While he’s been around for a while, even in translation, Mathias Énard has probably been one of my biggest discoveries of the past few years. So far, English speakers have been treated to the lengthy stream-of consciousness epics Zone and Compass, as well as Street of Thieves, a shorter novel addressing the perils of illegal immigration. His latest work to make it into English is a brief historical affair, but the setting means the book fits into the writer’s oeuvre, taking us to yet another corner of the Mediterranean – I hope you don’t get seasick 😉
In Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (translated by Charlotte Mandell, review copy courtesy of Fitzcarraldo Editions), we find ourselves in 1506, where a certain Michelangelo Buonarroti has just arrived in Istanbul. Having fled from Rome after a disagreement with the current Pope, the sculptor has taken on a commission from the Turkish Sultan to design a bridge across the Bosphorus, a structure that is to cement his fame for good. As he wanders around the foreign city, adjusting to the sights and sounds of the metropolis, he wonders just how he is to come up with a concept worthy of the task.
While waiting for inspiration to strike, our Italian friend is shown another side to his temporary home. Even in a Muslim city, there is plenty to entertain the Christian visitor, and his new friend Mesihi, a poet with a liking for the finer things in life, is happy to show them to him. When the pair end up drinking at a recitation, Michelangelo is captivated by the singer, a beautiful androgynous figure dispensing both wine and heart-rending songs. It is this alluring vision that is to inspire him to finally design his bridge – but this stranger also represents all that is dangerous in this new world.
Tell Them of Battles… is a short but intriguing novel, and as the author informs us in his brief afterword, the story is based in part on real-life events, with the Italian sculptor having apparently been summoned to Turkey early in his career. However, Énard plays with history for his own purposes, creating an adventure based on the famous sculptor’s visit. A stranger in a strange land, he is fascinated by the sights and sounds of Istanbul, even if at times they can be overwhelming:
In the bewildered solitude of someone who knows nothing of the language, the codes, the customs of the gathering in which he is taking part, Michelangelo feels empty, the object of attentions he doesn’t understand. (p.45)
Quite apart from gazing upon the two shores he is to connect, he visits the markets selling slaves and animals alike (including elephants!). With a proliferation of merchants from around the Mediterranean, though, it’s actually more homelike than he might have imagined. The Turkish capital is a city of contrasts, and the tolerance shown towards the Christian population comes as a welcome surprise.
However, it’s the encounter with the dancer that makes his visit a memorable one. This part of the story is marked by a distinct voice, that of a woman in the night, and it’s only gradually that we connect the two ideas of the nameless voice and the veiled beauty. The mysterious stranger is a puzzle for the reader, and in her own words is a little of an anti-Scheherazade:
I am pressed against you in the dark. I will not entertain you with my stories till dawn. I will speak to you neither of good genies nor terrifying ghouls, nor of journeys to dangerous islands. (p.31)
We start to wonder which of the two is more eager for the night to go on. The dancer is to act as a muse, but one the Italian artist must handle very carefully.
Part of the attraction of the novel is the opportunity to meet the great man himself, even if he isn’t yet the success he is to become. It’s always fun to see a legend brought to life, and Michelangelo is portrayed as a very human figure, with a less-than-average appearance and decidedly poor manners. The mark of the artist is shown by his occasional frenzies of activity, ignoring the outside world to focus on a sudden flash of inspiration (or to sketch an elephant…). Despite his fame, however, he’s still just a workman obeying the whims of his employers, and Énard describes a man consumed by fear and jealousy. The words of his nocturnal muse are uncannily apt:
I know who you are.
They told me.
You are the slave of princes, just as I am a slave of innkeepers and procurers. (p.102)
This is a realisation he has already come to independently, but it’s not just the Pope’s dismissive behaviour that leads him to this conclusion. The longer he stays in Turkey, the more he is angered by what he sees as his shoddy treatment at the hands of the Sultan and his minions.
Another aspect of the novel that becomes increasingly fascinating is the relationship Michelangelo develops with Mesihi. It’s clear early on that the poet has more than a mere platonic interest in the Italian visitor, even if Michelangelo himself seems unaware of this, and Mesihi does all he can to indulge his new friend, even to the extent of enabling his nocturnal adventures. By the end of the book, the Italian has caught on to Mesihi’s feelings, and the friendship the two develop is one that seemed impossible when Michelangelo first arrived, flinching from the differences between his home and the Muslim environment he finds himself in.
As we’ve come to expect, the book is underpinned by the usual excellent writing from Énard and Mandell. While there are few of the lengthy, mesmerising sentences of Zone or Compass, the writing is measured and elegant, with more than a few humorous little quirks:
A small door hides a water closet tiled in multicoloured faience that Michelangelo has no use for, since he never washes. (p.23)
In terms of structure, the novel consists of short sections, often just a page or two each, featuring a mix of present tense descriptions, past tense commentary, the woman’s monologues and even brief letters from Michelangelo to his friends and family back in Italy (as we find out later, these are real, translated by Énard himself). It’s a varied collection of texts, but together they work very well.
Most importantly, as is always the case with Énard, Tell Them of Battles… is a pleasure to read. Having polished the book off in an evening, I went through it again more slowly a couple of weeks later, and I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. Knowing the book’s secrets, I was able to see events in a different light, and it made for another absorbing reading experience. This one may not be quite as hefty or dense as some of his earlier books, but that’s not to say it’s any less impressive. I suspect this is another work that will feature on many recommendation lists in the months to come.