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.
Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.
So here goes…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.
A Forgotten Classic
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.
A Book That Became a Movie
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.
A Book Published This Year
Compass by Mathias Enard
An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.
A Book with a Number in the Title
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.
A Book Written by Someone under Thirty
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.
A Book with Non-Human Characters
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.
A Funny Book
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.
A Book by a Female Author
Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith
There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.
A Book with a Mystery
Black Money by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.
A Book with a One-Word Title
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.
A Book of Short Stories
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Book Set on a Different Continent
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Non-Fiction Book
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.
A Book You Heard About Online
Climates by Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.
A Bestselling Book
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?
A Book Based on a True Story
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.
A Book your Friend Loves
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.
A Book that Scares You
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The Second Book in a Series
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.
A Book with a Blue Cover
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.
Easily one of the most exhilarating and immersive reads for me this year.
Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.
This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.
Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of passing of the time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion…
That’s the plot in a nutshell. What makes this novel riveting and accomplished though is the high level of erudition displayed by Enard. It’s also a novel very relevant to our times; times when there is a growing level of intolerance towards different religions, cultures and peoples.
Increasing incidents of terrorism has widened the gulf between the East (largely Muslim) and the West. Certainly, the East is not as developed as the West. But there is this perception that the East is culturally deficient too. It’s the latter view that Enard challenges in this novel.
Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and a lot of Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt a lot from each other.
Enard also talks about the imaginary construct ‘the Orient’. While the Orient is perceived to be the East, it remains an ever shifting term because where really would you draw the line? Is Vienna the westernmost city and thereby a gateway to the East? Or would that be Turkey? Culturally speaking, the boundaries are quite blurred.
The Orient is an imaginal construction, an ensemble of representations from which everyone picks what they like, wherever they are.
A lot of western musicians, academics, writers, explorers and archeologists are discussed. Cultural references abound. Agatha Christie, Don Quixote, Balzac, Beethoven, Sadegh Hedayat, Chopin, Kafka, Proust, Thomas Mann, Wagner form just one slice of a large cultural cake. The point being that many of them were Orientalists and the feel of the East and ‘otherness’ was incorporated in some of their works. Lawrence of Arabia, 1001 Nights, Romeo & Juliet, Layla & Majnun are also vividly discussed.
The cities of Aleppo, Damascus and Palmyra in Syria, before the current civil war, have been beautifully described. They are ancient and the traveller in me was mesmerized by this sense of history. Visiting these cities would have been a tremendous experience only that it is now impossible with so much destruction and the war showing little signs of abating.
For someone arriving from Damascus, Aleppo was exotic; more cosmopolitan perhaps, closer to Istanbul; Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, not far from Antioch, homeland of saints and crusaders, between the Orontes and Euphrates rivers. Aleppo was a city of stone, with endless labyrinths of covered souks leading to the glacis of an impregnable fortress, and a modern city, with parks and gardens, built around the train station, the southern branch of the Baghdad Bahn, which put Aleppo a week away from Vienna via Istanbul and Konya as early as January 1913…
Istanbul in Turkey and Tehran in Iran are wonderfully evoked too. Particularly, there are passages on the Iranian revolution in 1979, which make for fascinating reading. In the late 70s, inflation had become a big problem in Iran. Ordered to fight it, the Prime Minister Jamshid Amouzegar resorted to a draconian measure – he cut off public investments, stopped large building projects and heavily fined profiteers. In two years, inflation reduced only to be replaced by massive unemployment as economic activity halted. This resulted in the Iranian public turning against the then ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi, who by then had no real support in 1978. Even those who had gotten rich thanks to him and benefitted from free education turned against him.
Enard also touches upon the topic of global jihad. It is widely believed that global jihad was instigated by radical Islamists and gained prominence since the 9/11 attacks in the US. The interesting fact is that the call for global jihad was made much earlier during the First World War and that too by Germany! Germany had set up a little known Prisoner of War camp called ‘Half Moon Camp’ just outside Berlin, which was dedicated to turning Allied Muslim soldiers into jihad warriors. The idea being that they rise against their employers notably Britain, France and Russia. This move backfired.
That’s not all. Interwoven through this rich fabric of musings on art and culture, is Ritter’s longing for the unattainable, fiery and independent Sarah. Ritter has his chances and he reflects on missed opportunities and on the course the relationship would have taken had he displayed more courage.
If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff everything would have been different…
At 445 pages (in the New Directions edition; the first picture), Compass is a rich and multi-layered novel and I have only managed to cover some of the themes here.
It is written in stream-of-consciousness style as the action takes place inside Ritter’s head. The narration is not linear as Ritter goes back and forth through time and history when reminiscing. But it is not a difficult read. The chapter headings are in the form of time stamps as the hours in the night progress. The language is strong, hypnotic and lucid and the credit here goes to the translator Charlotte Mandell as much as it goes to the author.
In a fascinating interview on the Man Booker Prize website, Mandell touched upon what she liked about Compass.
She says, “I like the rhythm of the prose, the propulsive quality of the narrative, the sort of melancholy, Viennese tone of the narrator’s voice. For me, plot and character aren’t as alluring as language: if a sentence is well-constructed and the language is engaging, I am immediately seduced.”
Enard knows his subject matter too. He has spent long periods of time in the Middle East and is a professor of Arabic and Persian in the University of Barcelona. His knowledge and passion for the East, not surprisingly, is very apparent in this novel.
Is it important to be open to ‘foreign’ cultures if we humans want to learn and grow and widen our minds? Or should we bandy around the ‘nationalist’ theme and give in to the clamour to close borders? Enard gives a big thumbs up to the former.
Compass then is a sweeping and gorgeous read. An ode to Otherness. Erudition personified. A literary feast not to be missed.