Archive for the ‘Mathias Enard’ Category

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

November 18, 2018

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.


April 21, 2017

“There’s no such thing as chance, everything is connected,” says Sarah, the object of Franz Ritter’s unrequited love in Mathias Enard’s Compass, the now shortlisted (and possibly favourite for the prize) International Man Booker novel. And, indeed, Compass is a finely woven network of connections, particularly those between East and West. Set in Vienna, a city which was once seen as a gateway between those two compass points, the novel is, like Zone, a stream of consciousness tour de force, occurring during the long, dark night of the day Ritter is diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease:

“…today, when a compassionate doctor may have named my illness, declared my body officially diseased, almost relieved at having given my symptoms a diagnosis – a deadly kiss – a diagnosis we’ll need to confirm while beginning a treatment, he said…”

Ritter’s single night, in which he staves off death through flooding his mind with his life, is, of course, a nod towards the West’s central Eastern text, One Thousand and One Nights; others have also pointed towards Enard’s debt to Proust in its unspooling memories, who, Ritter points out, was influenced himself by the Arabian tales. Connections from East to West form the basis of Enard’s novel: Ritter himself is a musicologist with an interest in Oriental music; Sarah, a scholar of the Orient; his happiest memories are of their time together in Syria. It would not be fanciful to suggest that their relationship provides an echo of Europe and the Middle East. The novel is more essay than story, however, and Enard’s work seems, at times, to encompass any Western artist who has flirted with the East, as well as being an ‘off-campus’ novel of academics in the wild.

The timeliness of Enard’s novel has already been widely discussed: the East is no longer seen as a source of inspiration and collaboration but, once again, a threat. By reminding us of the fascination of Western artists with the Orient, particularly classical composers, Enard reminds us that each culture has often enhanced the other in a riposte to growing intolerance on both sides. This requires considerable erudition which Enard does not seek to hide, but this, too, is a response to a society living reflex to reflex in the moment, and with scant regard for knowledge in any form – a post-history, post-expert society. At times the novel, quietly spoken as it is, feels like an Enlightenment howl of rage and despair.

The danger is that for every reader attracted by the learning on show, others will be intimidated, but, as with Zone, Enard is always readable, creating that ideal balance between refusing to talk down to the reader while never seeming to show off. Ritter’s humanity is always placed before his knowledge, in particular those moments of failure with Sarah which continue to haunt him:

“If I had dared to kiss her under that improvised Palmyran tent instead of turning over scared stiff, everything would have been different.”

Ritter and Sarah’s relationship (such as it is) grounds the novel, but its evident refusal to flourish ensures that the narrative (such as it is) doesn’t suffer from tension which might make Enard’s detours frustrating. This allows him, like a tour guide, to assume we know the history and focus on the interesting anecdotes and local colour.

“The important thing is not to lose sight of the East,” Ritter tells himself, and that is the novel’s message for us. It’s a determination that finally rewards him with “the warm sunlight of hope.” We can only pray we are as lucky. Compass is a novel that is profoundly of its time because it is out of it, and it would be a worthy winner.


February 28, 2015


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Mathias Enard’s Zone was originally published in France in 2008, and then translated into English by Charlotte Mandell for US imprint Open Letter in 2010; it has taken until 2014 for a UK appearance thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions. It has the happy distinction that two of its most note-worthy features are obvious without the necessity of reading: that it is over 500 pages long, and that those 500 pages consist of one sentence – or, to express it differently, the first full stop appears at the end. (Well, that is if you exclude the sections of a novel being read by the protagonist which are punctuated conventionally). That 500 page sentence tells the story of Francis Mirkovic, a spy with a suitcase full of secrets which he is transporting from Milan to Rome to sell. Retirement, a woman, and a new identity await.

Zone’s stream, of consciousness places it firmly in the modernist tradition, and Enard is not afraid to use the same Homeric echoes as Joyce – the 24 sections of Zone mirroring the 24 books of the Iliad. As early as the first page he mentions “the sound of two bronze weapons clashing”, and Achilles is one of a number of reoccurring military figures:

“…Rome, rotting flamboyant corpse of a city, you understand too well the fascination it can exercise over certain people, Rome and the suitcase I’m going to hand over there the time I’ll spend there maybe the choice has been made the choice has been made ever since the goddess sang of the wrath of Achilles son of Peleus, his warlike choice…”

Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th century archaeologist who believed he had discovered the location of Troy also features, in a novel designed for (I would never be so cruel as to suggest with) Google. Whereas Joyce used Homer to counterpoint his quotidian content, Enard uses him quite differently, to create a sense of southern Europe and northern Africa – an area known in intelligence circles as the Zone – perpetually at war

Zone is littered with historical figures, including writers such as Ezra Pound and Malcom Lowry. To suggest these are tributes may not be entirely accurate: Lowry is pictured drunkenly strangling his wife; Pound (who also provides an epigraph) is, of course, noted for his fascism as much as his Cantos. Fascism looms large in the novel, not only because Nazism is inescapable in any examination of 20th century atrocities, but because Mirkovic has his own dark past, fighting in the Balkans. On one occasion, in his new job as a ‘civil servant’, he recognises one of his old commanders at a war crimes trial:

“I left Bosnia on February 25th, 1993, I had gotten there from Croatia in April 1992, and after a few months stay on the front near Mostar I joined Tihomir Blaskic in central Bosnia… I felt bad when I saw him in the midst of that multilingual administrative circus… in countless witnesses and hours of atrocities while I knew perfectly well who had committed them, I could see again the places, the flames, the battles, the punitive expeditions…”

Fascism seeps through the novel, from historical figures such as Millan-Astray, founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion and a supporter of Franco, to the (presumably) fictitious, like Harmen Gerbens, the ex-SS officer whom Mirkovic finds in Cairo, and whose file is the first to enter his suitcase. The atrocities are unending and unrelenting, recycled through history and involving Mirkovic (and his parents) as both witnesses and participants. This does, of course, make the novel remarkably mono-tone; even the extracts from the novel Mirkovic is reading, though written conventionally, treat of the same topic being the story of a Palestinian woman who loses her lover and comrade in fighting against the Israelis. Enard’s intention seems to be to present our worst aspects, unleavened by hope or humour, in a novel that feels like a weapon itself.

This is emphasised further by the novel’s circular nature: the madman in Milan asking for “one last handshake before the end of the world” replaced by the man he imagines will offer him “one last smoke before the end of the world.” Is escape for Mirkovic really possible? Is escape for any of us?