended in a tie: the early Jansenists thought that human destiny was in the hands of God and the Jesuits thought that the human soul had free will. To end the discussion and move forward and write the Catechism—an urgent civil code of sorts for all Catholics, including the mysterious just-conquered Americans—Pius IV declared that everybody was right. Both visions are still at odds in the Vatican: that’s why Pope Francis, a Jesuit from the Americas, is in this fun death match against the Roman Curia about subjects such as the definition of family or the possibility of being both gay (or divorced) and part of the Church at the same time. The results of Trent were brutal for Europe, but the Americas became a space where the more radical ideas coming out of the Council were experimented with and reconciled, sometimes with great results.
SE You write about some of these people, namely Fray Juan de Zumárraga and Vasco de Quiroga.
ÁE Right, among the pairs of opposites fighting in this novel are Fray Juan de Zumárraga, first archbishop of Mexico and a conservative lunatic, and the dazzling revolutionary Vasco de Quiroga, who was the first bishop of Michoacán and a genius of inclusion and egalitarianism. He was invited to Trent, but he arrived a bit late (a foundational moment for Mexican punctuality). They both were ideological enemies and great friends. There’s a page in the novel in which the narrator speaks about the copy of Thomas Moore’s Utopia kept in the library of the University of Texas at Austin. It was Zumárraga’s copy and has handwritten notes by him and his friend Vasco de Quiroga. It’s like an x-ray of the future: the utopian Mexico loved by the Beats and the bloody Mexico loved by the correspondents of the New York Times are there in their entirety, in eternal conflict. And I have sad news for you: Mexico is the childhood of the whole continental Americas, man. Zumárraga’s copy of Utopia is one of the most beautiful and moving objects you can hold in your hands: the whole spirit of the Counter-Reformation rests in those contradictory notes. There, you have everything that the Americas would become; it’s the seed from which we all come, History’s womb.
SE That beautiful image brings to mind something you write in Sudden Death: that sometimes history throws us a bone. That’s a good introduction to the many unique artifacts sprinkled throughout the book that take on particular importance in the context of the narrative and, in fact, seem to have narratives of their own. Are there particular objects that have a talismanic importance for you?
ÁE I have a baseball on my desk, earned the hard way: it came to me as a fly ball batted by Melvin Mora at Camden Yards. I play with it in my hands when I’m writing. For a while it was a baseball in lieu of a cigarette. Eventually I returned to reason and cigarettes, but I still play with it when working.
SE The tennis ball in Sudden Death reminds me of the baseball Don DeLillo makes central to his novel Underworld: the baseball Bobby Thomson hit into the stands to make the so-called Shot Heard ‘Round the World to win the 1951 National League pennant. In Underworld, this baseball becomes an almost mythic, impossible-to-find piece of history that stands in for submerged currents of history. Your narrator says that three of the four Boleyn tennis balls exist on display in the NYPL, but that the fourth, presumably Caravaggio and Quevedo’s, doesn’t. What of the history that is not recorded, that is lost to us forever?
ÁE As unbelievable as this may sound to you, you are the first person to note that the Boleyn tennis ball is in conversation with DeLillo’s Bobby Thomson baseball. I would not be whatever kind of writer I am if I had not discovered DeLillo as a young reader. Reading Libra was a turning point for me: No mames! You can do this with a novel! Translation saves souls. My respect and admiration for his work is such that I even stop at the DeLillo Pastry Shop every time I walk past it in the Bronx—I have no idea if it belongs to his family or not, but in my fantasies it does, and I don’t want them ruined. And yes: Sudden Death is full of those “what if” pages: What if Quiroga’s and not Zumárraga’s vision had prevailed and the Conquest of the rest of the Americas had been an inclusive and not a genocidal project? What if the Baroque understanding of sexuality and family as fluid territories had prevailed over the ideas of the damned Talibans of the Roman Curia who are still there, ruining the lives of millions of people? I’m excommunicated, man; it’s not fair. What if Zumárraga had not burned all the Aztec doctors and their books? Contraceptives would have been invented in 1569 and the feminist revolution would have happened in 1573—there would be female Shakespeares and Cervantes and Mozarts. We lost half of it all because the archbishop was an ass. A novel is, too, a machine to preview possible, better futures, and a novelist has the right to be a prophet looking backwards.
SE What was it exactly about Libra that amazed you?
ÁE The idea that a novel wagers all on the organization of its pieces more than in the virtuosity of the author’s voice. This may be obvious to you, but it wasn’t for me in the early ’90s. I belong to a generation of Latin Americans that grew up reading almost exclusively Latin American literature.
