Álvaro Enrigue is a Mexican writer who lives and teaches in New York. A leading light in the Spanish-language literary world, he is published by the prestigious Barcelona imprint Anagrama. His numerous awards include the Herralde Prize, one of the few in the megagalaxy of Spanish-language literary prizes that seems to align with Anglophone taste – former winners include Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías, Enrique Vila-Matas and Juan Villoro. He is also one of a number of writers, including Yuri Herrera, Andrés Neuman and Alejandro Zambra, that have been referred to as part of a new Latin American Boom. (The original Boom included Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa.) He is married to Valeria Luiselli, another eminent Mexican writer who has been thoughtfully translated and published in English; if the pair were in any doubt about their status as a literary power couple, they were then featured in Vogue in 2016, complete with moody black-and-white photo and the inimitably Vogue headline, ‘Married Mexican Writers Álvaro Enrigue and Valeria Luiselli on Their Buzzy New Novels and New York Life’.
Enrigue has written four novels and two short story collections, between which there hang some common threads. There is a consistent and interpenetrating concern with world history and the world’s current political dispensation. Though Sudden Death (tr. Natasha Wimmer) looks explicitly at the origins of transatlantic modernity, he has also said of it: ‘though set in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it is about the twenty-first’. I have seen him grimace hearing his work referred to as historical fiction, yet he has also spoken about the fact the novelist is in a good position to be ‘a prophet looking backwards’. His short story ‘A Samurai Sees the Sunrise in Acapulco’ (tr. Rahul Bery), published in The White Review No. 12, expands on a period in the 1600s when Japanese merchant ships, guarded by Samurai warriors, docked in Mexico; in Decencia [Decency], a character recounts his experience of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1920) and its heady aftermath. Politics are sometimes addressed head-on and sometimes as subtexts: Enrigue is on record as saying that, given the chaos and violence in the country in the last decade or so, no modern Mexican writer can avoid writing politically. (His 2014 essay in the London Review of Books, ‘When a Corpse Is a Message,’ remains a good primer on the state of Mexico since 2006, when the president Felipe Calderón declared ‘war’ on organised crime, and narco-traffickers began professionalising, and ultimately militarising, their operations.) There is also a noticeable focus on form in Enrigue’s work: Sudden Death always seems to be nibbling at the idea of what a novel can be; Hypothermia (tr. Brendan Riley) is both a short story collection and a novel, reflecting the nature of a number of the characters, who feel at home in neither the US nor Mexico. Other kinds of in-betweenness loom large too – such as Caravaggio’s bisexuality in Sudden Death, and the Orlando-like Jerónimo in Vidas Perpendiculares, who has the gift of being able to remember past lives, including one as a young woman in Greece at the time of Christ.
Enrigue’s work occupies seemingly incompatible positions. The formidable erudition comes allied with an anarchic, sometimes boyish sense of fun. Sex is depicted with an unusual combination of deftness and abandon, and despite the breadth of his intent, and the often grand concepts he toys with, he nonetheless steers clear of cold intellectualism. Carlos Fuentes said it best when he claimed that Enrigue ‘pertenece a una
– a muchas – tradiciones’: he belongs to many traditions at once.