Read Sudden Death Online

Authors: Álvaro Enrigue

Sudden Death (7 page)

Tennis, Art, and Whoring

n the thirteenth-century work
The Book of Apollonius
, written in an early form of Castilian, the king of Tyre is blown off course by a storm and ends up in the city of Mytilene, where his daughter, Tarsiana, has been sold into slavery at a brothel and waits for someone to rescue her; like Scheherazade, she sings riddles that delay her surrender to the patrons.

When Apollonius and Tarsiana meet, they don't know that they're father and daughter, and she challenges him with riddles because he comes preceded by his reputation as a clever man, able to untangle any enigma. One of her rhymes, probably the oldest reference to tennis balls in Spanish, goes like this:

Hairy within and hairless without,

Tresses hidden deep in my breast;

I pass from hand to hand, always beaten about,

When the time comes to sup I sit bereft.

The tennis ball in
The Book of Apollonius
is described in a way reminiscent of the work that Tarsiana manages to stave off.
The ball is like a shaved woman—“hairless without”—that is hit—“always beaten about”—and that isn't invited to eat—“when the time comes to sup I sit bereft” because once it's been passed “from hand to hand” it's good for only one thing: to bounce around the piazza, making money for others.

Game to the Author

On June 13, 2013 17:02, Teresa Astrain wrote:


Please remember the book has to be ready before summer vacation. Are you making any progress?

About the roof thing. What kind of question is that? What kind of answer do you want? That it comes from Latin? It must be based in real life: kids lose balls all the time, balls end up on roofs, neighbors have to throw them back. I don't know.

Return the proofs,


On 6/13/13 17:19, “Álvaro Enrigue” wrote:

No, Teresa: it comes from Renaissance tennis. The game was played on a court with a wooden-shingled roof over the spectators' seats. The serve had to hit it to be good.

Can I include our e-mails in the new novel if I send you the proofs by this weekend?

On June 13, 2013 17:22, Teresa Astrain wrote:

Great. I didn't know that. And I would prefer not to broadcast my ignorance, so please don't use my e-mails, and send the proofs by Friday regardless.

The Testament of Hernán Cortés

he conquistador must have been a nice man, despite his unwieldy role as the protagonist in the greatest and most revolutionary epic of his century and possibly of all history. Something in his fate weighed heavily on him, bewildered him, set him apart from the world, and, possibly for that reason, he was very clear about everything else, to the last day of his life. Despite his bitterness, he was practically minded and funny. He hid his torments, which were many, behind clouded eyes that were not softened by old age.

He spent his final years far from the noble circles of Seville, where he would have been adored if only he had cared to behave a little and play along at court. But he was the kind of man who had seen so much that it would never have occurred to him not to scratch his ass if it itched.

He wasn't a hermit. At his house in Castilleja de la Cuesta he met regularly with the barber, the parish priest, the baker, the musician from the chapel, and a local poet—Lope Rodríguez—whose name has survived because he served as regular witness to the affairs of the conquistador. It was Rodríguez, it seems, who guided Cortés in the reading of classical epics, of which the
conquistador was a fan so long as he didn't have to read them himself. He was probably already blind, but he was also a man who remained forever childish and somehow unformed. Like our children when they're little, he preferred to have someone read to him.

The conquistador was a one-horse man. When the horse upon which he entered Mexico City died at an advanced age in Seville, he buried it in his garden. From the day it could no longer bear him, he had refused any other mount. One gathers the beast was less a means of transport than the iron flail that increased a thousandfold the area of the Holy Roman Empire, but even so it's hard to imagine that when Cortés went to the city for provisions, he traveled in the priest's dusty cart or among the baker's baskets.

Lope Rodríguez, the bard, was with him on his last trip away from home, three months before death took him in his bed. We know the story because several letters survive, written from the poet to the widow left behind in Cuernavaca. Cortés went to see the Florentine banker Giacomo Botti so he could pawn the last batch of gems he had left in Spain, because he had no money to pay his doctor.

