Often one wishes for things to repeat; you want to relive a moment that escaped, return to a gesture that didn’t take place or a word that wasn’t uttered; you try to find again the sounds that were left in your throat, the caress you didn’t dare give, the tightening of the chest that is gone forever. –Énard’s Michelangelo, p. 125
Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is a taut novella built on a single speculation: what if a young Michelangelo had travelled to Constantinople to design a bridge spanning the Golden Horn? The book was published by Actes Sud in 2010, then in an acclaimed translation by Charlotte Mandell by Fitzcarraldo (UK, 2018), and by New Directions (NY, 2018). [Page numbers refer to the latter edition]. Readers of Énard’s other books in English translation would characterize him as a maximalist. Sustained over hundreds of pages, they are feats of stream-of-consciousness narration. His Zone (2008) consists of train running across Europe on the track of single, enduring sentence. His Compass (2015) is fueled by the obsessional intellectual meanderings of an insomniac. At the core of each lies Énard’s abiding concern: the interdependence of “Eastern” and “Western” spheres of knowledge. The epigraph is drawn from Rudyard Kipling’s Life’s Handicap (1891): “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.”
Three primary characters form a central love triangle: Michelangelo, the heartsick poet Mesihi of Prishtina, and a dancer—an unnamed androgyne. Less prominent actors (for the most part historical figures) include Pope Julius II, Sultan Bayezid II, Leonardo da Vinci, the perfidious villain Arslan, and a little monkey. The story is told in third-person narrative broken up by Michelangelo’s actual letters and lyrical passages whispered into Michelangelo’s ear at night by the androgyne. Each chapter, frequently only a page or two long, is strung along a narrative thread like a sparkling gem-cut bead.
The formal conceit of Tell Me of Battles, Kings, Elephants likely makes reference to intricate Islamic literary forms in which stories are nested within stories. Énard’s effort is elegant, to be sure, but at times the language comes off as stiff. Each fragmentary impression is told “just so.” Clichés appear throughout: the sunsets are always pink; curiosity is unfailingly boundless; the poet sings forever of unrequited love; and lips are repeatedly crimson. Perhaps such stock description is meant to invoke traditions of oral yarn spinning?
In Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, Énard writes into a gap between April 17th and June 25th in 1506, into a historical ellipsis slender as a sliver of new moon. Chasing clues from a few scattered documents, Énard suggests that things might have unfolded in this way: the impetuous, thirty-one-year-old Michelangelo–with David and the Pieta behind him and the Sistine Chapel ahead—makes an impulsive decision to go to Constantinople at the bidding of the Sultan Beyazid II, taking up a challenge that his elder rival Leonardo da Vinci failed to accomplish. His design for the Sultan’s bridge had proven fanciful but flimsy. [drawing of Leonardo’s plan for the Galatea Bridge, 1502-3 just above]. Michelangelo was then summoned. That much is true. It is recounted by two of Michelangelo’s biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi. Attention should be drawn, however, to the fact that Vasari never feared a lie at the expense of a good story and Condivi was his most faithful pupil. Michelangelo resists the invitation at first: “He turns the letter over in his hands. Vellum is one of the softest materials there is.” (Such a lovely, unexpected turn from one sentence to another, fissuring the frame, is particularly Énardian). Michelangelo then decides to travel Constantinople intent on building a bridge sturdy enough to sprawl nine hundred feet across the Bosporus.
Énard has said that “each book comes with the way of writing it.” The formal conceit that accompanied Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants was without doubt the list. The book opens with an image one of Michelangelo’s drawings now housed at Casa Buonaroti in Florence, an off-handed shopping list dashed off on the back of a letter for an illiterate cook on May 18, 1518. The casual drawing was saved somehow from all the sketches that Michelangelo burned for fear of being judged by work that was less than his best. It documents in text and image foodstuffs for three Lenten meals: two sorts of stuffed pasta (tortelli and tortegli), salad, several bread rolls, dishes of spinach, anchovies, and fennel, and pitchers of full-bodied wine. Such simple meals leave him unprepared for the epicurean delights awaiting in Constantinople: “Michelangelo the frugal half-heartedly nibbles on the beef with dates, the stewed eggplant, the fowl with carob molasses; disoriented, he doesn’t recognize the taste of cinnamon or camphor or mastic” (25) “The sweet cherry soup chilled with snow from Anatolia or the Balkans” (126) doesn’t tempt him either. If “beauty comes from abandoning the refuge of old forms for the uncertainty of the present (55), the hero is doomed.
