Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants – Mathias Enard (tr. Charlotte Mandell)

A couple of years ago, I read my first Enard – Compass – and was blown away by it. It made by Best of the Year list. I was in the mood, therefore, for another Enard and settled in on Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants. It was not only slim but also a perfect choice for #fitzcarraldofortnight.

At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence.

One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople.

There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.

But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art.

Here’s how the novella begins…

Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn. And its people along with it – the drinkers, the poets, the lovers. We are the people of the banished, of the condemned.

We are in 1506, and Michelangelo has accepted the Sultan’s offer to build the bridge over the Golden Horn. But the Pope Julius II can never know, and so the famous sculptor is travelling to the East in secret helped by the Italian merchant Meringhi. Michelangelo, meanwhile, has been commissioned by the Pope to paint the ceiling of what is now the Sistine Chapel. But the artist frets over the stinginess of the religious leader in matters relating to money and more importantly his pay.

That is why he finds the Sultan’s offer so tempting – it promises of greater riches and glory. What also boosts his ego is that Leonardo da Vinci had worked on the drawings for the same project earlier but the Sultan was not pleased. He believes that Michelangelo has what it takes to accomplish this feat.

‘You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal, like your David.’

Armed with the delicious prospect of besting his rival among many other reasons, Michelangelo, therefore, flees Rome to make his way to Constantinople.

Once there, he is shown to his minimalistic quarters and is introduced to his translator Manuel as well as the Court poet Mesihi. Mesihi, in particular, has been appointed by the Sultan’s court to show Michelangelo around the city so that he can begin working on his drawings for the bridge.

It turns out to be an eventful few months for the great artist. He is dazzled by the beauty and splendor of the Ottoman Empire. But he struggles a bit at the beginning assailed by doubts about whether he can deliver and in the first few days does not have much to show for in terms of drawings.

Part of this can be attributed to the poet Mesihi who introduces him to the dives and bars of the city to revel in drinks and pleasure. Michelangelo becomes besotted with an androgynous dancer much to the chagrin of Mesihi who harbours a passion for the artist himself.

Between couplets, as the little orchestra is playing to its heart’s content, she, or he, dances; an elegant dance, very restrained, in which the body spins, moves around a fixed axis, almost without the feet moving at all. A slow undulation of strings released, manipulated by the wind. It it’s a woman’s body, its perfect; if it’s a man’s body, Michelangelo would pay dearly top see the muscles of his thighs and calves stand out, his bone structure moving, his shoulders animating his biceps and pectorals.

Enard presents his story in the form of sketches, impressions, and vignettes. Many of the chapters don’t exceed a page and a half, some are in fact barely half a page. There’s a lot of space, and yet there is so much packed in. To enhance the authenticity of his tale, Enard also weaves in letters written by Michelangelo to his relatives in Florence, and lines composed by the poet Mesihi. Records of these, we are told, exist.

The androgynous dancer sketch is a nice touch and is reminiscent of The Arabian Nights, except that this dancer talks to Michelangelo when he is asleep. The dancer comes from a city that has been destroyed and has stories to tell but these will never be written and recorded because history focuses on the accounts of the victors and not the vanquished.

Meanwhile, Michelangelo may have fretted over the conspiracies and jealousies that he had to grapple with back in Rome and Florence. But if he thinks he can find refuge in Constantinople, he is mistaken. It’s a palace court after all and political intrigues exist there too.

Not surprisingly, many of the passages in the novella are beautiful, which show that Enard really is the master of his craft. There’s a lot going on for a book that is barely 140 pages – rivalry, history, unrequited love, danger with elements of a spy thriller. And once again we are given a glimpse of the similarities that exist between the East and the West when it comes to art, ambition and political motivations.

Enard is now become an author whose every book I need to read (I have Zone and Street of Thieves to get to). I did prefer Compass to this one. However, that does not mean that Tell Them of Battles is not incredibly well written. It is, and serves as an excellent entry point into Enard’s oeuvre, particularly for those who are not yet ready for the commitment of his bigger books.