Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard

Fitzcarraldo Editions, Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Charlotte Mandell

What if cultures were not as hermetic as we sometimes imagine them to be? What if the modern foundations of “Western culture” were based, in fact, on influences from the “East”—and vice versa? What if, let us imagine, someone as renowned as Michelangelo had travelled to somewhere like Constantinople—had built there a bridge, both literal and metaphorical, had seen the Hagia Sophia, had read at Ottoman Sultan Bayezid’s library—and had come back to Rome filled with the grandeur of all he had seen? That is precisely Mathias Enard’s premise with this novella, first published in French in 2010 by Actes Sud and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The young Michelangelo in 1506 is invited by the Sultan to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. This there is historical evidence for. Giorgio Vasari mentions it, Michelangelo’s friend Ascanio Condivi recounts it, and, even more compellingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for exactly such a bridge (never built) still survive at the Museum of Science in Milan. A sketch for a bridge in the Ottoman archives was recently attributed to Michelangelo, but is not definite. The facts Enard truly has, and which he seems to structure the story around, are letters from Michelangelo to his brother Buonarroto, as well as sketches and plans of the Hagia Sophia sent to Rome. These are quoted intermittently in the story, but seem to be where Enard’s imagination leaped off from.

I first heard of Mathias Enard with his novel Zone, famously written in a single sentence. I haven’t read it, and perhaps Tell Them of Battles was meant for me, an easier read as a way in to Enard’s imagination and his reverse-Orientalism. The novella is easy to read, enticing, and I spent perhaps as much time researching Michelangelo and Constantinople after finishing the book as I did reading it (not copious amounts of time, as I read the book in two sittings).

Fitzcarraldo Editions is publishing what I believe is some of the best contemporary fiction and non-fiction, but something I’ve noticed is at times a strange ordering to the texts—almost over-vigorous editing. Here, Tell Them of Battles begins with a sub-plot, a non-consummated affair Michelangelo has with an androgynous dancer. The text is here the most overtly “literary” in the novel (“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn,” the book begins), but it takes time for this storyline to develop, with it interspersed almost evenly throughout the text. It seemed to me that it had been written in a different order and edited later, feeling by the end slightly stilted. And this is the same feeling I had with the concurrent storylines in Dan Fox’s Limbo and Joshua Cohen’s Attention, both also published by Fitzcarraldo in late 2018. A minor gripe, but the publishing house’s style and its founder Jacques Testard’s preferences seem maybe a little too visible through these different books.

Enard does what fiction does best, imagining alternative histories and lives. That he does so with an implicit project as his aim—a kind of counter-Orientalism—seemed strange to me at first but, having read this book, makes more sense. It is not a totalising vision of world cultures, collapsing one into another in order that we can see a single “world culture”. I think it’s far more subtle than that, showing how individual lives and even individual encounters subtly and softly nudge what cultures are and what they mean. This I find appealing—but it is secondary, because Tell Them of Battles is simply imaginative and enjoyable to read.