Read an Excerpt from Álvaro Enrigue's Novel 'Sudden Death,' About Empires, Mexico, and Featherwork
Illustration by Armando Veve


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Read an Excerpt from Álvaro Enrigue's Novel 'Sudden Death,' About Empires, Mexico, and Featherwork

A story about the unlikely intertwined story of a Nahua featherworker, a Spanish lawyer, and the infamous conquistador Hernán Cortés.

I've been telling friends about Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death ever since I started reading the galley a few months ago. The novel centers on the unlikely conceit of a hungover, machismo-drenched tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo in 16th-century Italy. But it's also about so much more: empire, art, fate, Cortés and La Malinche and Moctezuma, the brutal founding of what would become modern-day Mexico, aristocracy, the backroom dealings of the Roman Catholic Church and the European court, and balls, for both tennis and reproduction. Beautifully rendered from the Spanish by 2666 translator Natasha Wimmer, Sudden Death is one of the most engaging, audacious, and flat-out fun works of fiction I've read in a while. I hope you enjoy this excerpt as much as I did. Pick up the book at a local bookstore or online February 9.


—James Yeh, culture editor

The Emperor's

Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, Nahua of noble birth and master featherworker, was at his shop in San José de los Naturales—once a farm of exotic birds under the Emperor Moctezuma—when he met Vasco de Quiroga. They were introduced by Fray Pedro de Gante, who managed what was left of the totocalli (as such farms were called) after the brutal years of the invasion.

The lawyer and the featherworker were soon on a comfortable footing, since both were of noble birth, both had been part of imperial courts in their youth, both had remained—over the 12 most confusing years that their two vast and ancient cultures had known in who knows how many centuries—in the unusual situation of actually being free.

Vasco de Quiroga had no reason to return to Spain and was greatly excited by the idea of building a society on rational principles. The Indian had nowhere to go back to, but he had managed to find a relatively secure and comfortable spot for himself after years of darkness, misery, and fear. His aristocratic rank was respected and his work was so admired that most of the pieces made in his shop were sent immediately to adorn palaces and cathedrals in Spain, Germany, Flanders, and the duchy of Milan.

Unlike most Mexicans, Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin did know what this meant: He had been to Europe. He belonged to the select group of highborn artists who were received by the Holy Roman Emperor on Cortés's first trip back to Spain, and he knew very well that the new lords of Mexico might be eaters of sausage made from the blood of pigs, but they were also capable of rising far above their barbaric ways when it came to building palaces, painting canvases, cooking animals, or—and this impressed him most of all—making shoes.


After setting him up in his new shop and providing him with satin, glue, paints, brushes, tools, and the assistance of the royal cooks, Cortés asked Huanitzin what else he needed in order to pay tribute to the emperor. Shoes, he replied.

From the moment that the ship he had been obliged to board (though not herded onto like cattle) sailed out of sight of American lands, Huanitzin realized that in order to survive his new circumstances he would have to learn Spanish. By the time they arrived in Seville, after stops in Cuba and the Canary Islands, he was attempting polite phrases in the language of the conquistadors and was able to say that he and his son would be happy to make a heavy cloak of white feathers for His Majesty: The sailors had told him that Spain was known for being cold.

Cortés loved the idea of the featherworker and his son making a small demonstration of their art in court—he himself had a spectacular feather mantle on his bed at his house in Coyoacán showing the birth of water in springs and its death as rain—and he immediately gave Huanitzin favored status among his entourage. Not only did the featherworker speak Spanish—terrible Spanish, but he could make himself understood—he was the only one who seemed to show any interest in taking stock of his new circumstances.

Once in Toledo, the conquistador arranged for a workshop to be set up next to the palace stables and negotiated unrestricted access to the kitchen, where the preparation of ducks, geese, and hens afforded Huanitzin a sufficient supply of feathers to make a cape for an emperor who, the featherworker was beginning to understand, had defeated the Aztec emperor because he was infinitely more powerful, even though he lived in a dark, drab, and icy city.


After setting him up in his new shop and providing him with satin, glue, paints, brushes, tools, and the assistance of the royal cooks, Cortés asked Huanitzin what else he needed in order to pay tribute to the emperor. Shoes, he replied. What kind, asked the conquistador, imagining that he must be cold and want woolen slippers. Like yours, said Huanitzin—who, being an Aztec noble and a featherworker, considered a provincial squire turned soldier to be of a class beneath his. With cockles. Cockles? asked Cortés. The Indian pointed to the captain's instep, festooned with a golden buckle and inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Buckles, said the conquistador; shoes with buckles. That's it.

