Interview: Alvaro Enrigue, Author Of 'Sudden Death' "It's a little space, well-measured and precise, in which you have to keep the ball bouncing," says Álvaro Enrigue. His book, Sudden Death, pits the Italian painter against the Spanish poet.

When Caravaggio Plays Quevedo In Tennis, The Court Becomes A Sonnet

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The new novel from the author Alvaro Enrigue is full of characters you would recognize. There's Mary Magdalene from the Bible, the artist Caravaggio, Henry VIII's wife, Anne Boleyn, and many more. The title of the book is "Sudden Death," a reference to tennis, which is where the book begins. Alvaro Enrigue, welcome to the program.

ALVARO ENRIGUE: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why structure your book around this game of tennis?

ENRIGUE: Well, a novel needs a skeleton because this novel, particularly, jumps a lot in time.

SHAPIRO: Yes, it does.

ENRIGUE: It goes back and forward a lot, so you need a strong structure to guide the reader. I think that the novels I love are novels that teach you how to read them. So the tennis game is that spine that gives you a land as a reader so you can follow all the other stories that are happening around it.

SHAPIRO: There's also something about the game of tennis where there are attacks, and there is conquest, and there is offense and defense, which is true of the imperial forces that you describe in other parts of the book that are really shaping the world.

ENRIGUE: Well, there is this brutal side to tennis. It was invented as a game for kings and cardinals and people with a lot of power who didn't have to share the field with other players. But there is still this brutality of the loneliness of the tennis player that I was interested in using as a metaphor of the brutalities of the lives of the people who gave us the modern world. You know, people involved in the tennis game in the novel are the people that I think are the founding founders and mothers of the world we live in.

SHAPIRO: So one side of the tennis match, you have the artist Caravaggio, who we're used to seeing in great museums. And you portray him as this sexual and violent and visceral character. And on the other side of the tennis match is somebody who listeners might be less familiar with.

ENRIGUE: Yeah. Well, that's the privilege of the novelist. You can do whatever you want...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ENRIGUE: ...With historical characters if history gives you just a little thread to follow. Francisco de Quevedo, who curiously - he's not as recognized in English as he is in French or German. He was a Baroque poet. As he became old, he became a very reactionary character. But he was the author, I think, of the best erotic sonnets ever written.

SHAPIRO: We should let listeners know that you originally wrote this novel in Spanish. The new English translation is just now being released. And you write in the book, I don't know what this book is about. I know that as I wrote it, I was angry because the bad guys always win. Maybe all books are written simply because in every game, the bad guys have the advantage, and that is beyond bearing. When you were writing, who were the bad guys you had in mind?

ENRIGUE: All of them.


ENRIGUE: That's another privilege of the novelist. You can speak in general terms and that way, the reader can put whoever he or she hates in the space where - that you leave empty. While I was writing this novel, I was angry with what was going on with the crisis of 2008 that destroyed the southern Europe economies. I was absolutely angry with what was going on in Mexico. So I was looking for the matrix of the violence and this system that somehow opposes all of us. So in the novel, you have the tennis court that is like a sonnet. It's a little space, well-measured and precise, in which you have to keep the ball bouncing. And objects from that world that was becoming more brutal every day begin to arrive to the court.

SHAPIRO: When you connect present-day crises to crumbling empires from the past, does it make you feel better or worse about the moment we live in?

ENRIGUE: It lets me live. It lets me live with myself. At least I'm trying to do something. I think that books change reality. I really think so.

SHAPIRO: In what way?

ENRIGUE: I don't know. I can put a simple example that comes with the Latin American tradition in the 19th century that was tremendously rocky and difficult for the Latin-American countries. There were all these pre-modernist writers who wrote about cities that they didn't live in, of course, but that they could dream about. So if you read the poets of the 19th century Latin America, you could see that Havana or Mexico City or Buenos Aires are incredibly modern and global cities that they were not. And eventually, they became real. And they became because people wrote - read these books and tried to live in a better world. I'm sure that the novel is such a powerful critical tool that we can all help a little bit doing something. I cannot be a politician. I could not - I always say what I think, so I would be out of question as a politician.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ENRIGUE: I was not able to be the front forward of a soccer team. That is a way to make people super happy every Sunday. So what I can do was tell stories and try to put my coin in that discussion.

SHAPIRO: Well, Alvaro Enrigue, it is a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks very much for joining us.

ENRIGUE: Thank you, Ari.

SHAPIRO: The new book is called "Sudden Death."

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