Book Review: Tell them Stories of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Énard: A lesser-known masterpiece by France’s author of the moment.

Much ink has been spilled about high-flying French author Mathias Énard since he won France’s top literary prize, the prix Goncourt, for his latest work Boussole (Compass). His highly‑praised novel tells the story of an imaginary one-night journey from Vienna to the Balkans, to Turkey and the Middle East, heavily laden with (a critique of) the concepts of Orientalism and the mutual influence Orient and Occident have had on one another. Little wonder, given Énard’s past as a scholar of Arabian and Persian, who has spent several years of his life in the Middle East.

Little has been said, however, of one of his earlier works, the 2010-book Parle-leur de Batailles, de Rois et d’Éléphants (Tell them of Battles, Kings and Elephants). Combining elements of a historical novel, love story, diary and epistolary novel, without fully belonging to any of those genres, the book won the 2010 prix Goncourt des lycéens, the students’ choice prix Goncourt. The story follows Italian ingenious renaissance artist Michelangelo on a journey to Constantinople, to the very meeting point of Orient and Occident.

Michelangelo’s confirmed flight from Rome back to Florence in 1506 after an argument with Pope Julius II serves as starting point, but here’s where fiction comes in. The story covers the following months, a period of time in which historians don’t really know what Michelangelo was doing. The book offers the option that the sculptor was answering a call to Constantinople by Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II to design a bridge across the Golden Horn to link the old town to the more cosmopolitan quarters of Galata and Pera, the residence of many European envoys and traders. In other words, a request to build a bridge between East and West (even though a bridge crossing the Golden Horn runs from the North the South.)

Énard perfectly mingles fact and fiction, as he weaves into his story authentic letters from Michelangelo to his brothers from exactly that period.. Even the Sultan’s invitation is mentioned by Michelangelo’s biographer Ascanio Condivi, as is told in the epilogue. This creates a fantastic story, laden with perfumes of exotic spices and the foreign images of the great melting pot that Constantinople was and still is today.

Michelangelo as displayed in the book is by no means a curious explorer or even a likeable personage; he is weak, hesitating and timid, merely attracted by the Sultan’s gold. But as he immerses deeper into the chaos of Constantinople’s streets and taverns, he drags the reader with him and as he discovers the shifting allegiances and competing personal interests pursued by assorted members of the Bayezid’s court, it challenges our concepts of East and West, of Islam and Christendom as political entities.

Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants is a must-read, a valuable addition to the literary canon of orientalism and, quite simply, a great story. It is high time to see the book translated into English and German.

 

Mathias Énard’s Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants is published in French by Babel. It counts 170 pages and can be purchased at andere buchhandlung, Rostock for 11.99 Euro.

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