What makes the novel so enthralling is the intimate humanity of its characters. Enrigue demystifies them using a rich, baroque naturalism, cut by flippancy and goofy jokes ... Throughout this mercurial novel, playing fast and loose with facts lets richer truths about the world emerge.
...[a] sublime novel ... dazzlingly vivid scenes, in a dazzlingly vivid translation ... Sudden Death does nothing less than deconstruct and reimagine the origin story of the modern world, and it does so in a way that allows history to breathe and shimmer and shift much like this mantle ... a work so beautiful that it might take your breath away.
“Sudden Death is a splendid introduction to Mr. Enrigue’s varied body of work, but it also raises a question related to the themes of the novel: Why are English-language readers only now getting a glimpse of what this gifted writer has produced in a career that is already two decades old?
By turns intellectual and earthy, Enrigue’s fictionalized account of Renaissance Europe and 16th century Mexico is the best kind of history lesson: erudite without being stuffy, an entertaining work that incorporates the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire, art history and even a grammar lesson on Spanish diminutives into one mesmerizing narrative.
Sudden Death isn't normative: a short screenplay and the author's emails are interspersed with short entries from obscure sporting dictionaries and excerpts from humanist classics. Chapters are short, enticing and written with a casual erudition that whispers to readers that, no matter the apparent surprises of the game, the author is in full control ... Sudden Death affirms the joys of play amid a drowning world.
Like a movie director trying to manage an unwieldy ensemble cast, Enrigue has pulled off a script where both Montezuma and Henry VIII have parts to play. The acting is superb, the lighting enchanting. There’s just one problem, something a little empty at the center of this Renaissance-era Love Actually. At times, Enrigue’s historical showpiece is all brains and too little heart.
Here is how you read Sudden Death if you want to enjoy it: grease it up and swallow it down whole, with all of its inconsistencies, appreciating, above all, the enthusiasm and wonder with which Enrigue seems to approach his work ... Sudden Death is your kid brother who keeps fucking up but has a heart of gold. You can’t help but admire the audacity, even if there are moments when it feels like a disaster.
It reads like a metafictional, freewheeling therapy session on the legacies of colonialism, imperial ambition, and modernity. It’s also a love story, and a story about the constraining nature of the rules of love ... In one sense, this is a book about flogging a metaphor to death, about the various ways in which the game of tennis can come to stand for so many other things: games of state, games of love, even the knockabout e-mail exchanges between Enrigue and one of his (perhaps fictitious) editors, which are quoted verbatim ... In less able hands, this could all feel a bit labored, but in Sudden Death the postmodernist flourishes are never mere gimmicks. They are suited to their subject, reflecting and revealing the games and tricks of empires and of the histories they construct to justify themselves.
When I put it down, I wasn’t thinking about how funny it is, or the number of erections it contains, or the Counter-Reformation. Instead I began to worry about my friends who are writers and artists: their sometimes clashing spirits, the imperceptible ways they demolish monuments, the threat of political violence that hangs just over the horizon line, like a burning tennis ball.
Sudden Death is about so much more than tennis, for in the hands of a brilliant writer such as Enrigue, it is not just a lifetime but an entire segment of human history that a tournament between two individuals can bring to life ... The palimpsestic narratives that Enrigue exposes in the process are not only vigorous and compelling but also deeply illuminating, placing the book in the tradition of Borges, Sebald, and Calasso ... There is no shortage of wonderful books with pumping hearts but it is much rarer to find one that resembles a fully functional organism—complex, bloody, relentless yet subtle, and ultimately glorious in its humanity and inventiveness.