Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

Mathias Enard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, newly translated by Charlotte Mandell, is strikingly different from both Zone and Compass in form, the loquacious title signalling a more taciturn narrative, broken into numerous short chapters. Thematically, Enard continues to explore links between East and West as the novel recounts a plausible visit to Constantinople by Michelangelo to design a bridge, a bridge that becomes a physical symbol of the desirability and difficulties of unifying the two cultures.

Michelangelo’s commission is believable because he is motivated by both his irritation with Pope Julius and his rivalry with Leonardo da Vinci, who has already submitted a design though without ever travelling to the city. Currently employed by Julius, he feels neglected and undervalued:

“The idea of having to humiliate himself once more before the pontiff whips him into a frenzy.”

Da Vinci, he knows, is widely regarded, like himself, as a genius. When he arrives at his studio in Constantinople he is presented with a model based on Leonardo’s drawings:

“Michelangelo the genius walks over to the project of his famous elder; he looks at it for a minute, then, with a broad swipe, propels it to the bottom of the pedestal.”

Finally, there is the fact he is offered a fortune if the work is completed.

The novel is largely told in short chapters focusing on Michelangelo; also included, however, are his letters, and a few chapters from the point of view of an Andalusian singer whom he becomes enamoured of. The structure partly echoes Michelangelo’s struggle to envisage the bridge:

“For now, the matter of the city is so obscure to him, he doesn’t know what tool to use to attack it.”

He spends his time drawing – he “knows that ideas come to you through drawing” – including a drawing of an elephant he gives to the poet who has been assigned as his companion, Mesihi. The short chapters also parallel the way in which characters reach out to each other but fail to connect. Mesihu is one example, developing a love for Michelangelo which he knows is not reciprocated:

“Mesihi sense that Michelangelo does not look at him with the same warmth that Mesihi feels for the Florentine.”

Michelangelo has his own infatuation, a singer whose performance entrances him, while leaving him uncertain whether it is a man or a woman:

“If it’s a woman’s body it’s perfect; if it’s a man’s body Michelangelo would pay dearly to see the muscles of his thighs and claves stand out, his bone structure moving, his shoulders animating his biceps and pectorals.”

It is the singer’s voice which opens the novel, addressing Michelangelo and suggesting he both longs for and resists union:

“Your fear and confusion propel you into our arms; you want to nestle in there, but your tough body keeps clinging to its certainties: it pushes desire away, refuses to surrender.”

The use of ‘our’ (and the placing of this chapter at the beginning without context) ensure that this can be read as applying to the East in general. The bridge-building between characters is not the only example in the novel; Michelangelo is portrayed as in need of bridges within himself. The singer refers to him as having “one foot in day and the other in night.” Later we are told:

“Michelangelo is searching for love.
Michelangelo is afraid of love just as he’s afraid of Hell.”

That the novel ends in violence and confusion, that the bridge which was finally built was destroyed in an earthquake, suggests that making connections without misunderstandings and weaknesses is not easy, but the novel itself is a powerful example of Enard’s ability to yoke the unexpected together. If you have yet to read him, perhaps daunted by the length of his two most famous novels, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a sharp, swift entry point to one of the today’s most vital writers.

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16 Responses to “Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants”

  1. Melissa Beck Says:

    What I enjoyed most about this book is his language. There are some truly beautiful sentences. My only disappointment was that the book isn’t long enough! I wanted more and am used to his longer works, I guess.

  2. lizzysiddal Says:

    A sharp, swift entry is just what I need.

  3. Radz Pandit Says:

    I am really looking forward to this one. I had absolutely loved Compass when I read it last year.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Like Lizzy, I find the brevity of this book rather appealing, especially compared to the heft of Zone. Who knows, I may get around to Eniard yet!

  5. Tony Says:

    Just finished this, and it’s another excellent read. Certainly an excellent entry point into Enard’s work 🙂

  6. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oooh, maybe I should pick this up then as I haven’t read any of his work. I may have to investigate a shelf for Fitzcarraldo editions…. 😉

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Excellent piece of analysis, but then Enard does rather inspire that doesn’t he? I haven’t read Compass yet, but I shall and this too.

    I thought his Street of Thieves was pretty accessible. Not too long and fairly gripping as a read (arguably even something of a pageturner), which is not something one can say for every piece of literary fiction in translation…

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