Naturally, Cortés didn't buy Huanitzin a pair of shoes stitched with silver thread like his—not only were they monstrously expensive, walking in them was like squeezing one's toes into a pair of flatirons—but he did buy him good high-heeled boots with tin buckles, and along with them a pair of stockings, a few white shirts, and a pair of black breeches intended for some nobleman's son that fit the featherworker like a dream.

The Indian accepted the garments as if they were his due—without paying them much attention or thanking him for them—and made one last request of the conquistador before getting to work: Could you also find me some mushrooms? Mushrooms? To see mellifluous things while I'm worrying the king's drape. It's called a royal cape, a capón real. I thought that a capon was a bird with its burls cut off. Balls. Not balls, it's mushrooms I want. Here they would burn us both if they discovered you drunk on mushrooms. I'd hardly be dunked in them, it's not as if they're a pond. There are none in Spain. Well then, the royal capón won't be as mellifluous.


Huanitzin liked his new clothes, though he didn't think them fitting for a master featherworker who was once again on the grounds of an emperor's palace, so he used his first Spanish goose feathers to embroider one of the shirts—the one he wore on special occasions—with pineapples that he imagined were the equivalent of the Flanders lions he'd seen worked in gold on Charles V's cloak. The breeches were sewn down the side seams with bands of white feathers, turning him into a first wild glimpse of mariachi singers to come. The cooks spoiled this tiny man, who inspected their birds' scrawny necks and armpits in a getup like a saint on parade. When he decided that a fowl was worthy of being plucked, he kneeled over it, took a pair of tiny tweezers from his sash, blew the hair out of his eyes, and defeathered the part of the bird that interested him with maddening care—the cooks knew by now that once he chose a specimen it would have to be moved to the dinner menu because there was no way he'd be done with it before lunch. Hours later, he would return happily to his shop, generally with a harvest of feathers so modest that it hardly filled a soup plate. Sometimes he looked over the birds and found none to be of interest—there was no way to predict which he would judge worthy material for the king's cape. Other times it happened that there would be no birds cooked that day. When this was the case he still lingered in the kitchen, leaning on the wall so as not to be in the way. He admired the size of the chunks of animal moving on and off the hearth. What is that, he asked every so often. Calf's liver. He would return to his shop to tell his son that the king was to eat castle adder that night. But what is it? Must be a fat snake that lives in ruined towers, he explained in Nahuatl.


By the time the letter from Pope Paul reached the last outpost of Christianity, which just then was the Purépecha village half rising from the ruins of what had once been the imperial city of Tzintzuntzan, everyone was already calling Huanitzin "Don Diego," and he was still wearing the cotton shirts embroidered with pineapples that he believed were the height of European fashion, as well as his Toledo boots. By now he also read and spoke Latin, utterly garbled by his artilleryman's ear. Look, said Vasco de Quiroga, handing him the letter on which he had just broken the papal seal of Paul III. The featherworker read it, running his finger under the lines. I'll go with you, he said at last, so I can pay my regards to Charles.

Don Diego didn't miss the old gods. His mostly symbolic relationship with the succession of religious beliefs that life had visited upon him was based on rituals that felt just as empty when he offered up his work to the four Tezcatlipocas of the four corners of the earth as when he offered it to the three archangels and the Nazarene. Must we call him the Nazarene, asked Tata Vasco—who greatly enjoyed their conversations—every so often. That's what he was, Don Quiroga, a Nazarene, and you know that I'd prefer you to call me Don Diego; I wasn't baptized just to be your latchkey. Lackey, Don Diego, lackey. He liked it that the incense and blessings came only on Sundays and lasted barely an hour—I'll be back in a splash, he would say at the shop to announce that he was going to mass—and that praying didn't involve piercing the member with a maguey spine, and that the culmination of the Communion ceremony was just a little piece of unleavened bread and not the corpse stew eaten at the palace under Moctezuma—human flesh was a little gummy and the dish in which it was served was overspiced. He didn't miss the blood spurting from the sacrificial heart, the hurling of heads at crowds dazed on hallucinogens, the rolling of decapitated bodies down steps.


