A Clash of Civilizations Brought to Life

The Aug. 13, 2021 edition of The New York Times failed to mention the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, the erstwhile Aztec capital out of which Mexico City was born. Álvaro Enrigue noticed. Of course.

The 54-year-old Enrigue, who grew up in Mexico City, believes that early meeting between Europe and the Americas changed the trajectory of global commerce, urbanism, industry and much else besides. Modernity itself, he argues, was born in the moment the Aztec emperor Moctezuma and Hernan Cortés, the Spanish conquistador, first looked each other in the eye in 1519, a clash of empires that set in motion the city’s capture two years later.

“Not a single article, and it was the great city of the Americas at that time,” he said.

For Enrigue, the rise, fall and rebirth of Tenochtitlan is perhaps the foremost obsession in a lifetime full of them. In short stories, novels, essays and reviews, he has delved into the histories of Geronimo, Rubén Darío, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and 17th-century samurai transplants in Acapulco, to name a few. His 2016 novel, “Sudden Death,” imagined a tennis match between Caravaggio and Francisco de Quevedo using a ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.

Enrigue’s work is marked by an all-consuming attention to historical detail; he “needed to know how a Roman person tied his shoes, in order to write a book in which no one ties their shoes,” he said. But if Enrigue is perhaps overenthusiastic about his subjects, it is surely to his readers’ benefit. He is a preternaturally entertaining and erudite writer who builds alternate worlds from the minutiae. He also seems like he’s having a pretty good time.

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