So Énard’s Michelangelo is a keeper of lists. Words jostle around in his pockets like so many pebbles. He believes that “the names of things give them life.” His most telling list (suggesting the decidedly Western malaise of chromaphobia) is dated May 22nd: “…cipolin, ophite, sarrancolin, serpentine, canela, delfino, porphyry, brocatello, obsidian, marble from Cinna. So many names, colors, materials, whereas the most beautiful, the only one worth anything, is white, white, white without veins, grooves or colorations. / He misses marble. / Its softness in hardness. The delicate strength you need to work it, the time it takes you to polish it. (66)
Énard’s style is marmoreal as well. Steamy as some of the episodes might aim to be, the style remains cool and stony to the touch.
Contrasts structure the story. Wrathful, ducat-pinching, authoritarian Pope Julius II, for example, becomes the foil for Sultan Bayezid II, the Just. The latter “loved wine, poetry, and music; he didn’t turn his nose up at either men or women; he appreciated the arts and sciences, astronomy, architecture, the pleasures of war, swift horses, and sharp weapons.” (10) Michelangelo notes, too, his characteristically Istanbuli tolerance: “Strange beings, these Mohammedans, so tolerant of Christian things. Pera is populated mainly by Latins and Greeks, there are many churches. A few Jews and Moors from far-off Andalusia stand out mainly by their dress. All those who refused to become Christian have recently been ejected from Spain.” (52)
In an attempt to “other” him, Énard’s characterizes the fierce Michelangelo in distinction with the gentle court poet Mesihi. For his Turkish hosts the Florentine “is nothing but an image, a refection without substance, and he feels slightly humiliated.” (25) Or later in the book: “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 that he doesn’t understand.” (45) This Michelangelo is coarse, prone to fits of rage, insular, and greedy. He smells very bad: in his room “a small door hides a water closet tiled in multi-colour faience that Michelangelo has no use for, since he never washes.” (19) He struggles with his Catholic shame, dreaming of Savanarola’s “boiling eyes exploding.” The maestro is petty about his rivals, Leonardo da Vinci most prominent among them. He crushes underfoot the model of the bridge Leonardo had designed and was flattered upon hearing that the Sultan had “thought it rather ugly, despite its lightness.” (34) Michelangelo is bitter, too, about the machinations of power and the indignities doled out to him by the Pope and, as he comes to believe mistakenly, by the Sultan. There are gentler moments, too. He mourns his pet monkey, a gift from the Mesihi. He stays up all night drawing an elephant, suggestive of his own unwieldy presence, as a gift for Mesihi. Most disappointingly he proves unable to yield to the seductions of the East, which makes Énard’s thesis about this being a period of flourishing cultural exchange harder to trust.
The poetic passages interleaving the chapters that drive the action are spoken by the gender-shifting dancer, the Eastern Other counter to Michelangelo’s shaken but otherwise healthy sense of self. The Orientalizing tropes in the characterization would make the late Edward Said shake his head. The figure is exoticized, feminized, sexualized, elaborately adorned, ablaze with color, mysterious, inscrutable, elusive, passive, perfumed, intoxicating—and ultimately disempowered. The descriptions of this figure are themselves ornate, ponderous with adjectives. This character’s tales keep the Western dream of the East from fading. As in many Orientalist fantasies, this character dies in the end, leaving stories behind, unheard. Is the reader fully convinced that “the five silver anklets around the slim leg, the dress with its orangey tints, the golden shoulder and the beauty spot at the base of the neck will show up in a corner of the Sistine chapel a few years later” (89)?
