In light of a lot of the reviews we’ve seen of Álvaro Enrigue’s recent novel Sudden Death, I thought it would be interesting to look back at what I had to say about Enrigue the first time I read him, in 2009, in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction. It was his magnificent story “On the Death of the Author” (from his novel/story collection Hypothermia.)
A lot of the reviews have focused on how the book fails to “come together,” and, interestingly, this was something I said about “On the Death of the Author.” However, two caveats: I added that the story still feels unified despite that, and rather than a criticism, this was a selling point for me:
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.
Sudden Death does similar things: it works with mythic stories of the modern era, and it tries to join them together in innovative ways. It also gives a reader a lot to work with but resolutely refuses to tell the reader what to think about them. Very much like that story Enrigue got from Atxaga, it gives you moments of wonder, and then it makes you wonder.
It’s been interesting to see the Anglo reaction, which has focused a lot on historical accuracy and authenticity of character, two things that I don’t think Enrigue cares very much about insofar as his literature goes. Some critics have also been uncomfortable about how quickly the book moves I think Jeremy Davies put it well when he says that Sudden Death has lightness in the sense of Calvino.
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.
Again, to go back to that Atxaga parable, Enrigue’s books work best then they’re frustrating your expectations and movie too quickly to be caught. This seems to be something that Anglo critics are missing when they try to read this book as a historical novel in the sense of Anglo historical novels. This book is ridiculous: it has Caravaggio and Quevedo playing tennis with Anne Boylen’s hair. Caravaggio and Galileo are having sex in Roman flophouses (or whatever the Counter-Reformation equivalent was). There are absurd dialogues between Cortes and Native Americans. It seems to me you have to work pretty hard to ding this book for lacking historical heft or depth of character.
Insofar as I’ve read Enrigue, I would say one of his major strengths is his lightness, the way he can give you just enough rope to hang yourself. He constructs his stories in hugely original, fascinating ways. And this is good, because bringing his books into the American market is one of the ways that translated literature can rejuvenate abother culture and language.
Likewise, the great thing about having an author like Enrigue get picked up by a press with significant publicity muscle like Riverhead is that it can make critics at rather conservative venues open their eyes as to what literature (especially translated literature) can do. It does seem like they’re at least giving this book a chance (more than a chance than most translated (or just plain innovative) literature tends to get). So that’s good. But I’m not so sure the messages are getting through.