“Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants” by Mathias Énard

Constantinople (Melchior Lorck, 1559) Constantinople (Melchior Lorck, 1559)

What if Michelangelo had not, as history concurs he had, declined the Sultan’s invitation to come to Constantinople in 1506 to design a bridge over the Golden Horn? This is the conceit behind Mathias Énard’s new novel, or rather novella, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (a perhaps anachronistic borrowing from the preface of a collection of Rudyard Kipling stories). What if Michelangelo had instead accepted?

Leonardo da Vinci, indeed, actually submitted a sketch to Sultan, who rejected it and turned to Michelangelo. Énard claims in an author’s note that a


sketch “Project for a Bridge for the Golden Horn” attributed to Michelangelo was recently discovered in the Ottoman archives, as well as the inventory of possessions abandoned in his room.


These are reproduced (apparently) in the book, but are, alas, unfootnoted.

But, OK, close enough. And Gentile Bellini did go to Constantinople for a year a generation earlier to paint the Sultan, so it’s not that the Ottomans were unaware of Renaissance artists, nor were the latter unwilling to accept Ottoman commissions. So, it almost might have happened: it’s less improbable that the plots of some other historical novels.


"Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Énard, Charlotte Mandell (trans) (New Directions, November 2018; Fitzcarraldo
“Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Énard, Charlotte Mandell (trans) (New Directions, November 2018; Fitzcarraldo, November 2018)

And in the end, does it matter? This is a lovely, immersive work of fiction. Michelangelo has a (well-documented) row with the Pope, and accepts the Sultan’s offer to get away for a bit; plus he needs the money. In Constantinople, he is feted on arrival, whisked around the city, and entertained; the Vizier’s secretary, the very real Mesihi of Prishtina (now Priština in Kosovo), a poet of considerable renown, forms a close—perhaps too close—bond with the artist. Mesihi buys him a pet monkey; Michelangelo repays him with a drawing of an elephant.

Michelangelo procrastinates, waits for inspiration, sketches, smashes Leonardo’s models, explores Constantinople, marvels at Santa (Hagia) Sophia and the Sultan’s light-filled library. He is being chased by the Pope, his brother wants money for some purpose or other, a client wants a dagger designed. Finally, lightning strikes:


Four low arches support an arc with such a gentle curve that it’s almost imperceptible … Two hands placed majestically on the waters, two slender fingers that touch each other.


Other fingers touch: there’s a young woman, a dancer, paid for; much of the book is in her voice, as she tries to fathom this foreign artist—not so foreign to her, perhaps, since she hails from Granada, forced out as a young girl by the “coarse Catholic sovereigns”. Michelangelo is bewitched, yet bewildered, and finds himself at a complete loss. It is the nameless Andalusian woman who tells him:


I know that men are children who chase away their despair with anger, their fear with love; they respond to the void by building castles and temples. They cling to stories, they shove them in front of them like banners; everyone makes some story his own so as to attach himself to the crowd that shares it. You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings,elephants, and marvelous beings; by speaking to them about the happiness they will find beyond death, the bright light that presided over their birth, the angels wheeling around them, the demons menacing them, and love, love, that promise of oblivion and satiety.


She speaks in the Castilian she learned as child: “reyes, batallas, elefantes”, some of the few words of hers he can understand:


He will record them in his notebook, the way a child fiercely guards his treasure of precious pebbles.


The bridge never gets built, of course; but that’s another story. Constantinople is as Byzantine as Rome. And the young woman, well, her story deserves an opera.

In telling this story, Énard has followed Kipling’s advice.

Charlotte Mandell has, in her translation from the original French, done an admirable job of keeping the the author’s voice, insofar as that is ever possible in a translation. There is something in the tone of the book, in its structure of a large number of short chapters, some very short, its love of art and description, the well-observed anecdote and the period, of course, that is reminiscent of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red. Énard is, at least here, a very visual writer: the places and people form themselves easily in the mind’s eye:


Bayezid’s library, like his mosque, on a hill, is bathed in an omnipresent but discreet sunlight, whose rays never fall directly on the readers. You need all the attention of a Michelangelo to discover, in the knowledgeable game of placement and orientation of windows, the secret of the miraculous harmony of this simple space whose majesty, instead of crushing the visitor, places him at the center of the arrangement, flatters him, exalts and reassures him.


Énard shows, never tells, or if he tells, tells obliquely, as in the description of the artist’s lodgings in Constantinople:


A small door hides a water closet tiled in multicolored faience that Michelangelo has no use for, since he never washes.


Yes, there are ruminations about the nature of art in Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, the dissonance and confluence of East and West, fascinating speculation about whence Michelangelo’s sourced some of his ideas and imagery, but this short novel—140 not-very-long pages; it can be read in one sitting—need not perhaps be taken for anything too profound. It is a story: Énard has followed Kipling’s advice:


Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.