This is a novel which is gloriously and provocatively impossible to classify. If the author did not himself refer to it as a novel, I might be tempted to question that definition. Perhaps I should. Perhaps Enrigue calls his book a novel to provoke a challenge. Certainly, it contains fiction. It puts words into the mouths of historical characters and thoughts in their heads which cannot be known but only imagined. Yet it also includes lengthy quotations from other texts, from More’s Utopia to an exchange of emails between the author and his editor. Wimmer’s translation is outstanding and rises to the challenge of linguistic humour superbly.
A tennis match is being played in Rome, at the height of the Counter-Reformation, between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Quevedo. The match is in lieu of a duel. Caravaggio’s second is Galileo, Quevedo’s a feckless Spanish nobleman married to Cortes’ granddaughter. The balls may or may not be stuffed with hair cut from the head of Anne Boleyn before her execution. Thus revolutions in art, astronomy and religion come together on the court and the spirit of the New World presides over the proceedings.
Enrigue makes bold and ingenious imaginative leaps, from Caravaggio’s mastery of chiaroscuro to the way pictures made of feathers in what is now Mexico catch the light, from war on the court to war between empires, the velocity of balls to the calculation of odds. You never know where you’re going next. A wildly funny, scurrilous, passionate, apostate journey through the birth canal of the modern world. A horrid history for grown-ups. The New World poking out its tongue (and other things) at the old. Wonderful.