Sudden Death, the second novel by Álvaro Enrigue to be translated into English, features a look at history unlike any other. Enrigue juxtaposes historical obsessions, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and the creation of art through an unlikely lens: the game of tennis. The result makes for a work that’s thrilling, epic in its scope, and features a number of nestled tragedies along the way. I spoke with Enrigue about the process of writing the novel and his work with translator Natasha Wimmer. An edited version of our conversation follows.
In the very beginning of the edition of Sudden Death that came out on Riverhead, you refer to the original Spanish-language version. Were there any other changes that were made as you prepared it for its English translation?
I wrote a bunch of pages for the English edition. English is a language that I read and write much better than I speak; my vocation for languages is mostly through literature, so I am very good at reading many languages, but I cannot speak [them]. That is not the case for English: I can speak English, but my writing and reading abilities are higher than in relation to some other languages. There are fifteen or twenty new pages of the novel in English.
There is the human side of it–the temptation of adding little things. Once you’ve tried the novel in one language–in that language, which happens to be my mother language–you know what works and what doesn’t. On the other hand, I’m kind of interested in making a statement about the importance of translation to uphold the literary tradition. I think that is true–in translation, we renew the DNA of literature. Borges has this beautiful conference about the 1001 Nights, in which he says that erroneous translation is how literature improves and experiments and becomes more accurate or more interesting or more seductive. I’m interested in that process. Borges used to believe–and maybe this was one of his ironic beliefs, because he was a writer who had fun with a lot of traditional things–that there was no difference between the original and the translation, in terms of literary value. He had a good reason for that, a book that goes to the very past of literature and comes back in a different voice. I am really interested in all of those phenomena. And that’s why, if you’re an English reader, you must be conscious early in the book that this is a book that was intervened for the English edition.
What was the process of working with your translator like for Sudden Death?
It was fantastic! I am the luckiest man in the world. I got translated by Natasha Wimmer, who is an incredible translator. When I heard that news, I was really, really happy. I knew it was a real privilege, and a perception-changing experience. We worked very closely in the translation of the book. Not that closely, because she’s a master of of her art. But she was always updating me on how things were going. Every now and then, it was good for me to read the translation. We would have many meetings in which she would go word by word–I am not exaggerating–and thinking about everything. You’re not conscious of those things until you get into translation processes. She would work on that until she got the right register of every sentence, and of every word.
I was involved in the editing process of the book. One of the things that I asked of my editor was to treat me as an American writer, not as a translated author. As I can speak and read perfectly, I was a part of the discussion in English. So for me, it was a learning process, and I wanted to be present in that process. I saw Natasha Wimmer changing words and commas until the very moment in which the book went to print. It was very, very impressive. She was producing a book that, in the end, felt exactly like the book I had written in Spanish. Only bigger, a little bit fatter, due to the additions.
You have so many different strands of history woven in here; I was curious where the book began for you. Was it with tennis? Was it with the European or Central American history?
That’s a very fun question, because there was a moment in which I had to make a Cartesian time block in order to know what was going on when. Not when I was writing, because I think that writing is all about freedom and letting go and seeing what one finds in the world, and then returning to find meanings in what finds. During the final organization of the novel, the remix of the novel, I had to record the timing, the dates and everything. The novel really begins with the decapitation of Anne Boleyn, because Thomas More could be present, not at that very moment, but close by. He was still alive, and when the conquest of Mexico was done, he was already dead. But I’m not sure about these things, and there’s not much sense in fact-checking these things for our conversation.
For me, the novel really begins, in my heart–that’s very sentimental and tacky–in the moment in which Hernán Cortés stands in front of the jungle in what will become Vera Cruz, and he says, “Let’s go to Tenochtitlan. Let’s go there, and when we get there, we can hit the Pacific Ocean.” It’s a novel about the birth of the world as we know it, and what is wrong in the world as we know it. Maybe because I am from Tenochtitlan, from Mexico City, I think that the key moment of modernity is that one: the moment in which a safe road is opened to connect Europe and China. And that safe road implies the submission of an impressive and extravagant empire, the Aztec Empire.
How did tennis become a central metaphor within the novel?
To put Caravaggio painting paintings, or to put Francisco de Quevedo writing poems, could be boring. I was really trying to write a novel about Caravaggio. I found him very significant, and I thought that I could use him as a metaphor for many things, all things contemporary that were very important. I was interested in the fear of the artist–he shows up beheaded in his own self-portrait. I think that says a lot about violence in the modern world, and many, many things. I had this intuition about the fear of Caravaggio’s as being an excellent way to say things about the world they lived in. But I couldn’t find the right place to put him where he could attract attention for being as charismatic and fun. He was a great master of art, but he was not a maestro at all. He was a fighter. He was a very common fellow. He didn’t have anything to do with the great “dead white men” [category] in which we try to put everything.
