Caravaggio’s Hair

Human hair, as Álvaro Enrigue points out in Sudden Death, is the only part of the human body that does not rot. It accordingly plays a starring role in the novel, which is as interested in the ...

Human hair, as Álvaro Enrigue points out in Sudden Death, is the only part of the human body that does not rot. It accordingly plays a starring role in the novel, which is as interested in the persistence of human bodies as in their destruction. The tennis ball fiercely batted between the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo and the Italian painter Caravaggio in the novel’s central drama is filled with Anne Boleyn’s hair, stolen by her executioner, who himself sports a “fresh-washed lion’s mane” up until the moment of his own execution.

In Sudden Death, hair epitomizes both the body’s lived experience and its possible afterlives. It is at once excrescence and essence, a sign of the tenacious materiality of human life. For good luck on the tennis court, Quevedo wears a scapular, a religious garment hung from the shoulders, made with the hair of Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec Emperor, for the conquistador Hernán Cortés. The beeswax candle that lights up the naked body of the Mayan princess Malinalli, Cortés’s concubine and translator, is lit with a wick made of her own hair. At one point, a sniff of Caravaggio’s oily hair transports Quevedo, otherwise anxiously managed by his aristocratic patron, to another world of erotic and imaginative possibility. This same hair flows into the lower parts of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings, David and Goliath and Judith Beheading Holofernes. The painter used his own head as the model for these beheaded heads, both implicitly pleading for reprieve from his own death sentence—among other crimes, he’d killed a man on a tennis court—and making his own black hair an integral part of the chiaroscuro (Italian for “light-dark”) for which he became famous.

Enrigue’s novel comments ironically on the relationship between labor and capital, showing Caravaggio literally running his freshly completed paintings between the palaces of his two patrons, a cardinal and a banker. But it also takes a more subtle interest in dirt and filth, particularly in the fantasy that they are somehow of a different order than God, money, and art. In one brilliant scene, Caravaggio rests the just-completed Judith Beheading Holofernes on his boots to protect it from the mud as he knocks on his patron’s door. “Anyone who believes that earthly objects are all composed of the same group of substances,” Enrigue writes, “and that transformations are only accomplished by mechanical means, will naturally perceive the voice of God in the filthy fingernails—nails that are of this world, a part of history—of Caravaggio’s saints and virgins.” Caravaggio, he continues, “was to painting what Galilei was to physics”: “someone who understood that the true mystery of the forces that control how we inhabit the earth is not how lofty they are, but how elemental.” One of the finer tricks of the novel is that we don’t find out until near its end that the “silent and prematurely aged professor of mathematics” who marks up the tennis court of the Quevedo-Caravaggio game, predicting, with uncanny accuracy, exactly where the ball will bounce, is none other than Galileo himself.

The novel engages the “lofty” and the “elemental” on many planes, shifting, for instance, between theologians, philosophers, and artists, and the diverse labors and materials that enable their work: Quevedo’s ancestors were gentlemen of kings’ bedchambers and ladies of queens’ toilets; the models in Caravaggio’s paintings whores and “arse-fanner[s].” (The fantastic Italian word for this particular job is asciugaculi; if you Google it, you get a picture of a modern blow-dryer.1) The progenitors of artists and poets are people who wipe the shit off their noses in the latrines of Renaissance palaces, their fingernails bearing not only the traces of their own work, but the elemental connectedness of things, which is about as close as Enrigue wants to get to God. (In another great scene, he describes the New Spanish bishop Vasco de Quiroga as a “man of the world who became a man of God when his circumstances demanded it; not exactly the God in whose name everyone stole and murdered in Rome, Spain, and America, but a better one, who unfortunately doesn’t exist either.”)

The novel fluctuates between the “lofty” and the “elemental” in terms of genre and tone as well. Enrigue describes the work of Caravaggio, Quiroga, and Galileo with scrupulous care. Caravaggio’s paintings, in particular, are consistently brought to vivid and moving life: indeed, I wished Enrigue had done the same for Quevedo’s sonnets. The novel is also rife with bawdy, even farcical, sex scenes—Galileo “scratching an itch” with Caravaggio; a drunk Quevedo fumbling around in Caravaggio’s codpiece. These scenes interrupt and cast ironic light on the great marches of history that the novel takes on: the founding of the New World; the Counter-Reformation; the birth of the modern world.