When he died, his belongings were auctioned off on the steps of the cathedral in Seville. The text of the “Tender of the Marqués del Valle,” drawn up in September 1548 to certify the sale, included used clothing, a wool mattress, two stoves, two sheets, three bedcovers, a set of plates, a set of pitchers and copper pots, a chair, and two books. There isn't even a table or bed frame on the list: at the age of sixty-two he was still eating and sleeping like a soldier, though it's abundantly clear that he
wasn't poor—his daughter Juana's dowry was more than enough to buy her the duke of Alcalá, who wasn't a bad catch for the child of an insubordinate.

The simplicity of Cortés's Seville possessions indicates something other than poverty: a spirit of retreat and a general disinterestedness; the fact that he was a man who no longer registered the material world, whether distanced by the memory of his momentary step into myth or by the resentment he felt for not having occupied a position of real bureaucratic power since Charles V—his left ball—made him a marquis and removed him from the captaincy of Mexico. It was only after he had been granted the title and returned to New Spain that he realized that this was a kick upstairs, that now he counted only as a millionaire.

Cortés's widow did play along at court when she eventually returned to Seville, but with an insulting lack of enthusiasm, and mostly to assure the future of her daughter Juana. There is nothing to suggest, however, that she was unhappy. When she left her palace of warmer days (and nights) in Cuernavaca and returned with Juana to Spain, she believed that she had done her duty to the world and she became a luxury object: a person who was invited places and kissed simply because she was someone the conquistador had fucked. She spoke in Bantu to her slaves, in Nahuatl to her attendants, and in Spanish to no one but her daughter—she merely smiled at everyone else, as if they were characters in a dream that had already gone on too long. She didn't fit into anyone's present because she was really an utter relic of the past: La Señora Cortés, Marquesa del Valle.

The sword, the lance, the helmet, and the arquebus that
would eventually hang on the wall of the garden room at the house of the duke of Alcalá had been kept by Lope Rodríguez after the conquistador's death, in the hope that Cortés's widow would send for him to bring them himself to the infinite palace of Cuernavaca.

Lope wrote a florid epistle, impenetrable and idiotic, to the marquesa del Valle, in which he suggested that she pay his way to New Spain so that once he had delivered the weapons he could give her a full account of her husband's pious last days. Along with the weapons, the bard had rescued the conquistador's scapular and the coat of arms that Charles V had granted Cortés, created according to a horrendous design that Don Hernán himself had proposed from Mexico.

“La Vermine Hérétique”

espite the enthusiasm with which King Francis received the Anne Boleyn balls, he never used them on court. He was a cultivated, sensitive man, given to secrecy, and though he made a show of satisfaction and mockery when they were presented to him, he never took them out of their box. It was natural in a man of his type, chilly and careful.

Francis I was not a creature of tennis courts and macho posturing. He had been a benefactor of poets and musicians, a patron of Leonardo; he collected books. When he was at last able to seize Milan from Charles V, he plundered all the classical art he could with rigorous benevolence and then lost the city again. His collections would be the foundation for what was later the Louvre—which he rebuilt—and the Bibliothèque Nationale. He financed the expedition of Giovanni da Verrazzano on which Virginia, Maryland, and New York were discovered, with no thought of expanding his realm.

It was in the city of New York that three of the balls made from the hair of the beheaded queen finally ended up. I saw them in the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue at
Forty-second Street, where they are kept in the archives of historic sporting equipment.

King Francis took the three balls to the Palace of Fontainebleau in 1536. There they remained, and never touched a tennis court, as the curator who is in charge of their care today explained to me. Most likely, he said with the air of someone who has spent much time thinking about something, they didn't spend long in the trophy hall before they were assigned a humbler and more honorable role as bookends. Were they removed even once from the box before they arrived in America? I ventured. Unlikely. Can I touch them? No. Why are they here? Andrew Carnegie bought them in a lot of French manuscripts and donated them to us; they arrived with the steel beams that hold up the ceilings of the library's underground stacks. I persisted: Is there any proof that they're the same balls from the box that Rombaud gave to Francis I? He pointed with his gloved index finger to an inscription on one of them in letters indecipherable to me:
“Avec cheveux de la vermine hérétique.”
He translated for me, smugly: With hair from the heretic vermin.