I was reading one of the biographies of Caravaggio, and I discovered all of these passages in which Caravaggio appeared playing tennis. He used to play tennis, or a sport that was similar to tennis called pala corta, when he was young, to make money. He was not earning too much money painting, yet. He would become a superstar of Italian painting, but when he was young he hadn’t made enough money. I thought that the solitude of the tennis court, this idea of the tennis player, of him fighting point by point to victory, to win some money to be able to have dinner–that looked like a way in which I could represent him without falling into any of the obvious categories in which one could fall when writing about a maestro and a grand master.
Are you yourself a tennis player, or was it something that you needed to do some research into?
Not at all. My kids played tennis for a period, so I used to watch their games, but I’m not enough of an aficionado to tennis in general. I like baseball and soccer, so that consumes too much time to add a new sport. I’m more of an aficionado of history than tennis. That is not to say that I wouldn’t watch a tennis match; it’s surely a fun sport. But I have never watched a professional one.
At the end of the book, and within the book itself, you allude to work you did at the New York Public Library. How did that come about?
I just applied. I was living in Mexico. I have spent my adult life coming and going from the U.S. In that period, I was in Mexico, and I had a beautiful job that was too demanding, and would not let me write. I was the publisher of the Ministry of Culture’s publishing house, which is a very exquisite and fun and interesting and beautiful work. It implies, to me, rescuing old book and making new academy editions of classics. It’s really beautiful work–so beautiful that I thought that I could stay there forever and never write another word. So I began to look for situations that would let me sit down and write for a period of time without worrying about the financial pressures of everyday life. I applied to the Public Library. At the time, I didn’t have a single book translated into English–a couple of short stories and some articles, but not much stuff. Whoever decided that the project was good made that strange decision to bring me from Mexico City to the Cullman Center to research and write this book. It’s one of the best places to do that.
You included some emails exchanged with your editor in the text of the novel. When did you decide to incorporate your own process into the text?
It’s a game. It’s always a game. And it has to do with the translation process, too. The email exchanges were really interesting, or I found it interesting, because an editor used this Baroque expression without knowing that she was using it. She said something like, “Now the ball is at the top of your house.” And that’s a reference to the antique tennis game that she was unaware that she was making. In the Spanish version of the novel, it was only that, and it was just something fun. If you’re a novelist who writes in Spanish, you have the mentor of the modern novel breathing down your neck all the time, so it was Cervantes’s idea that everything should fit in the novel, and that everything would acquire a new important meaning if you put it in the right place inside a novel. So it was just playing the Baroque classic game of modern literature in Spanish.
That’s one of the stories. The other is the story of the narrator. I am the not the narrator of the novel. What he is writing is not myself. The novel had a narrator, and that narrator had a story that I subtracted because I thought that it was not necessary to write it. So the voice that, from time to time, comes into the novel making meditations on the contemporary world is not my voice, and is not what I would think.
That was another game. The book means more things thanks to the fact that I am not telling the story that is at the center of this book. That’s all. It worked very well in the Spanish edition. It worked so well that all the critics quote that part where the narrator says, “I don’t know what I’m writing. I really don’t know what I’m writing. I know this and I know that but I don’t know this about my writing.” When I was re-doing the version in English, I took the liberty of pushing that much more. That’s why the exchange of emails with the editor is much more developed in English than in Spanish. In Spanish, it’s one quote from one email that’s very short, just two or three lines. In English, there’s this imaginary exchange between an editor and a writer. I think it adds a different dimension to the book that was not there in the Spanish. That was an opportunity I took–when the book came out in English, I had experience of how the critics would read it. I could add some more meat to it.
Were there any facts or interesting pieces of history that you discovered over the course of the book that you wanted to add to the book, but couldn’t?
You have this idea of a novel in your head always, that’s huge and touches everything and goes everywhere. And then comes reality. There’s this moment where the novel is done. In my case, there’s always hundreds of bridges that don’t show up in the final edition. There was no way to fit things in the novel. There was a line that went into the Philippines to produce a sense of circularity in the world, as the balls and the heads that rolled in the novel were circular. There was also the story of the narrator that’s not in the novel any more. In the English version, there were more parts of the story of the narrator that weren’t in the Spanish edition. But they are very few. So–yes. Between the imaginary novel that one wants to write and the temptations to keep going, and then the things that you noticed while editing that weren’t that good–I don’t know. I have an impression that I write novels and then I publish the structure of those novels. There are missing Legos in that castle. And I like that. You must open a space for the reader. It’s not a frivolous decision, either. I am driven by the perfection of language. I am driven by the functionality of the structural lines of the story that will take you from one place to another. But I am guided, too, by the privilege of the reader–that is, to get into the book and recompose it. When a novel is good, it happens out of the written powers of the writer. It’s because the reader was able to construct something with it.
Photo: Zony Maya