Of Mingling and Middles
Jason DeYoung reviews Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Here is what biographers and historians tell us: in 1506, the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II invited Michelangelo Buonarroti, a thirty-one-year-old Florentine artist, to Constantinople to design a bridge. The bridge would cross the Golden Horn with the purpose of connecting the eastern and western shores of the Bosporus, the legendary strait that divides Constantinople and connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. Leonardo da Vinci — a rival of Michelangelo’s, and twenty years his senior — had already sent a proposal, but the Sultan had rejected it. The Sultan wanted something modern, urbane, and he believed Michelangelo could capture this vision.
Michelangelo, a devout Catholic in service to Pope Julius II, declined the invitation. He claimed it was to avoid betraying his Christian faith (the Ottomans being Muslims) but likely as not he also turned down the Sultan because the Pope was a man full of rage, universally known as the warrior pope, owing to his propensity for donning a silver suit of armour to lead troops into battle in order to extend, as they say, the reach of the church’s territory. It’s easy to imagine declining almost any attractive offer if your boss is the bloodthirsty sovereign of an empire.
But what if Michelangelo hadn’t refused the Sultan’s invitation, as new documents may have revealed? In Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, Mathias Énard evades the commonly held historical understanding of Michelangelo and sends the burly artist off to experience the exotic flavours of Constantinople, witness firsthand the blending of Christianity and Islam, and “add beauty to the world”.
Born in France in 1972, Mathias Énard is a bit of a wunderkind, publishing his first book at thirty-one. He is also an accomplished scholar of Middle Eastern Studies, and is a professor of Arabic at the University of Barcelona. Currently, he has four novels translated into English by the powerhouse translator Charlotte Mandell, including Zone (2010), Street of Thieves (2014), and Compass (2018). Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is his fourth.
Despite Zone being considered by many his masterpiece, and Compass the recipient of the prestigious Prix Goncourt, I’ve always held that Énard’s Street of Thieves is the best entry point for his fiction — but that might have changed. Both Zone and Compass require considerable patience and discipline (toil might be another word). The former is a cacophonic, nerve-jangling war novel told in a single, 517-page sentence by an unhinged narrator; the latter is an encyclopedic, discursive novel, full of musical references and a multitude of time jumps. Both are vital works of literature and worth the effort they require (and for the musicophile, Compass might be the best entry point because of its bewildering deep dive into obscure composers). But Street of Thieves tells the quite straightforward story of a young Muslim man’s choices as he is caught up in the violence of the Arab Spring and the collapse of the pan-European economy. Although the novel’s range is large, its writing is tight and brought down to the essentials, and moves swiftly enough for such an expansive narrative. Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is equally lithe.
Blessedly shorter than Énard’s other novels (really, in comparison, you might call it a novella), Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is narratively linear, broken into short chapters — generally no more than two to three pages in length — and showcases an assortment of storytelling techniques, including vignette-like chronicling, epistolary interludes, and oddly evocative journal entries of quotidian observations and objects. Interspersed are seven intimate monologues, spoken by an Andalusian singer while in bed with Michelangelo. It is her powerful voice that we hear first:
You live in another prison, a world of strength and bravery where you think you can be carried aloft in triumph; you think you can win the goodwill of the powerful, you seek glory and wealth. But when night falls, you tremble. You don’t drink, for you are afraid; you know that the burning sensation of alcohol plunges you into weakness, into an irresistible need to find caresses, a vanished tenderness, the lost world of childhood, gratification, the need to find peace faced with the glistening uncertainty of darkness.
You think you desire my beauty, the softness of my skin, the brilliance of my smile. … [W]hat you want without realizing it is for your fears to disappear, for healing, union, return, oblivion.
This opening monologue, perceptive as it is seductive, contains the themes of this short novel: love and power, in their various forms, and the messiness of being caught between them. Although ostensibly a novel about a bridge, in setting, in faith, and in class and privilege, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is also a book about divisions and internecine conflicts — of mingling and middles, of contradictions and parallels — with the hero, Michelangelo, at the centre.
We first meet Michelangelo after he has traveled to Constantinople from Rome, where workmen are laying the first stones for the new Saint Peter’s Basilica. Angry with the Pope for failing to honour his promise of additional money for a commissioned tomb, Michelangelo has accepted the Sultan’s invitation to travel to the East. He arrives aboard a merchant ship loaded with goods for the Ottoman market.
Described as “the hero of the republic of Florence, the sculptor of David”, Michelangelo’s reputation clearly precedes his arrival. But although he is given room and board and is the centre of attention, he is made to wait for days before the Sultan’s men retrieve him and bring him before Ali Pasha, the Grand Vizier. There he is made aware of the scope of his assignment, and he is provisioned with a workshop and engineers to carry out his design.