Cortés's Coat of Arms

ever has a man done for any faith what Hernán Cortés did for Renaissance Catholicism, and yet five centuries after the greatest religious feat of all time, the Vatican continues to look the other way whenever his name is invoked. What a provincial brute he must have been never to receive recognition for having set at the feet of the pope—his right ball—a world complete with all its animals, plants, temples, and little houses with hundreds of thousands of ladies and gentlemen inside, cavorting like rabbits, taking advantage of the fact that they could run around almost buck naked in the eternal good weather.

One has to see Cortés sweating in his armor, smoke-blackened and splattered by the blood of his enemies, imagine him blasting gods with his cannon. More than a soldier, statesman, or millionaire, the conquistador was the eye of a storm that hovered over the Atlantic for twenty-six years, its winds uprooting houses everywhere from the imperial Vienna of Charles V to the Canary Islands, from the Canary Islands to Tenochtitlan, from Tenochtitlan to Cuzco: one and a half million square miles full of people who sooner or later would become Christians because an uncredentialed man in his forties from the backwater of
Extremadura had broken the stewpot of the world without realizing what he was doing.

Each second, 4.787 people are born in Mexico, and 1.639 die, which means that the population increases by an average rate of 3.148 Mexicans per second. A nightmare. Today there are more than 117 million Mexicans, and an unspecified number followed by six zeros in the United States. A rough calculation suggests that between 1821, the year the country gained its independence, and the second decade of the twenty-first century, 180 million Mexicans, more or less, have been born. Out of all of them, only José Vasconcelos considered Cortés to be a hero. His unpopularity is nearly universal.

Take, for example, an inexplicable organization called the Mexican National Front, consisting of thirty-two skinheads. The thirty-two morons who belong to the Front are admirers of Hitler—and even they explain on their website that Cortés was a bastard. With the marquis del Valle we have a case of the most spectacularly bad image-management of all time. His last wish was for his body to be brought back to Mexico, where he wanted to be laid to rest. None of the 1.639 Mexicans dying at this instant visited his tomb; all would be opposed to a monument being raised to him, to his being memorialized on a plaque, to any object in the world reminding them of his existence. The 4.787 who've just been born will feel the same way. He did something very wrong, and he knew it: in his will he left alms for four thousand masses to be said for the salvation of his soul. If the masses, paid in advance, were said once a day in the parish church of Castilleja de la Cuesta, eleven years after his death his
spirit was still being nervously commended each morning to the souls in purgatory.

All of this explains why no one in Mexico—or Spain either, I presume—has ever seen Cortés's coat of arms. It has four fields, the first of silver with the double-headed eagle of the Habsburgs representing the Holy Roman Empire, which the conquistador had expanded by dimensions too great to be calculated at the time. The second field is of sable, stamped with the three crowns of the Triple Alliance, which Cortés had overthrown when he subdued the Aztec empire on August 13, 1521, Saint Hippolytus's Day. A third is of gold with a lion celebrating Cortés's bravery, and a fourth of blue with a sketch of Mexico City atop the waters. Around the coat of arms is a kind of garland wreathing the four emblems, a chain from which hang the seven decapitated heads of the seven caciques of the towns of Lake Texcoco. Good taste was never Cortés's strong suit.

The coat of arms and the weapons never reached Mexico, because at the time of Cortés's death, the conquistador's daughter Juana was about to turn fourteen and her mother had already decided to return to Spain to find her a match in keeping with their infinite wealth—the worst possible scenario for poor Lope Rodríguez, who lost hope of any profit in the matter.

The Cortés ladies settled in Castilleja de la Cuesta and received the arms and the scapular in a solemn ceremony at which all the ragtag final companions of the conquistador were present, and which lasted about the time it takes to boil an egg. Then they focused their attention on making a marriage with
the house of Alcalá, which didn't take much longer than the surrender of arms, because like all the nobles of Old Spain—as Juana Cortés dubbed the country that she was already beginning to find stifling—they were walled in by debt and clearly in decline.

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