Order on the Court

The game of what is now called “real tennis” was arguably the first modern sport to be played on a standardized court rather than in the messy topography of the real world. It was the first sport to require special shoes, and its baroque rules, written down in the sixteenth century, were codified alongside those of empire. It is still played on a court that mimics the architectural idiosyncrasies of some now-lost courtly ur-space, with sloping roofs and a formal gallery. In interviews, Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue has described the establishment of the rules of tennis as a kind of ludic mapping, equivalent to other projects of New World cartography. A game of tennis—and a violent one—gives shape to Sudden Death, Enrigue’s eighth book, but only his second to appear in English, skillfully translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer. The book describes, among many other things, a duel-like game between the painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Their match, which probably never happened, is in any case an event of slight historical significance that comes to bear far greater symbolic weight.

Hypothermia, the first of Enrigue’s books to be translated into English, was not quite a novel but not quite not one either—a series of bizarre tales about exile, desire, faith, and displacement, told by an ironizing, disinterested narrator who resembled the author. Sudden Death is similarly fragmentary: composed of stories, quotations, and anecdotes, some set in the past and some contemporary, all held together by a tricky narrative presence that is both intimately conversational and curiously hard to pin down. It reads like a metafictional, freewheeling therapy session on the legacies of colonialism, imperial ambition, and modernity. It’s also a love story (Caravaggio has a gay lover, a mathematician who believes that “in terms of texture and pressure there was little difference between the cunt of a sheep and the ass of the greatest artist of all time”), and a story about the constraining nature of the rules of love.

One part of the narrative recounts Hernán Cortés’s horrific subjugation of the Aztecs before and during the siege of Tenochtitlán in 1521, and the fractured sense of national identity that emerged afterward. “We Mexicans aren’t descendants of the Mexicas,” the narrator of Sudden Death notes, “but of the nations that joined with Cortés to overthrow them. We’re a country whose name is the product of nostalgia and guilt.” According to this narrator, the conquest was the beginning of a process that culminated in Spain’s taking possession of the Philippines in 1565, at which point “the world at last became round as a tennis ball.” Empire is, after all, a way of shrinking the globe, imposing your own set of rules on it. “The tennis match,” Enrigue has said in a conversation with the novelist Teju Cole, “is just a synecdoche of the enormous, brutal confrontations that gave birth to the world we live in: Spain versus England, of course, but America versus Europe too.” As he has argued elsewhere, the period that spanned the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries “was when the rules were laid down for the game we’re still playing, when it became clear that the flow of objects and customs was truly global.”

In one sense, this is a book about flogging a metaphor to death, about the various ways in which the game of tennis can come to stand for so many other things: games of state, games of love, even the knockabout e-mail exchanges between Enrigue and one of his (perhaps fictitious) editors, which are quoted verbatim. Enrigue’s narrator is forever scuttling off to the library to clarify facts, directly addressing his readers. “As I write, I don’t know what this book is about,” he tells us at one point. “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.” Like the tennis court, fiction can be both a constrained and a constraining space, the rules of which feel entirely arbitrary. At times, Enrigue teasingly suggests that the only debt a novel has is to its own internal coherence. “A game that is played in a novel,” his narrator insists, “has everything to do with that novel and nothing to do with reality.” In less able hands, this could all feel a bit labored, but in Sudden Death the postmodernist flourishes are never mere gimmicks. They are suited to their subject, reflecting and revealing the games and tricks of empires and of the histories they construct to justify themselves.

It also helps that the style is efficient, compressed. In one passage, Caravaggio carries a new painting across a public square:

The people at the doors of the church—the sacristan, the acolytes, the priests—must have watched the painting go by in as much of a fright as those seeing a movie projected on a wall for the first time, or with the slack-jawed fascination with which my son and I witnessed the early rollout of a high-definition television in an electronics store.

The historical narrative is interrupted by a personal memory, suggesting a Vico-like equivalence between the past and the present (in its interest in the idea of novelty in art and media, and in its tone, the book is sometimes reminiscent of the virtuosic art-historical essays that make up part of Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters).

Page from Guillaume de la Perrière’s Le Théâtre de bons engins (The Theatre of Fine Devices), 1539. Wikicommons

Sudden Death is full of claims to authenticity that are almost immediately undermined. The central encounter on the court is based on a kernel of historical fact: Caravaggio was a keen tennis player, and was exiled from Rome in 1606 after stabbing Ranuccio Tomassoni to death, supposedly over a match. He spent the next few years imagining his own decapitation on canvas and sending paintings to the Pope in the hope of a reprieve. But there’s no evidence that he ever played Quevedo. While historical novels, in particular, are often forced to conform to the rules laid down by reality, straining to squeeze their imagined events into the existing gaps in historical knowledge, Sudden Death prospers by going against the known facts. Credible counter-histories are created on every page, and as Enrigue has cheerfully admitted, many of the quotations that pepper the book are similarly fabricated, or at any rate modified. In an interview, he has called this tweaking of the historical record “a normal procedure in contemporary art, and a technique authorised by Borges.” Indeed, at times this seems more like a schema for a historical novel than a historical novel proper—rather like one of Borges’s proto- or anti-stories, which present themselves merely as recipes for creating other works of fiction.

If fiction-making often occupies the foreground here, it’s because the fabrication of history is one of Enrigue’s major themes. In colonizing, colonists inevitably seize control of national narratives and superimpose their own stories. And revolutions in art can also be world-forming. With his paintings, Caravaggio ushered in a form of modernity just as surely, Enrigue suggests, as did Cortés. By painting quickly and directly onto the canvas instead of making preliminary sketches, and by depicting biblical scenes in ways that now strike us as unmistakably modern—he used prostitutes as models in order to paint from life rather than from the imagination—he made a devotional art that was base, material, of the body, and contributed to the construction of the New World. How that world, and thus our own, was made—intellectually as well as physically—is what interests Enrigue. Sudden Death, the narrator notes, “doesn’t aspire to accurately represent that time, but does want to present it as a theory about the world we live in today.”

For the sociologist Max Weber, modernity began with the Reformation, in that moment when the magic of transubstantiation was undermined by rationalism and knowability: when the map came to dominate the territory. “The fate of our times,” Weber wrote in his 1919 essay “Science as a Vocation,” “is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’” Enrigue is not so sure. One of Sudden Death’s most engaging subplots reads like a magical-realist retelling of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, recounting the story of Jean Rombaud, celebrity executioner of Anne Boleyn. In Enrigue’s version, after the execution, Rombaud asks not for money but for Boleyn’s “darksome braids,” which he has made into tennis balls. In their turn, these balls become fetish objects in the great game of state: They’re exchanged for sinecures, used to barter for noble positions and marriages. The novel, as the narrator says, is a “machine for understanding the world, or the ways in which we name the world,” and this one keenly understands the role that relics, lit with phony auratic significance, have to play in the exercise of power, even in an age of supposed disenchantment. With modernity, Weber concluded, we had been robbed of our gods. Here Enrigue agrees, but he suggests that those gods have been replaced with stories that contain equally powerful injunctions to believe: “A world without gods is a world in history,” he writes, and history “is written to make us believe that A leads to B and therefore progresses logically.” Both history and “stories like this one” offer “the consolation of order.” These secular stories have just as much in common with myth as religion does, and just as much potentially threatening power. A map, or a national identity, or a language—each is its own game and its own kind of fiction.

Jon Day is a 2016 Man Booker Prize judge.