Before she was executed, Anne Boleyn’s head was shaved. Afterwards, her hair was given to the executioner as part of the payment for his work. He then sold it, at a considerable sum for the time, to a maker of tennis balls, which were often filled with human hair in that century. Anne Boleyn’s hair was valued material for tennis balls because it was female, reddish in color and from someone believed to be a witch. Four tennis balls were made from her hair. One was used in a famed match between Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Another, through the usual suspicious provenance, ended up at the New York Public Library.
Since C.J. and I are cat-sitting in Brooklyn this summer, I, of course, thought we should go see this tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair. So I contacted the New York Public Library to ask if the tennis ball was on display. The librarian I spoke with, Nick, said he had never heard of this he would have heard of if they had a tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, but he gave me the number of a department that would probably know more about it.
So I did some on-line research only to discover, in a few minutes, that Alvaro Enrigue made the whole thing up. There are no tennis balls made from Anne Boleyns hair. Caravaggio and de Quevedo never played tennis against each other. The entire book is fiction, historical fiction.
But that I believed it all, or was so ready to believe it all, says something, maybe something about Mr. Enrigue’s book or maybe something about me.
Though I can say what happens in Sudden Death, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, it’s hard to say what the book is about. Even the narrator admits, just about two-thirds of the way through the novel, that he doesn’t know. There is the tennis match which is interspersed throughout the novel. Is it a metaphor for something larger? There is a plot involving Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and the story of how this will bring a piece of feather work to the attention of Italian artists, changing forever they way they use paint. And some treacherous popes, some surviving Aztec craftsmen, Cortez’s native wife who ends up living a life of luxury in Spain.
It’s a wonderful ride, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I recommend. One that I’m keeping around to read again someday.
It was also the first winner in the Tournament of Books. Sudden Death beat out both The Throwback Special which I loved and The Sport of Kings which I have not read yet, though I do own a copy. I didn’t think Sudden Death would win because it’s such a difficult book to pin down. What’s really going on is not what’s really going on in Sudden Death. The plot, as much fun as it was, may just be a cover for a discussion of writing or art or the nature of narrative or the unreliability of story or something someone more clever than I will figure out. It’s also very experimental in nature they Roberto Bolano’s work so often is. After finishing the book, I looked at the back cover to find that Mr. Enrigue is Mexican, not Spanish as I had assumed and that his work has been compared to Roberto Bolano. Should have known, I thought.
So while I was surprised to see it win the pre-tournament play-in round, I was still pleased.
It’s an excellent book. Let’s see how it does against Francine Prose’s Master Monkey.