As Enrigue points out in an interview with the American writer Teju Cole that prefaced the galleys for the English translation, Sudden Death is a story about the expansion of the Spanish language and its political uses: “The modern world was designed in the first European languages that seriously left Europe, and those were Portuguese and Spanish.” In the novel itself, Mexican Spanish is “crisscrossed with the scars of Nahuatl.” Enrigue draws parallels between Caravaggio and a Nahua featherworker, Huanitzin, whose innovations in color and light serve as inspiration for Caravaggio’s own work. Huanitzin is a brilliant malapropper of Spanish, offering, in Natasha Wimmer’s thoughtful English translation, to send a “peasant” (present) to “His Holidays” (His Holiness), in an act that at once refuses the master’s language and exposes its violent appropriations. “A peasant,” the bishop Quiroga says as he beholds the brilliantly iridescent featherworked miter Huanitzin has made for the pope, “is a common campesino.” In one scene, Enrigue, who appears as a character in the novel with some frequency, describes a visit to the Irish nuns who inherited Cortés’s Spanish mansion. They tell him they are visited by Cortés’s dead, whom they can’t understand because they speak “a language from somewhere else.” English, in particular, has been deaf to much of the history, both linguistic and political, that Sudden Death seeks to tell.

In a chapter unique to the English translation, “On Names, and the Troubled History and Politics of How Things Are Named,” Enrigue explains the significance of the diminutive suffix tzin in Nahuatl etiquette: “A whole vision of the universe would be lost if Malinalli Tenépatl, the Mayan Princess who was Hérnan Cortés’s translator, didn’t refer to Cuauhtémoc as Cuauhtemoctzin.” The function of a novel, he writes, is “to name what is lost” and “to be a machine for understanding the world, or the ways in which we name the world.” The extraordinary ambition of Sudden Death is seen most clearly in how Enrigue thinks through how stories about the creation of the modern world have been told, including in English, and in American contexts.

Unknown artist, <i>Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519</i> (c. 15001600)

Unknown artist, Cortés and La Malinche meet Moctezuma in Tenochtitlan, November 8, 1519 (c. 15001600)

Enrigue appears in his novel in a range of ways. He shows up as a character who finds the Boleyn-hair-stuffed tennis balls in the (fictional) “archives of historic sporting equipment” in the New York Public Library (donated, notably, by a Carnegie). He appears in authorial asides and commentaries, as when he muses that perhaps all books are written “simply because in every game the bad guys have the advantage and that is too much to bear.” And he shows up under a literary cover, indebted, not immodestly, to the ways in which the great humanists, including Miguel de Cervantes, appeared in their own literary works.

When Cortés’s men first arrive on the shores of Mexico in Sudden Death, suffering from the heat and the insects, a soldier named “Álvaro de Campos” asks Cortés: “How to go on like this, Captain.” As a professional reader of humanist texts, I was thrilled by these lines, the guilelessness of the author’s appearance, and the brilliant ways in which campos evokes both the fields of sporting and military endeavor, and the field of operation in which the author, Álvaro Enrigue, is setting up his vernacular literary ambitions (el campo literaria). In Philip Sidney’s Arcadia (1580s), the shepherd poet “Philisides,” a near anagram of the author’s own name, pops up in a similar way, defending his country, both in arms and with (English) poems.

In Sudden Death, a novel, in part, about the conquistadores, the Mexican novelist Álvaro presents himself as a kind of descendent of an Álvaro who participated in those campaigns and helped set up the Spanish “camps” in the New World. Knowing that there are layers of literary tradition that Enrigue is working with far beyond my area of expertise, I looked up “Álvaro de Campos” and discovered that the name was one of the “heteronyms” of the modernist Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, known, as Wikipedia tells us, “by his powerful and wrathful writing style.” The Poetry Foundation website offers the following poem by “Álvaro de Campos” (translated by Richard Zenith):

So many gods!
They’re like books—you can’t read everything, you never know anything.
Happy the man who knows but one god, and keeps him a secret.
Every day I have different beliefs—
Sometimes in the same day I have different beliefs—
And I wish I were the child now crossing
The view from my window of the street below.
He’s eating a cheap pastry (he’s poor) without efficient or final cause,
An animal uselessly raised above the other vertebrates,
And through his teeth he sings a ribald show tune …
Yes, there are many gods,
But I’d give anything to the one who’d take that child out of my sight.

Zenith writes that almost all of de Campos’s poemsare dramatic, staged, acted out. The poet is right there, in the middle of the poem, playing a role.” Enrigue plays a similar role in Sudden Death; “Álvaro de Campos” is both a “common campesino” who questions Cortés and a figure for the languages in which the modern, and modernist, worlds were made. He is also a figure for the author. “Yesterday at my corner deli in New York City,” Enrigue writes toward the end of the book, “I bought a couple of perfect avocados grown in the orchards of Mechuacán by the descendants of Quiroga’s Indians.” Sudden Death, as Enrigue pointed out in a recent interview in the New York Times, “is not about the 16th century, but really about what is happening today.” While in the interview he’s referring specifically to what is happening in Mexico, in the novel, and even more pronouncedly in Wimmer’s translation, he is also intensely interested in what happens when Mexico is consumed in America. icon

  1. Thanks to the search engine’s autocorrection of asciugaculi to asciugacapelli.
Featured image: Caravaggio, Judith Beheading Holofernes (c. 159899)