He did miss the order and hygiene of the Aztec government; the police who did their jobs, the sense of belonging to a tight circle of friends who ruled a world that didn't stretch very far; the security of knowing that he only had to speak Nahuatl to be understood by everyone. And he was still grieving. No matter how pleasant his situation, he would have preferred that the Spanish invasion had never happened, that his parents had died of old age and not of thirst during the siege; he would have preferred that his wife hadn't been raped to death by the Tlaxcaltecas and that the Spaniards' dogs hadn't eaten his twin daughters. He would have liked to bury his brothers and cousins, killed in combat, and he would have preferred that his brothers' wives hadn't been taken as slaves, hadn't had to choose to throw their babies into the lake rather than see them endure the life that awaited them.

Huanitzin had hidden in the totocalli with his eldest son when the sack of Tenochtitlan began, and the two of them had been saved because Cortés had a weakness for the art of featherwork. With everything lost, Huanitzin had started over, and he felt that he had exchanged one set of privileges for another. His son would never wear the proud calmecac topknot, but he wouldn't go to war either; he wouldn't learn the poems that had made the empire great, nor would he enjoy the privilege of being considered an almost sacred artist at the palace, but he had gained the wonderful, liberating joy of horseback riding, and all the things new to Indians that he liked about this world: the shoes, the beef, the elegant shirts with pineapples that were by now the trademark of his house and that in the times of Moctezuma would have been considered an effrontery punishable by death.

No, said Vasco de Quiroga, I think I'll go alone; it's a meeting of bishops to save the Church, not the gypsy caravan Cortés brought along to entertain the king. The featherworker shrugged his shoulders: If you need anything, let me know. What could I possibly need? I don't know—a handsome peasant to take to the pope? A peasant? To flail him, as a sign of our devotion. No one touches His Holiness. Of course, that's why he's pope, but I'm sure his bishops flail him. Hail him. That's right, flail him. Not a handsome peasant, the padre continued to provoke him. Why? He's a man of God, Huanitzin; he must be 80 years old. It's a matter of coming up with the right peasant, Huanitzin concluded, wrinkling his brow and fingering the scanty beard he might better have shaved. How can you think of a peasant for the pope? A nice one, answered the Indian. Then, unperturbed, he bid the bishop goodbye: I'm off, it's raining now.

Though Huanitzin was part of the Tzintzuntzan hospitaltown, he decided to build the aviary and his featherworking shop some distance away. Quiroga had decreed that his hospital be built on top of what was once the palace of the Purépecha emperor, and the Indian was of the opinion that it couldn't be a good place. I'm not going to build a totocalli on that crossload of souls, he'd said, it'll be the death of my little birds; and then we work at night, there's no knowing what we'll see when we have to clot ourselves with mushrooms so we can do mellifluous work. Quiroga accepted his reasoning; it was true that to calibrate the luminescent effect of the precious feathers, the artists worked mostly at night and in environments of controlled light: windowless sheds in which the only sources of light were beeswax tapers. I've already chosen the little plot where I'll build the shop, Huanitzin said to Quiroga; or better yet, why don't you come and deed me it, since you're a lawyer.

The plot was a sloping valley that began on a mountainside covered in the black fringe of a pine forest, and it ran down to the shores of a lake. It was completely isolated from the other settlements, the emerald meadow cropped by a flock of sheep, the mountains watchful in the distance. It was by far the most beautiful spot Quiroga had seen in the basin of Lake Pátzcuaro, which was itself, in his opinion—and mine—the most beautiful place in the world. Where are you going to put the shop, the bishop asked the featherworker. The Indian pointed to the top of the valley: Will you deed me the whole valley or just the shop? In Mechuacán there are no deeds, replied the padre; every thing belongs to everyone. I ask because it belongs to some Purépecha, said Huanitzin, but they only want it to plant squash and keep sheep. The bishop thought for a moment: You can put the shop here, but only if you start a town of featherworkers. How will I flounder a town, when I have only one son? Bring in the Purépecha. Do you mean I should teach them featherwork? The bishop nodded. And you'll give me my deeds? Quiroga harrumphed and shook his head: I can give you a declaration of origination. And some deeds for my little shop. No.

For months, another Indian, who called himself a notary and said that he represented the interests of Don Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin and the newly founded village of Nearby, waited from sunup to sundown in the antechambers of the archdiocese without being received by Quiroga. Finally, the bishop made up some deeds just to get rid of him. Only then did he learn that in the perfect valley he had visited with the featherworker, a workshop had already been built, as had houses for five families and a communal dining hall.

From Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue. Copyright 2016 by Álvaro Enrigue. Published by arrangement with Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.