From the book’s very opening, Michelangelo is trapped in a tempestuous chiaroscuro. He is told by the Andalusian shade: “Your arm is hard. Your body is hard. Your soul is hard. Of course you’re not sleeping…I feel your tense muscles, the muscles of a barbarian or a warrior.” (27) One thinks of the marble prisons the figures of Michelangelo’s sculptures inhabit, particularly those executed for the tomb of Giuliano de’ Lorenzo di Medici at the Sagrestia Nuova, representing the allegorical figures of Day and Night (1526-1531). In one of his own poems, in fact, Michelangelo speaks in what he imagines to be the voice of the statue of Night: “My sleep is dear to me, and more dear this being of stone, as long as the agony and shame last. Not to see, not to hear [or feel] is for me the best fortune.; So do not wake me! Speak softly.” The unfinished Day has a rough face of raw stone. The muscle-bound male figure, in a tortured pose, seems exhausted by the weight of the marble that will not release him.*
A homoerotic subtext of desire and repression adds the real emotional charge to the novel. The androgyne who troubles Michelangelo’s sleep is not the most affecting character. It is the tender Mesihi, poet and calligrapher, whose love for the Michelangelo goes unreciprocated. It is not so much that Michelangelo does not love this companion, but in the end, that he cannot. He “feels something for Mesihi and, in the most secret part of his soul, where desires burn, no doubt the poet’s portrait can be found there, well hidden…Michelangelo is obscure even to himself.” (113) Mesihi is characterized well into the novel in a single paragraph. A more prominent Mesihi would have struck the novel’s balance quite differently. In contrast to the vaunted Master’s, Mesihi’s calligraphy and drawings lie “…sleeping in a forgotten manuscript. Scenes of drinking bouts, faces, gardens where lovers are lying down while fantastical animals fly over them, illustrations of great mystical poems or courtly romances: an anonymous painter, Mesihi signs only his verses, which are few; he prefers pleasures—wine, opium, flesh—over the austere temptation of posterity… And, more than anything, he loved drawing, the black wound of the ink, that caress scraping the grain of the paper.” (63)
Michelangelo’s bolt of inspiration occurs after a night spent with the Andalusian beauty, after he is redeemed by Mesihi: “…he took the exhausted sculptor to the steam baths, convinced his torn-apart soul to submit to his hands; he bathed him, massaged him, rubbed him fraternally; he left him to doze off on a warm marble bench, wrapped in white linen, and watched over him as he would a corpse. / When Michelangelo emerges from his torpor and shakes himself, Mesihi is still by his side. / The sculptor is full of dazzling energy, despite the alcohol ingested the night before and the lack of sleep, as if by ridding himself of encrustations and filth he had gotten rid of the weight of remorse or overindulgence; he thanks the poet for his care and asks him to be kind enough to accompany him back to his room, for he wants to get back to work.” (97-98)
A ritual act of purification performed in faithful subservience by Mesihi frees Michelangelo of the sinner’s shame at falling prey to intoxications particular to the East. It is this act that accounts for Michelangelo’s ability to receive the inspiration that had eluded him thus far. Assuming a state of purity seems an odd criterion of creative inspiration within a broad argument for under-acknowledged syncretism of forms.
Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red comes to mind as counterpoint here: “‘Nothing is pure,’ said Enishte Effendi. ‘In the realm of book arts, whenever a masterpiece is made, whenever a splendid picture makes my eyes water out of joy and causes a chill to run down my spine, I can be certain of the following: Two styles heretofore never brought together have come together to create something new and wondrous. We owe Bihzad and the splendor of Persian painting to the meeting of an Arabic illustrating sensibility and Mongol-Chinese painting. Shah Tahmasp’s best paintings marry Persian style with Turkmen subtleties. Today, if men cannot adequately praise the book-arts workshops of Akbar Khan in Hindustan, it’s because he urged his miniaturists to adopt the styles of the Frankish masters. To God belongs the East and the West. May He protect us from the will of the pure and unadulterated.’” (160)
Pamuk’s book was criticized, like Énard’s, for being too sanguine in its humanist refashioning of the exchange of cultures, but Pamuk achieves a more nuanced description of the miseries and joys caused by the infiltration of Ottoman miniature painting by “Frankish” realism, and claims enough space on the page to attend to the complexities of artistic influence—or perhaps less influence, than entanglement. Pamuk refers to what might have served as historical precedent to Michelangelo’s journey: the Venetian Gentile Bellini’s (actual) trip to Constantinople to paint the portrait of Sultan Mehmet II.
