We spoke to the celebrated Mexican author about his new novel, which features famous painters, brutal conquistadors, and balls of unlikely provenance.
Álvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death won a major literary award in Spain a few years ago and has now been translated by Natasha Wimmer, translator of the masterpiece-turned-five-hour-play 2666 by Roberto Bolaño. With these respected ambassadors at its side, Sudden Death, Enrigue's first novel accessible to American monolinguists marks the arrival of a major player on the capital-L courts of literature.
You don't want to say too much about this book (from which VICE published an excerpt last week), both to avoid spoilers and because it's a beast to describe. It's a book built on—and filled with—books. It's a collage of excavations from the archives that seem unrelated at first but unite along the linear progression of a game of tennis that's also a duel between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo. It also involves Cortés's conquest of the Aztecs, a tennis ball made from the hair of a decapitated queen, the Virgin Mary depicted in iridescent feathers, psychedelic mushrooms, amorous activities not often discussed at the end of the 16th century, and a direct address to the reader about what all this might (or might not) mean, as the narrator himself admits:
As I write, I don't know what this book is about. It's not exactly about a tennis match. Nor is it a book about the slow and mysterious integration of America into what we call "the Western world"—an outrageous misapprehension, since from the American perspective, Europe is the East. 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.
Whatever it's about, a reader requires an active, associative intelligence to return Enrigue's intriguing serve. Our back-and-forth via email appears below.
VICE: Where did this novel come from? What was the seed for it?
Álvaro Enrigue: Where novels come from is a mystery to me. There are projects I cook for years and years—reading and making notes, but mainly just thinking about it while biking or showering—and then the moment seems to be ripe, maybe only because I don't have another fat project in the near future. There was a clear point in my life when I began to think about this book: I was in Berlin, at the Gemäldegalerie, and discovered that the toenails of Caravaggio's Amor Victorious were filled with dirt. That dirtiness was so obscene in the apparent general innocence of the painting, that I felt in my gut that they deserved a novel.
Did the ideal unwritten novel you had in your head approach the one you ultimately wrote?
Not even close. An unwritten novel is like Borges's map of the Empire: so large and precise it matches the size of the Empire. You work around it the best you can.
Did the structure occur naturally or did you have to impose order on what you wrote?
I spend as much time writing the novels as remixing them. Meaning is not in what you say but in how you organize it. The good stuff of a book is in its blind spots: what the reader has to add.
"The Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said that a piece of land belongs to those who work it—same thing with books."
This is a novel in part about translation—at one point, the narrator says if you're reading that you're reading a translation. Was this line added for the English version?
That line and a lot more: The English version has more chapters than the original one. Half of my life happens in English, so, even when I write fiction only in Spanish, the temptation of adding a few things was too much.
I'm sure all fans of 2666 in English would agree that you couldn't have hoped for a better English language ambassador. Did you have much contact with Natasha Wimmer?
I'm a fortunate man: I got the best possible translator to English, but I can tell you that the real privilege is not that one, but to see her work through a book. She is a slow-motion spectacle. She did a first draft we went through word by word. Then she did a second one, and the same thing. That's when she really began to work, sculpting sentence by sentence again and again and again until it got my respiration, my sense of humor, all the registers of my way of writing. It's almost scary. Then I saw her following every step of the editing process obsessively, changing words and reorganizing sentences and moving commas until the last second before print.
Have you read the English version?
There is this crazy final document, with all the notes of the American editor, the British editor, their respective copy editors, Natasha's, and my own. Then there are the answers, the corrections, the discussions, the fights. A nerd's epic. I think we all read it ten times. It's not that we're all obsessive compulsives—the novel depends on very delicate mechanisms.
The original Spanish title (Muerte súbita) seems to include a little lift in it thanks to what seems like a pun—the past participle of the verb "subir" (subido) [to rise, ascend]. For all the horizontal back-and-forth of Rome and Mexico, sex and sport, conquistador and conquered, past and present, text and translation, straight and queer, and light and dark, part of this novel's project also seems vertical, up and down. I feel this is in part to make those elevated by history more "elemental" and lift those characters (like prostitutes transformed by paint into Virgin Marys) otherwise forgotten, losers in the game of history won by "the bad guys." Is this over-interpretation? Or is it in the neighborhood of your intention?
