New York-based Mexican novelist Álvaro Enrigue is one of a crop of exceptional Latin American writers whose works are belatedly making their way into English. A translation of his fourth novel, Hypothermia, appeared in 2013, with more to come – including his latest, Muerte súbita (Sudden Death), which won the prestigious Herralde Prize (previous winners include Roberto Bolaño and Javier Marías). He talks to Tony Wood about unholy tennis and what modernism owes to middle-class anxiety.
TONY WOOD Your latest novel has a (fictional) tennis match between Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo running through it. It’s a surprising angle on these figures; what made you choose it, apart from maybe enjoying the perversity of it?
ÁLVARO ENRIGUE Both were revolutionary artists and memorable criminals. In 1599, when the match in the novel takes place, Quevedo was 19 and already a murderer. Caravaggio, who was a little older, would soon be one. Quevedo wasn’t a tennis player, but Caravaggio eventually became decent at it. The idea that the artist who changed our whole way of making art, emphasising the creative process over the final result, was also a great ball player and friend of Galileo – that was a unique narrative opportunity. To me, what’s surprising is that no one else wrote this novel before I did. Both characters had a double life, which really lends itself to being represented on a tennis court. Caravaggio was the great artist of the Counter-Reformation, with a sexuality that was at the very least fluid. Quevedo was the great poet of the Spanish empire of the time, yet more than half his work – the satirical poems, then circulating anonymously – is a brutal critique of how that empire’s citizens went about things.
TW The historical research for Muerte súbita must have been fun. Did Anne Boleyn’s hair really get made into tennis balls after her execution?
AE Of course not. And Thomas More never said that tennis was among the evils besetting Henry VIII’s England. But it is true that the first time the word “tennis” appeared in written form – as “tenys” in vulgar Latin – was in a decree by the Bishop of Exeter excommunicating anyone who played the sport, considered an invention of the Devil. Most of the quotations in the book are textual, but some underwent a slight intervention. A normal procedure in contemporary art, and a technique authorised by Borges.
TW What drew you to that period?
AE That transition from the 16th to 17th century was when the rules were laid down for the game we’re still playing, when it became clear that the flow of objects and customs was truly global. This was a world that had suddenly shrunk, a confusing and wild world, like ours, in which the value of a human life
had declined considerably. Thinking about 17th-century Rome enabled me to understand a lot about Mexico in the early 21st. But maybe that’s just an excuse. I sometimes think we write fiction using what hasn’t yet ripened in our brains. I suffer from an almost childish impulse to recreate that world, in which I guess I’d like to have lived: the 17th century is in almost all my books, either explicitly or implicitly. Even in Hypothermia, set in the US in the 21st century, the characters think and say things 17th-century authors thought and said.
TW You’ve also got a book of essays just out in Spanish, Valiente clase media (Brave Middle Class), on Latin American literature and anxieties about class and money, conspicuous consumption, etc. Classic concerns for fiction everywhere, from Austen to Dostoevsky to Fitzgerald. What’s different about how these subjects have been handled in Latin America?
AE To differentiate itself from Europe, as a unique and independent region, Latin America had to throw the ideas of the imperial heartland into crisis. The unfolding of that crisis in many ways put the region ahead of the European powers then dominating it. Latin American modernism comes 40 years before all the other modernisms, and its founding moment is a poem by the Mexican writer Manuel Gutiérrez Nájera about a middle-class woman hurrying through the city to work. This was in 1884! It’s fascinating how early these neurotic middle-class tastes started being superimposed on languid, aristocratic European discourses in Latin American literature. Valiente clase media sets out a hypothesis about why that sudden, furious ferment of modernity took place in a region where no one expected anything to happen.
TW You seem to be drawing a connection between middle-class anxiety and avant-garde art. How closely do you identify with the figures you discuss in Valiente clase media?
AE Not exactly avant-garde, as the Latin American modernists didn’t have a programme. They did have a lot of class anxiety, though, and a great desire to be seen as writers on the world stage – an ambition none of them achieved: the next generation (Neruda, Vallejo, Borges) was actually the first to be globally translated and acclaimed. But the modernists were obsessed with finding modes of literary representation that were specific to the Americas, and also connected to the social realities of the globalised world they lived in.
It’s true that there’s a lot of autobiographical anguish in Valiente clase media. Which creates a fun connection with my generation of Latin American writers: now that novels centred on the self – in which narrator and author are the same person – are so fashionable in these parts, I’ve ended up writing secretly autobiographical criticism.
TW Several of your books have a fragmentary, episodic form. How strongly were you influenced by the short story tradition, Latin American or otherwise?
AE The best Spanish-American writing has always been fragmentary and episodic. When I write, I think not so much of the rich Latin American and US short story traditions as of masterpieces told in bits, like Cortázar’s Hopscotch, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Martín Luis Guzmán’s The Eagle and the Serpent. Well, it’s not exactly that I’m thinking of them, but they’re the novels I admired when I was young, the ones that made me become a writer. I have no interest in writing books that begin at A and end at C, passing through B. I don’t think either of the two books of mine that have been labelled as collections of stories – Hypothermia and Virtudes capitales (Capital Virtues) – are actually that; it’s just that they experiment a bit more with the boundaries of genres, and that’s something publishers find unbearable. They have a lower tolerance for vertigo, because they worry about sales, so they package them as story collections. But they’re not, they’re solid books, which tell a single story, broken up in various ways. A character doesn’t always have to have the same name or the same surroundings to carry on being the same character.
TW A lot of the characters in Hypothermia are exiles of some kind – most of them not migrant workers but what one character calls “high-class wetbacks”. Is this a particular collective experience of immigration that hasn’t been explored much?
AE During the last part of the 20th century, it was usually us educated, middle-class Latin Americans and Asians who were migrating, guided more by curiosity or intellectual ambition than by a need for freedom or money. Europeans and Americans often migrated in that way in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and produced a great literature – alongside which I’d love for Hypothermia to be read. The book sees Washingtonians or American professors or young professionals as beautiful savages; it adopts the distant anthropologist’s point of view. It’s interesting that the thirst for the foreign almost vanished from Europe and the US after 1945 – who knows why. It went the way of the dinosaurs. Now that Europe is becoming less and less comfortable and the US is no longer the land of opportunity, the balance may shift. Latin American universities, art colleges and tech institutions could benefit a lot from young Europeans who don’t see their future being as secure – and boring – as their parents’. There are more and more recent European arrivals, not only in New York, an obvious destination, but in Mexico City or São Paulo. I hope they do well: it’s important to revive that intercontinental conversation.
TW In Hypothermia, a Latin American writer takes part in a literary event in Berlin and feels like “an artifact on display in a compassion museum”. Do you feel a burden of representation, an obligation to be a “Latin American writer”?
AE Not long ago a very cultured, sensitive woman told my wife, who’s also a writer, that maybe New York – such a difficult city – is treating us well because we’re like Diego and Frida. What more can I say? When we recounted this over Christmas dinner, dying with laughter, a Mexican opera singer who was with us started singing “No se puede con los gringos!” (“Gringos are impossible!”) Not only do I not feel obliged to write as a Latin American, as a Mexican, as a native of Mexico City or Coyoacán; I don’t even feel obliged to write as Álvaro Enrigue. I try hard to make sure my books don’t resemble anything else, including my own previous books. §