I was both baffled and intrigued by this novel. I was baffled because I started out trying to make sense of something that was intended to be a wild, reckless ride along a winding road going nowhere and I was intrigued because of the excellence of the story-telling and its raucous hilarity. Adding to the enjoyment was the fluidity of the translation from Spanish to English. It was so well done. It does not read with the awkward good intentions of a translator but rather, as if it was written in the modern English vernacular. (Good job Natasha Wimmer).
I gave this work of fiction the ‘post-modern’ tag to indicate that it does not follow a straightforward story telling formula of having a beginning, a middle and an end. I wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do after all, what does post modern mean anymore? I have heard of the term as far back as the nineteen sixties and have always asked myself what comes after post modern? Post post–modern?
The chapters skip from one time period to another and mention events such the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the Counter Reformation the Spanish Conquest of South America and the political maneuverings of cardinals, popes and power hungry Italian and Spanish aristocrats of the mid sixteenth century and all of this jumbled together into a sort of rowdy salad of cameo portraits. At one extreme, the religious personages are worldly and lascivious and at the other are excessively upright and chaste in they’re ardent mission to rid their world of heretics by burning them out of existance (perhaps that’s not so funny). Interspersing the chapters filled with outrageuos escapdes and character portraits are chapters that follow a ficticous tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. The ball they are using is stuffed with the hair shaved from the head of the ill fated Anne Boelyn. The author hints that life and death are some how tied into the outcome of this match but this is never really clarified as the players themselves are suffering from oppressive hangovers and have little recollection of how they came to be tied up in this game. (By the bye the author provides a historic account of the development of the game of tennis and its variations, which I think he made up out of his head, not that it matters). As the story progresses the match disintergrates into something that is more like two puppies rolling around in the dirt than a game with rules and formalities. In fact the whole story with all its diversions and portraits and idiosyncratic characters might be an elaborate invention. I think we are not meant to check out the accuracy of the author’s historical account. For example, Hernán Cortés is portrayed as a tough but rather ridiculous, dippy old man who stumbles through the conquest of South America destroying a civilization while hardly understanding the devastating outcome of his actions. Then there is the Bishop Vasco de Quiroga who took the satirical writings of Thomas More literally and tried to create Utopia in fifteenth century Mexico. This seems to ring true based on a Google search but it would not have to be to make this novel worth reading . Álvaro Enrigue writes with strength and self-confidence so if his stories are not true they read with the verisimilitude demanded by good literature. So I would never check the facts closely, this is not what the story is about.
After I had invested a great deal of time in the reading of this book I became concerned when I was three quaters of the way through and had no idea what it was about. However, the author eventually explains its substance and meaning towards the end and it makes sense. Therefore as the mystery of what this book could possibly be about is part of its charm I am not going to give away the solution to the puzzle.
I enjoyed this book and would advise anyone who would take it up to have a light heart and not worry as all will be revealed in time.