I never thought about that connotation, that raising that you see in the word "súbita," but all readings are fair. And yes, it works in a binary structure: one character against the other, then one culture against the other, two religions, two empires, two continents, etc. The tennis match is just the spine of the book. It's reduced to its minimal expression—there is a chapter in which it is represented only by the score—but the novel tries to reproduce the violence and speed of the game. That's why it moves so fast.
Tennis is improvisation between two players within a definite structure, which could be extended to reader and writer. If, as you say toward the end, this novel is "combat," how are readers involved in the battle?
I just display a set of coordinates. Pieces of stories, shredded archives, intervened historical texts. Those are the rules of the game, but the book hopefully happens outside the book: I configure the battlefield and the reader does the fight. At the end there should be some sort of moral, of which I am only half responsible. The Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata said that a piece of land belongs to those who work it—same thing with books.
"Every great novel generates its own class and is impossible to repeat. Every great novel is the first and last of its kind."
Speaking of revolutionaries, when you wrote about Caravaggio's anti-Mannerist paintings, did you also intend for your writing to oppose conventional, mannered fiction?
I find conventional novels brutally boring. We have been in the mill of realism since the 19th century. I'm for moving on, right now.
But of course there's a long tradition of unconventional writing. What are some of the most influential titles in the revolutionary canon for you?
Since publication of the first modern novel, the novel has been a machine to challenge conventional thinking. In the second part of Don Quixote, Don Quixote reads the first part of Don Quixote—and finds it quite annoying. I'm speaking here about 1615. Swift and Sterne followed through, making the experiment more and more extreme, and from there to Sade, Kafka, Rulfo—the list could go forever. Is it the Realist mirage that pretended to be revolutionary—and failed? Why should someone write about what she or he knows? About the lame adventures of everyday life? It's exactly the other way around: A novel is a research expedition, a source of statistically indemonstrable knowledge, a quest for insolent solutions to complex problems.
"The problem [of publishing] is the industrial line of production of reading material, the standardization of the imaginative process."
I love thinking of a novel as "a quest for insolent solutions." But I don't really feel like Sterne, Cervantes, Calvino, Perec, Barthelme, Barth, and associates form a team against all the forces of realism. Towering literary artistry comes in the form of relatively straightforward realism, too: Tolstoy, Hamsun, Proust, Thomas Mann, Thomas Bernhard, on and on. Formally I'm rarely bored with them because their content kicks such ass. More recently, Knausgaard writes only about what he knows. Trying to get as close as he can to the core of his life, he goes as deeply as he can into the lame everyday adventures (washing dishes!) and somehow pulls it off. That's really the only rule: You can do anything as long as you pull it off. I'd say that Towering Literary Artists (realists or not) contribute to a formidable doubles team against the amalgamated forces of mediocrity and idiocy.
Mmmm. Tolstoy can man the forces of realism by himself, and you have a point there: War and Peace changed my way of reading. Proust and Knausgaard are not realists at all. They are bold imaginative researchers involved in an impossible but beautiful task: to make a mapamundi [map of the world] with a microscope. They could not be further away from a positivist agenda. They never pretended to preach through exemplary tales. Not only did they never believe in progress, they're both intensely decadent: apologists of melancholy. Much less Mann and Bernhard: Their roots go so deep into the Judeo-Christian tale tradition that both of them are close to Borges and Kafka. But you are right: What would we do without Stendhal? Pérez Galdós? Mon dieu: Flaubert!—the best of them all. DeLillo had some perfect realist novels that I have read more than once with immense pleasure—and lately he's developed an expanded sensitivity that I celebrate too. In recent literature written in Spanish, there is also Chirbes—an extraordinary writer who has received less attention than he deserves, as much in the United States as in Latin America.
But I disagree on one point: "Mediocrity and idiocy" aren't the real enemies—there is virtue, too, in being a mediocre idiot, as some truths can be found following that way. The opponent is a lack of imagination, the fear of failure. No matter what the myths about writing say, literature is highly socialized. A writer and a reader are never alone and between them there can be a chain of well-intentioned professionals who would rather play defense, as it's safer for all, including the writer and reader. The problem is the industrial line of production of reading material, the standardization of the imaginative process.
The word "novel" suggests that a novel should be novel, right? There's no one way to write one. And the greatest novelists exemplify this novelty, exaggerate it.
Everything fits in a novel. That's Cervantes's legacy: such an open form that every great novel generates its own class and is impossible to repeat. Every great novel is the first and last of its kind.
Lee Klein's translation of Horacio Castellanos Moya's Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador will be published by New Directions in July.
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue is out tomorrow, February 9, from Riverhead Books.