The Petticoat Lane Spieler & The Modern Novelist

When I was a lad in East London in the 1950s and early 1960s, one of my favourite experiences was to visit Petticoat Lane market on a Sunday. It was — maybe still is — a great open air market specializing in shmutter; thousands of cheap clothes on racks. But there were also stalls selling everything from jellied eels and junk, to carpets and suitcases. It was always packed.

The modern TV infomercial salesmen have nothing on the spielers down the Lane. My favourite was always the china seller; I could listen to his spiel for hours. He would be selling dinner services and tea sets, and he did it by adding each item one by one to a precarious pile on his stall or, most famously, on his arm. “You also get six side plates,” he’d yell, and somehow add them to the pile. “And wait, we’ll also thrown in ‘alf a dozen tea cups, and the saucers wot goes wiv ’em.”  Eventually, he would have dozens of dishes and cups and plates and soup tureens and sauce jugs in a miraculously balanced heap. And he would sell them all for a bargain price.

It was a great show and one of them is featured at the very beginning and very end of this nostalgic short about the Market:

The whole point of the spiel was to sell the dishes of course, but he did it by showing how clever he was piece by piece. Oddly, I was reminded of this as I read Alvaro Enrigue’s 2013 novel “Sudden Death“, which ranges in time between the conquest of Mexico and the Counter-Reformation period of Europe straddling the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I enjoy erudition and learning new stuff but, in this case, at least through the first half of the book, I kept thinking that the author was trying too hard to show how clever and learned he was by piling one exotic fact on top of another, over and over again. The book is certainly more full of facts than it is of plot.

The link through the book is a pallacorda match between the Italian artist Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo, played with a ball stuffed with the hair of the beheaded Anne Boleyn.  Much of the artist’s early career is covered in episodes, as is the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, and Papal politics leading to and from the Council of Trent.  The book swings back and forth in time and location, and the author occasionally breaks through the fourth wall by directly engaging the reader with twenty-first century concerns.

It took me a while to get into this book. The style, while choppy in narrative, is lively and vulgar and delivered in short bursts. Many of the passages are lyrical and, it cannot be denied, an enormous erudition is brought to bear on questions of art especially. What stays with me most is the view of the Conquest from several Mexican points of view.

When I was in my teens, I always finished up my visits to the Lane with a drink at Dirty Dicks pub. It gave me the time to recover from the excitement of the crowds in the Lane and to contemplate what I did and didn’t buy. Similarly, I think it will take me some time to fully appreciate the quality of Enrigue’s work.

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