Book Review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard
In the spring of 1506, Michelangelo Buonarroti – back then a young but already acclaimed artist, known for his marble masterpiece David– accepted a commission from the Sultan of Constantinople and spent a month designing a bridge across the Golden Horn. Or did he? Some biographers tell us that the Sultan’s invitation did happen, but Michelangelo declined it to avoid betraying his Catholic faith – or subjecting himself to the rage of the “Warrior Pope” Julius II that he worked for. In Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Mathias Enard combines fragmentary historical evidence, such as a sketch of the bridge attributed to Michelangelo, to build an evocative fictional tale based on the idea that the artist did spend a few fruitful weeks in 1506 immersing himself in the culture of the Ottoman Empire.
In one of the first chapters, Michelangelo arrives in Constantinople and finds himself feeling ignored despite the sumptuous reception: to the people who welcome him he is “nothing but an image, a reflection without substance.” Enard ensures that the novella’s portrayal of Michelangelo is far from that distant reflection of a Renaissance genius. Initially hesitant to accept the commission, Michelangelo is ultimately convinced by the idea of outshining Leonardo da Vinci, whose design had previously been rejected; he also sees the work as an opportunity to get “fine revenge” on the Pope, whose commission he leaves unfinished after several attempts to receive higher pay. These displays of vanity and pride set the stage for the rest of the book. Michelangelo is as talented as he is hot-headed: he acts on impulse; is easily offended and prone to sudden bursts of rage; he detests his competitors, from the “imbecile” Bramante and “pretentious ass” Raphael to “that oaf who scorns sculpture” da Vinci. The refinement of Michelangelo’s work contrasts with the crudeness of his presence: he “smells as bad as a barbarian,” has an “unsightly” face, and a voice “full of anger.” Alongside the “warlike, authoritarian” Pope, he seems in stark opposition to the tender, tactful, poetry-loving Ottomans and their liberal Sultan.
In terms of its historical elements, the book is remarkably well researched. Enard retraces Michelangelo’s steps through real letters, biographies, drawings, and objects, filling in the remaining gaps. The narration reflects this blend of a fictional tale and biographical account: in one paragraph the narrator might say “Ascanio Condivi, his biographer, tells us,” as if to prove that Michelangelo did, in fact, reach the borders of Florence at exactly 2 am on 17 April 1506 – only to later say “we can imagine the artist’s surprise,” reminding the readers that a large portion of this story is a product of imagination. The book’s narration is also a blend of storytelling techniques, combining letters, journal entries, and third-person chapters relating the story.
Parallel to the physical act of building a bridge, Enard explores the theme of connecting two different cultures. “The distance to cross is huge,” Michelangelo muses when he looks at the opposite shore and wonders how to begin the project – and the distance proves to be huge also when he tries to engage with the culture that he finds himself in. The theme of translation returns throughout the novel. Besotted with an androgynous dancer, Michelangelo nonetheless understands nothing of the song, and when his appointed translator “vainly tries to translate what they’ve just heard,” Michelangelo “grasps only that it was about love, drunkenness and cruelty.” He wanders around the city in “the bewildered solitude of someone who knows nothing of the language, the codes, the customs.” He is fascinated by his surroundings, but unable to connect with them – which extends to Enard’s descriptions of the different smells, tastes, and colours of Constantinople. They often seem listed rather than depicted: Michelangelo eats “the beef with dates, the stewed aubergine, the fowl with carob molasses,” but is too distracted to recognise the taste of “cinnamon or camphor or mastic.” Experiencing the new culture will inspire Michelangelo’s future art, but he seems unable to fully engage with it.
Enard’s writing is beautifully concise, and the tales of love, desire and intrigue interwoven with the explorations of art, history and culture make this compact novella a thrilling read. Introduced to the English readers through Charlotte Mandell’s brilliant, crisp translation, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.
PhD Researcher at the University of Stirling, examining the past five decades of Scottish publishing in collaboration with HarperCollins and Publishing Scotland. Graduated with an MSc in Publishing from Edinburgh Napier University and a BA in English from Queen’s University (Canada). Loves Inside Llewyn Davis, Peter Gabriel, and flat design.