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Sudden Death
Cover of Sudden Death
Sudden Death
A Novel
Borrow Borrow
"Splendid" —New York Times
"Mind-bending." —Wall Street Journal
"Brilliantly original. The best new novel I've read this year." —Salman Rushdie

A daring, kaleidoscopic novel about the clash of empires and ideas, told through a tennis match in the sixteenth century between the radical Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball made from the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.


The poet and the artist battle it out in Rome before a crowd that includes Galileo, a Mary Magdalene, and a generation of popes who would throw the world into flames. In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII execute Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into those most-sought-after tennis balls. Across the ocean in Mexico, the last Aztec emperors play their own games, as the conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Mayan translator and lover, La Malinche, scheme and conquer, fight and f**k, not knowing that their domestic comedy will change the course of history. In a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that it’s a manual instead of a parody. And in today’s New York City, a man searches for answers to impossible questions, for a book that is both an archive and an oracle.

Álvaro Enrigue’s mind-bending story features assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, bawdy criminals, carnal liaisons and papal schemes, artistic and religious revolutions, love and war. A blazingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Enrigue tells the grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era, breaking down traditions and upending expectations, in this bold, powerful gut-punch of a novel.

Game, set, match.

Sudden Death is the best kind of puzzle, its elements so esoteric and wildly funny that readers will race through the book, wondering how Álvaro Enrigue will be able to pull a novel out of such an astonishing ball of string.  But Enrigue absolutely does; and with brilliance and clarity and emotional warmth all the more powerful for its surreptitiousness.” 
Lauren GroffNew York Times-bestselling author of Fates and Furies

"Engrossing... rich with Latin and European history." —The New Yorker

"[A] bawdy, often profane, sprawling, ambitious book that is as engaging as it is challenging.” —Vogue
"Splendid" —New York Times
"Mind-bending." —Wall Street Journal
"Brilliantly original. The best new novel I've read this year." —Salman Rushdie

A daring, kaleidoscopic novel about the clash of empires and ideas, told through a tennis match in the sixteenth century between the radical Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball made from the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.


The poet and the artist battle it out in Rome before a crowd that includes Galileo, a Mary Magdalene, and a generation of popes who would throw the world into flames. In England, Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII execute Anne Boleyn, and her crafty executioner transforms her legendary locks into those most-sought-after tennis balls. Across the ocean in Mexico, the last Aztec emperors play their own games, as the conquistador Hernán Cortés and his Mayan translator and lover, La Malinche, scheme and conquer, fight and f**k, not knowing that their domestic comedy will change the course of history. In a remote Mexican colony a bishop reads Thomas More’s Utopia and thinks that it’s a manual instead of a parody. And in today’s New York City, a man searches for answers to impossible questions, for a book that is both an archive and an oracle.

Álvaro Enrigue’s mind-bending story features assassinations and executions, hallucinogenic mushrooms, bawdy criminals, carnal liaisons and papal schemes, artistic and religious revolutions, love and war. A blazingly original voice and a postmodern visionary, Enrigue tells the grand adventure of the dawn of the modern era, breaking down traditions and upending expectations, in this bold, powerful gut-punch of a novel.

Game, set, match.

Sudden Death is the best kind of puzzle, its elements so esoteric and wildly funny that readers will race through the book, wondering how Álvaro Enrigue will be able to pull a novel out of such an astonishing ball of string.  But Enrigue absolutely does; and with brilliance and clarity and emotional warmth all the more powerful for its surreptitiousness.” 
Lauren GroffNew York Times-bestselling author of Fates and Furies

"Engrossing... rich with Latin and European history." —The New Yorker

"[A] bawdy, often profane, sprawling, ambitious book that is as engaging as it is challenging.” —Vogue
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Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    November 2, 2015
    In his second work to be translated into English, Enrigue (Hypothermia) ingeniously uses a 16th-century game of pallacorda—a forerunner to tennis—between two hungover players to explore the beauties and atrocities of Renaissance Europe. In his fanciful mixing of historical fact and fiction, as well as his linguistic blend of earthiness and erudition, Enrigue can be compared to Roberto Bolaño. The novel recounts a match between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the notorious painter Caravaggio, “brutal and vulnerable, fragile behind his armour of grease, grappa, and cussedness.” During the novel’s changeovers, so to speak, Enrigue delves into the early literature of the sport (including a medieval account in which “four demons” bat around “the soul of a French seminarist”), expounds on Caravaggio’s life and art, and profiles 16th-century political figures in the Old and New Worlds. Two talismanic objects thread their way through the narrative: a tennis ball wound with hair taken from the decapitated head of Anne Boleyn, and an iridescent scapular made from the hair of the Aztec emperor Cuachtémoc, executed by Hernán Cortés. Emblematic of the violence unleashed across the world during the bloody century of conquest and religious upheaval, each object passes into and out of the possession of various monarchs, nobles, or clergy before ending up with the two players exchanging strokes on a Roman court. There are some tonal infelicities—two of Caravaggio’s models are “truly awesome pieces of tail”—and the reader can get lost in the profusion of historical figures. Nonetheless, this is an unpredictable, nonpareil novel that, like the macabre tennis ball at its center, “bounce like a thing possessed.”

