Five hundred years before Bordo Poniente began to fester and swell, Mexico City was Tenochtitlan, the center of the Aztec Empire, whose economy was based on a trade and barter system that necessarily prized objects. Beyond their trade value, the materials of this universe, in the words of Álvaro Enrigue’s sublime new novel, Sudden Death, “undulat[ed] with the breath of the gods who, silent and indifferent […] weave the threads of the tapestry that cradles us.” Imagine an inhabitant of Tenochtitlan, still attuned to the breath of those gods, seeing the unfathomable waste of Bordo Poniente on his doorstep.
This gulf between then and now is at the heart of Sudden Death, though the novel takes place entirely in the 16th century, the days of the Counter-Reformation and the “discovery” of Mexico. Pre-Hispanic Mexico was no paradise: the Aztec Empire was a bloodthirsty regime with frequent human sacrifices. Violence was not new to the continent five centuries ago, but the conquistadors brought with them a new form of violence: an incapacity for reverence, a refusal to acknowledge the breath of those silent and indifferent gods. The author, who now lives in New York, recently told The New York Times: “I work with history because I come from a country that has a tremendous thirst for reality. It is desperate to understand what the hell happened in recent years.” The question of what the hell has happened takes Enrigue to tennis courts and royal courts, papal residences and the private quarters of conquistadors. There’s no trash dump in sight, but Bordo Poniente is relevant: this is a novel about the import of rapacious materialism to the so-called New World.
Among the novel’s dazzlingly vivid scenes, in a dazzlingly vivid translation by tastemaker and Roberto Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmer, is the first meeting between conquistador Hernán Cortés and the emissaries of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. The Aztecs heap priceless gifts on the Spanish in exchange for their immediate departure; Cortés accepts, gives cheap crap in return, and — as the history books tell us — stays. Among the gifts is a brown coverlet, embroidered with butterflies, corn plants, snails, rivers, squash: “[A] cluttered and mysterious tale constructed in shades of brown.” Deciding that this cloth can’t be worth much, he has one of his soldiers take it to his quarters — which first requires him to have quarters built in the New World, natch. He uses the sheet to pad his hammock, fucks his native sex slave–cum-wife La Malinche on top of it, then pulls it over himself while he sleeps and slobbers. La Malinche is frozen beneath it, overwhelmed by the value of this precious king’s mantle. Not until she manages to liberate it from the bed and hang it up in candlelight does Cortés see that:
The finely worked stuff that he had so admired, and that had made him decide to keep the mantle, was glowing. The birds soared, shining as if with a light of their own, the rays leading back to the sun traced on the mantle; the butterflies were each of a different color; the ears of corn seemed to rustle in the breeze at the twinkling of the candle stub; what had looked like squash were the faces of men and women, mixed in their perfect earthiness with plants, snails, and animals that he had never even noticed before. Fish undulated underwater.
Sudden Death does nothing less than deconstruct and reimagine the origin story of the modern world, and it does so in a way that allows history to breathe and shimmer and shift much like this mantle. Enrigue manages this — and in just 250 pages — through a mastery of distillation that invests objects and people with so much historical and political meaning that they come to have the gravitational pull of planets. These objects, much more than plot, thread this tapestry together, and this stroke of structural genius also enacts Enrigue’s own capacity for reverence. The novel itself is a rejection of the rapaciousness of Mexico’s conquistadors.
As such, Sudden Death is best summarized via inventory rather than plot. It orbits a (joyously real) tennis match — in fact a game of pallacorda, a precursor to tennis — played in 1599 between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. That game is played with a ball (unfortunately fictional) stuffed with Anne Boleyn’s hair, which is supplied by Caravaggio; before arriving in the hands that changed art, the ball has taken a 70-year journey through the possession of two popes and a king, plus some lowlier schemers. This mere ball is the distillation of all the violence of the Counter-Reformation.
Quevedo brings his own talisman to the court: a scapular made of the hair of the Aztec emperor Cuauhtémoc, commissioned by Hernán Cortés after he orders the emperor’s death following long imprisonment and torture. The scapular comes to Quevedo via his linesman, the Duke of Osuna, whose wife is none other than Cortés’s granddaughter. This bizarre, captivating object — whose beauty catches the magpie Caravaggio’s eye — contains all the arbitrary atrocity of the conquest of the New World.
The novel’s characters are distillations too, but only in the way that history has distilled power into rare individuals. Enrigue finds history’s pivotal people and moments and then boils them down even further, offering exquisite scenes in which the stakes are almost inconceivably high. These are “[g]igantic individuals facing off. All fucking, getting drunk, gambling in the void.” Also present at the tennis match is Caravaggio’s pal Galileo — not someone one would want as an opponent’s linesman. Elsewhere, Caravaggio and his rabble lug The Calling of Saint Matthew across a piazza to the sacristy of San Luigi dei Francesi. The novel provides intimate conversations between Pope Pius IV, the architect of the Counter-Reformation Saint Carlo Borromeo, and Felice Peretti di Montalto, who would become Pope Sixtus V. Hernán Cortés docks in the New World after a rough journey, and the now-legendary La Malinche mistranslates local requests to leave, because she doesn’t much fancy going back where she came from.
If Sudden Death is an attempt to understand the way things are in Mexico today, alongside or perhaps resulting from the import of this rapacious materialism, another explanation screams for attention. Of the demise of the Aztec Empire, Enrigue writes, “For once, history was just: a particularly bloody realm reduced to a single barge. Though that didn’t mean the good guys had won. The good guys never win.” Later, the narrator-author admits, “I don’t know what this book is about. I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win.” This confession becomes a refrain, in a book full of sex-addict priests who fuck children for sport, of “thieving priests who obscenely swelled their coffers with the tithing and alms of the poor all over the world” — “Priests Who Were Swine,” per one chapter’s title, and statesmen and conquistadors who are swine, too, and these swine live fine, voluptuous lives on the victorious side of history. To a Mexican citizen in exile, trying to figure out what the hell has happened in recent years, history easily might look like one long losing battle.
That is also what the game of pallacorda looks like from Quevedo’s point of view for much of the novel. Did you know that Caravaggio was a tremendously, brutally skilled tennis player? The competition between these two giants not only is the novel’s narrative core but also sets up an antagonistic mode in which people and cultures only exist in opposition to one another. The tennis match’s one-upmanship reverberates through a hilarious email tussle between Enrigue and his Spanish editor (included in the novel), as well as in the clashes between the popes and cardinals of the Counter-Reformation and between conquistadors and natives. Tennis isn’t the story of the novel, then, so much as its mode.
And so the world is one long struggle, and the bad guy always wins and steals the spoils. Yet, we have this novel, a work so beautiful that it might take your breath away. In Enrigue’s words: “Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys have the advantage and that is too much to bear.” Later, he reminds us: “[T]hose who die in combat [are saved] — this novel is the combat.”
Whether a novel is a good enough answer to the question of what the hell has happened in Mexico depends on your position. If you’re unsure, you might think of that landfill site and what happens when we lose the capacity for reverence.
Ellie Robins is a writer and the translator of Alan Pauls’s A History of Money (Melville House, 2015). She lives in Los Angeles.