Both writers make an effort to reach to a past that prefigures colonialist Orientalism, when the Ottoman Empire is a predominant world force. They do this in order to imagine a moment when the sharp lines drawn by Edward Said in 1978 had not yet called out the machinations of Occidental power that staged the Orient as its fantastical and defining Other, the object of latent desire and anxiety. Pamuk’s painter is brought to tears as he looks in a mirror, attempting to paint his self-portrait in the “Frankish” style. Énard’s Michelangelo flees the moment a real Constantinople, not “a Venice invaded by the seven hills and the powers of Rome” (70), begins to trouble his worldview. As the Andalusian voice presages (though the moment has yet to arrive): “This border you trace as you turn your back on me, like a line drawn with a stick in the sand, will be erased someday.” (126)
Énard’s self-defined post-Orientalism is the engine that drives his writing. In Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants he betrays his ambivalence about Edward Said’s immeasurably influential Orientalism (1978). He argues that Said, by identifying the West’s dominance over the East, locked East/West into an oppositional pattern that could only ever be perpetuated by pointing to instances of “othering.” To cite Kipling’s narrator in the preface to Life’s Handicap again: “a story we tell is true all the time we tell it.” Flipping the script upends power, but it does little to shift a stubborn binary structure. A damaging effect of this paradigm according to Énard is that Said’s theory left little space to acknowledge that influences run through history in both (or many) directions. Tell Them of Kings, Battles, and Elephants is meant to function as a counter-narrative, in which the Ottoman Empire works to define the West. Énard doesn’t fully evade Orientalizing tendencies. He is at once, enthralled by the East, while eager to reveal it as an illusory ideological construct. Admittedly, it’s too much to ask for this slight book to pay off the Italian Renaissance debt to Ottoman culture.
Upon his arrival in Constantinople, the very first person Michelangelo had met was his “dragoman,” an interpreter of Arabic, Turkish, or Persian. This signals the crucial role cross-cultural translation plays in the novel. The narrative might have been subtler had it not centered on the “Il Divino,” master of the Western Canon. Perhaps it was worth risking this criticism for Énard to make the point that Eastern influence on the West culture occurred precisely during the Renaissance era of dizzying cultural height. The ultimate effect, though, is that the Eastern artists (here, poet and demi-mondaine) seem life-sized, no larger. There was no dragoman to meet Mesihi disembarking from an imaginary trip to Venice. While considered by many a canonical Ottoman poet, almost none of Mesihi’s work has been translated for Western ears. Throughout the course of the novel, Mesihi recounts a single poem that is reveal to be by Hafez. This seems like a missed opportunity to shed light on a poetic tradition largely unfamiliar in the West. It’s difficult to argue for balanced intercultural exchange when the primary subject is widely believed to be “without rival.”
It should come as no surprise that the novel’s apotheosis occurs at the moment of divine inspiration when Michelangelo’s bridge is conceived. A bridge intended to unite the continents of Europe and Asia is about as heavy-handed a metaphor as a writer could reach for. (Full disclosure: Orhan Pamuk uses it, too). Here is the bridge: “Supported by an invisible foundation that barely reaches above the waves, a majestic footbridge gently joins the two shores, reconciling their differences. Two hands placed majestically on the waters, two slender fingers that touch each other.” (100) The evocation of Michelangelo’s God and Adam is obvious enough to elicit a groan. Furthermore what causes the painting’s spark is the fact that the fingers reach but don’t quite touch. Énard’s writing is strongest when it is less overt, when energies crackle through the gap: think of the powerful moment in the novel when Mesihi walks alongside Michelangelo, almost touching him, his chest tightening and breath quickening with desire, but just holding back.
In the novel’s last pages the bridge has become a ruin, destroyed in an early stage of construction by a (real) earthquake on September 14th, 1509.
In epilogue. Énard offers a peek into his bag of tricks, a few scraps of sources, envelope jottings. At the very end of the book an Old Master pencil sketch of a bridge without appears uncaptioned. It is presumably by Michelangelo’s hand and, as stated in the author’s notes, “recently discovered in the Ottoman archives.” Would it matter at all if it weren’t actually there?**
*One small chunk of marble was reserved in this block for the figure of a mouse. Michelangelo’s biographer, Ascanio Condivi, wrote of this work in 1553: “…in order to signify Time he planned to make a mouse, having left a bit of marble upon the work (which [plan] he subsequently did not carry out because he was prevented by circumstances), because this little animal ceaselessly gnaws and consumes just as time devours everything.” While it may seem far-fetched, the great art historian Erwin Panofsky would later argue that the mouse as symbol of time’s relentless power to devour represented an instance of influence on Michelangelo from the East.
**The obsessive reader might have caught the attribution in the publisher’s notes. The sketch was made by Énard’s friend and sometimes collaborator, Pierre Marquès.