At the outset, Michelangelo doesn’t have any ideas for a bridge, and he wonders if the task of designing one is not beyond his skills. He considers Leonardo da Vinci’s design to be ingenious, but ultimately bloodless and old-fashioned. He crushes it in a show of bravado before the Sultan’s men, and promises he will go much further because, unlike the old master, he will have seen Constantinople. Still, seeing is not understanding, and Michelangelo spends his first days sketching not bridges but elephants and horses and shapes.
In his attempts to understand the unfamiliar city, Michelangelo is assisted by a bisexual poet and friend of the court, Mesihi, who first befriends and then falls in love with the gruff, unwashed artist. Mesihi evolves into a guide — a Virgil of sorts — accompanying Michelangelo around Constantinople to bars, mosques, and homes of friends, to sample the flavours of the city. It is through Mesihi that Michelangelo meets the dazzling Andalusian singer who reveals, Scheherazade-like, the city’s true array of textures and the cruelties of Christianity.
The singer belongs to a group of exiles. When she was a child, the ruling prince of her city opened the gates to the Christian armies and then fled. Yasabel and Fernando, those “coarse Catholic sovereigns”, were to blame. They had broken a trusted pact. The Sultan welcomed the refugees into his capital. It is said separately that the Sultan chased the Dominicans out of their convent to offer it to the refugees, “in compensation for the brutality of the Catholic Kings”. The singer, far more than any other character in the novel, sees through the vanity of Renaissance art, declaring that “the era of fairy tales is over… kings are savages”.
Throughout the novel, the Ottomans and the Sultan in particular are repeatedly portrayed sympathetically. Michelangelo regards them as “[s]trange beings, these Mohammedans, so tolerant of Christian things”, and he is also “surprised he gets along so well with an infidel” when considering his rapport with Mesihi. On whole, the city is viewed favourably, the cultural product of the Sultan’s liberal temperament:
[T]he city swayed between Ottomans, Greeks, Jews, and Latins; the Sultan was named Bayezid the second, nicknamed the Holy, the Pious, the Just. The Florentines and Venetians called him Bajazeto, the French Bajazet. He was a wise, tactful man who reigned for thirty-one years; he loved wine, poetry and music; he didn’t turn up his nose at either men or women; he appreciated the arts and science, astronomy, architecture, the pleasures of war, swift horses and sharp weapons.
The Christian characters, on the other hand, are often selfish, conniving, and above all dirty. Much is made of Michelangelo’s own grubby appearance and how he has no use for the beautifully tiled water closets in multicoloured faience. Additionally, Michelangelo comes across as vain and emotionally pent-up. While the novel doesn’t read like some underhanded attempt at propaganda, these contrasts aren’t to be overlooked. Moreover, one can’t help but wonder if tensions in Énard’s native France didn’t contribute something to the writing of this novel. Originally published in French in 2010, it was written in the wake of the backlash against the 2006 cover of Charlie Hebdo mocking Muhammad, and in a context of broader cultural tensions between secular liberalism and Islam in Europe. That said, for all the positive characterisation of the Ottoman Sultan and the people Michelangelo meets, there is still common human deceit and wickedness to attend to — even the Ottomans have spies — and the novel ends with an unexpected, yet believable, attempt on Michelanglo’s life.
Ultimately, then, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is an unusual take on the story of a stranger in a strange land. Michelangelo endures the crucible of isolation — despite being the centre of attention — and then slowly accrues experiential knowledge by doing things he wouldn’t normally do, such as drinking to intoxication, sleeping with a strange woman, meditating on the affections of another man, and immersing himself in a culture otherwise considered profane. The process of cultural immersion ultimately gifts him with a vision for the bridge, but, according to the narrator, the experiences in Constantinople also mark Michelangelo for the rest of his life, as he incorporates images from this journey into his later, great works.
In addition to its honest grasp of cross-cultural engagement, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants also fiercely indicts autocratic rulers and reinvigorates insights about power as old as time. “Under every sky, one must humiliate oneself before the powerful”, Michelango says. “Turk or Roman, the powerful demean us.” The will to power, to use a phrase, is in him too, of course, as he tries to create a bridge, perhaps one of the greatest because it will seek to cross one of the world’s most remarkable fissures. Mesihi speaks to this notion while flattering Michelangelo’s quest for immortality: “[W]hen they speak of Constantinople, they’ll mention Santa Sophia, Bayezid’s mosque, and your work, Maestro. Nothing else.”
But all is vanity, the singer reminds us: “Things pass.” Stories of battles, kings, and elephants are mostly lies. Glory and wealth are impostors. Suffering is the most common element of the human condition. “It’s true”, Michelangelo whispers late in the novel, “[w]e all ape God in His absence”, putting a fine point on this dialogical motif. And, as if to simultaneously reinforce it and unsettle it, Énard folds the destruction of Michelangelo’s bridge into the overall wreckage of an earthquake that struck Istanbul in 1509. In an abrupt epilogue to Michelangelo’s story, the piers, buttress, and first arches of his bridge are carried off to sea — “and no one will talk about it again.”