Let me make a DeLillian detour to make my answer clear. My generational reading habits were ruled by Cold War practices. It’s hard to believe, but no Latin American was considered a world-class writer before 1959. For the generation of Vargas Llosa or Sergio Pitol—that is the same as Pynchon’s and DeLillo’s—great literature was something that came from the exterior and in translation. So in the ’70s and ’80s there was a reaction, supported by fashionable Marxist education theories, and we went all the way to the other side. Back then to read an author in translation was considered almost a gesture of collaboration with the foreign empires (which were all mean except the Soviet one, so reading Russians was okay; mainly the classics).
Those books from the period of the Boom worked exactly the opposite way of Libra: what would produce the knockout was the author’s virtuoso voice, not the mechanism that made the book work. Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch is an extreme example: he is an author with such a strong voice that you can read the book in any order you want.
Then came this American named Don DeLillo, just a few years younger than the Latin American superstars—I read him in Spanish translation at the recommendation of a very young Francisco Goldman—who did the exact opposite thing. In Libra it is the delicate equilibrium between the parts of the book that produces meaning, not the vigor of the author’s voice. What is crafted meticulously is the form, not the style.
It was a revelation: a novel that worked because it was a fragile mechanism and not a dense one, a novel made of light and air, with no opaque corners; a novel in which what was important was the novel and not its author’s genius, in which what mattered was inside and not outside the book.
Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden, the new British and American writing of that period—or new for us who were receiving the first translations in the early ’90s—ended up representing a huge liberation for me.
Later, and maybe thanks to the effect of those foreign readings, I discovered that there were writers of the same kind in Latin America—Antonio di Benedetto, Clarice Lispector, and Reinaldo Arenas—and, in Mexico, Elena Poniatowska, Margo Glantz, and Sergio Pitol. You just had to be a better reader to find them.
SE How do you feel about Natasha Wimmer’s work on Sudden Death?
ÁE I knew Natasha Wimmer’s rendering of Bolaño’s The Savage Detectiveswell because I had worked with it and the original with my students at Princeton, so when I heard that she had accepted doing Sudden Death I could not have been happier. Then I saw her work. Man! I can tell you that in the final stages of the editing I had to stop a second and wonder if I was reading her or myself. The way she got the respiration of my Spanish, the very complex language games—Mexican Spanish is full of expressions with a double sense that are used in both senses at the same time—and the not-always-rational way in which I use adjectives. There is this Aztec prince—the feather artist—who speaks really bad Spanish not out of ignorance but out of arrogance, and she even nailed that.
SE I know you have a love of Mexican slang, but the Spanish edition of Sudden Death does not include many of Mexican Spanish’s most characteristic words, for instance órale or chingar (which one might expect to see in a book with La Malinche as a character). Did you make a conscious decision to write in a particular register of Spanish?
ÁE When writing, I find slang a bit limiting and feel a discomfort when I read authors who cash in on it, who make a performance out of a nationality. I am never for overacting nationalities. In fact, if something demands the adjective “national,” it makes me immediately nervous: there’s never national love, it’s always national security. I write in an international Spanish, with a certain flavor—the Spanish of Mexico is so fun that ignoring it completely would be foolish. Chingar, for example, means, depending on the context, “to fuck,” “to bully,” “to steal,” “to win,” “to work hard,” and “to be in a hurry.” If you apply the verb wisely, you can have very fun results—I always use it to denote how out of place being Mexican makes you feel, even in Mexico—but if you use it to describe actual actions, you lose precision. In terms of more structural matters, I don’t think that I could write in a more Mexican way. The sense of humor, for example: the only jokes I find interesting to make are tasteless jokes.
SE This sense of humor is one of the things that makes your prose distinct. You really push the line of good taste, so I have to ask: When you’re writing do you ever have to pull back and say, “No, this is too tasteless, even for me”?
ÁE Not as frequently as my parents would like me to. Or maybe never at all. The procedure is exactly the contrary: How far can this go? If you can write a novel in which Galileo has great gay sex, why would you rather not do it? I can’t understand why no one had written a novel in which Caravaggio and Galileo, who were friends and neighbors, had some fun in the Baroque way.
Scott Esposito is the coauthor of The End of Oulipo? His latest book, The Surrender, publishes in March. He is currently working on a book on film, and his essays have recently appeared in The Point, The White Review, and Music & Literature, among others.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.