book review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard

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TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS & ELEPHANTS by Mathias Énard
translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell
★★★★★
New Directions, 2018
originally published in 2010

 

Michelangelo never traveled to Constantinople, but author and scholar Mathias Énard imagines that he did in the richly detailed novella Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants. Énard draws on the historically verified premise that Michelangelo was invited in 1506 to Constantinople by the Sultan Bayezid II, who wished to commission the design for a bridge over the Golden Horn, having already rejected a design proposed by Leonardo da Vinci. Wishing to surpass his elder and seduced by promises of eternal glory, Énard’s Michelangelo makes the excursion, fleeing from Pope Julius II and an unfinished commission in Rome.

What this slim book lacks in word count it makes up for in atmosphere: lush and evocative, Énard’s writing propels the reader into the past with a tonal confidence and authority that blurs the line between fact and fiction – and even after reading Énard’s note at the end, you would be forgiven for still not knowing which is which. Even the physicality of the pages makes you feel like you’re reading a historical document; with sparse, short chapters, occasional sketches, and an abundance of blank space, Énard easily earns his reader’s trust and convincingly brings the past to life.

While I imagine that Énard is a tremendously gifted writer in French, Charlotte Mandell’s translation is stunning and sensual. The novella opens with the following paragraph:

“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 a people of the banished, of the condemned. I do not know you. I know your Turkish friend; he is one of ours. Little by little he is vanishing from the world, swallowed up by the shadows and their mirages; we are brothers. I don’t know what pain or what pleasure propelled him to us, to stardust, maybe opium, maybe wine, maybe love; maybe some obscure wound of the soul deep-hidden in the folds of memory.”

These words are narrated by an Andalusian singer that Michelangelo spends the night with, whose perspective occasionally resurfaces throughout the book. These chapters were consistently my favorites, but the chapters which focused on Michelangelo’s time in Constantinople and his fraught relationship with the gay poet Mesihi I found almost equally as thrilling.

‘Thrilling’ almost feels like an inappropriate word to use while trying to sell a relatively plotless book, but it feels like an accurate way to describe the constant emotional and intellectual engagement I felt with this story. In only 144 pages, Énard tells a propulsive tale of art, ambition, and a clashing of two cultures that don’t actually meet in a significant artistic way in 1506 – this book instead hinges on the glorious ‘what if?’ It’s also a bracing portrayal of one of history’s greatest artists – genius though he is, Énard’s Michelangelo fears the carnal as much as he reveres the aesthetic of it, and this contradiction is navigated here with grace and tragedy.

Make no mistake: this is very much my kind of book. I’m sure a lot of readers will find it serviceable or even dull, but everything came together for me for the perfectly enchanting and emotionally satisfying read. I can’t recommend it highly enough… but only if the premise intrigues you. This is the kind of book that I wanted to reread immediately upon finishing it, and I can confidently say I will be returning to it in the not too distant future.


You can pick up a copy of Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants here on Book Depository.

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19 thoughts on “book review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants by Mathias Énard

  1. Do you know much about New Directions? I have a book of theirs by Debra DiBlasi, and it is also a novella. I checked out their website, but cannot find any information about their mission, such as if they only publish novellas.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All I know is from their Twitter, which says they publish ‘great literature from around the world’ – also, this from Wikipedia: ‘The current focus of New Directions is threefold: discovering and introducing to the US contemporary international writers; publishing new and experimental American poetry and prose; and reissuing New Directions’ classic titles in new editions.’ So it doesn’t look like it’s just novellas!

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      • I forgot that I also read — and taught in two different types of classes — a New Directions work of poetry by Inger Christensen. Her work has a mathematical formula that determines the number of lines in each poem, which is fun to play with in more creative classes.

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  2. You had me at ‘novella’. Also, I hate that the first thing I thought of when I read the title, ‘Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants’, was Cersei Lannister. She really wanted those bloody elephants 😂

    For real though, this sounds fascinating, and that opening extract is gorgeous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • OMG you’re right this title totally conveys Cersei energy. Poor Cersei, my problematic fave.

      I’ll be so curious to hear your thoughts on this one! The writing is just stunning.

      Liked by 1 person

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