  • Kirkus

    December 15, 2015
    A tennis match between a poet and a painter serves as an extended metaphor on the messy clash between colonialism and art. It's 1599. On one side of a court in Rome is the Italian painter Caravaggio; on the other, the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Why they've been pitted against each other isn't immediately clear, but we're told it's a "contest of life and death," and truly enough, the novel becomes an impressionistic study of Europe's violent conquest of the New World. (As Enrigue himself writes, the book is "not exactly about a tennis match.") The story returns intermittently to the match, but Enrigue largely eschews a traditional narrative arc. His chapters bound from quotations from priests, Shakespeare, and Sir Thomas More to contemplations of Caravaggio's paintings to scenes of courtly squabbles during the Counter-Reformation to observations of Aztec culture on its way to demolition by the Spanish conquistadors and comic scenes of the match, which somehow claims Mary Magdalene in attendance. (There's also a tall tale about tennis balls made with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.) That gives the novel a head-spinning breadth--Enrigue means to capture the many global resonances of sexual, religious, and artistic struggles, most of them bad news for those not in power. But Enrique's style can be jarring; the high tone of art criticism and history lessons can grate against the more satirical scenes on the tennis court. In one scene, Caravaggio and Quevedo are forced to participate in a foot race between sets: "Bites, elbow jabs, and clutches followed as both men rolled on the stones like children." As an allegory of the atrocities conducted by countries in the name of liberation, the moment has a certain allegorical force. But Enrigue's walking a fine line between expressions of sorrow and satire, which can often leave the reader feeling as baffled as a spectator to the match as the participants were for being part of it. An innovative if knotty study of geopolitics in the Age of Discovery.

    COPYRIGHT(2015) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    February 1, 2016
    The entirety of Enrigue's joyfully disorienting novel takes place during a match of pallacorda, a precursor to tennis, between Italian painter Caravaggio and Spanish poet Quevedo. The ball they bat back and forth is spun from the hair of beheaded Anne Boleyn, and the plot only becomes more tangled from there, roping in a bustling constellation of characters, including Galileo Galilei, Hernan Cortes, and his traitorous Nahua mistress, La Malinche. Enrigue liberates this historical fiction from a fixed time and place by fabricating stories about real figures and assembling a pastiche of encyclopedic snippets, treatise excerpts, and Castilian definitions. The result is a humorous, hopscotch meditation on a world united by empire and violence on the verge of the seventeenth century. Shaped by his imagining the migratory patterns of imperial brutality, Enrigue's ambitious tale bends in on itself and will reward readers who won't mind feeling like wanderers lost in the increasingly erudite corridors of Borges' library of Babel. Winner of the 2013 Herralde Novel Prize, Enrigue joins fellow formidable Spanish-language authors Enrique Vila-Matas, Juan Villoro, and Roberto Bolano.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2016, American Library Association.)

  • Library Journal

    September 1, 2015

    Mexican-born, New York City-based Enrigue has several novels and story collections to his credit, but this is the first to be translated into English. Somewhere, sometime in the 16th century, the raucous Italian painter Caravaggio and the equally raucous Spanish poet Quevado play a ferocious game of tennis with a ball made from Anne Boleyn's hair (it's one of Cromwell's enterprises). Meanwhile, in a narrative mirroring a tense century of conquest, the Aztecs play a different kind of ballgame. Winner of Spain's Herralde Prize and Mexico's Elena Poniatowska International Novel Award; much raved about in-house.

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Library Journal

    December 1, 2015

    In this award-winning novel, Mexican-born, New York-based Enrigue weaves history and speculation into several narrative threads, focusing primarily on three sets of tennis (substituting as a duel over a matter of honor) between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo in 1599. A second stream aggregates a plethora of historical figures in a vivid re-creation of the intrigues and corruption of the Counter-Reformation, but Caravaggio, in many of whose paintings decapitation figures prominently, and Hernan Cortes command the most attention. The author also adds veracity by inserting essays about the history of tennis. Finally, Enrigue traces three topics throughout: four tennis balls made from Anne Boleyn's hair, a scapular extracted from the Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc's skin, and a feather miter that a Nahuatl artist sends to the Pope. As the author admits in a metafictional aside, this is a "book with a lot of back and forth, like a game of tennis," with the title referring to both the outcome of this tennis match and decapitation as a method of swift execution. VERDICT Readers will be intrigued by the conglomeration of characters and events but will be either delighted or frustrated in guessing the historically accurate from the fabricated owing to the author's effective conviction. [See Prepub Alert, 8/10/15.]--Lawrence Olszewski, North Central State Coll., Mansfield, OH

    Copyright 2015 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Novel
Álvaro Enrigue
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