- - Wednesday, January 23, 2019


By Mathias Enard

Translated by Charlotte Mandell

New Directions, $19.95, 144 pages

History blinks, sometimes at a big moment, sometimes at a small one. The loss is imperceptible centuries later, but in those forgotten moments, there can be experiences that echo through history.

“Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants” by Mathias Enard is an alternate history imagining one such blink: The author dreams up a sojourn in the life of Michelangelo, in which the artist goes East.

This is a story of bridges and connections; how they are built, and how they are erased. Michelangelo, young and enraged at a perceived slight from Pope Julius II, receives an invitation from Sultan Bayezid II to come to Constantinople and build a magnificent bridge. Michelangelo is tempted: The pay is overly generous, and even more alluring, he could succeed where the previous recipient of this offer, Leonardo DaVinci, has failed. History tells us that Michelangelo said no. But what if, Mr. Enard’s story asks, history blinked? What if in fact Michelangelo said yes?

In Mr. Enard’s tale, Michelangelo goes to Constantinople. He is drawn in by the city, but he is still himself, isolated by language and what he perceives as barbarism. His ways are strange to those who connect with him. He draws and plans, but not bridges. He experiences the otherness of the city, forming fondnesses with new friends. Finally, after a night of experiences unique to Constantinople, he finds himself touched by the muse, a bridge finally rising up out of procrastination like a miracle, “molded from the material of the city.”

He rushes to set it down on paper.

He succeeds where DaVinci failed.

But then, as they must, history’s eyes open again. Not all goes smoothly, and by the end of the story, history is as we remember it. The connections built have been tidily washed away. The influences on Michelangelo and those around him are relegated to the artist’s innermost thoughts. But the impact of this moment is there. It reverberates, its source forgotten, through truly great works. The “what if” of Mr. Enard’s novel is not really the adventure of Michelangelo. It is a question of influence and interpretation: What if we saw the influence of the “East” in the work of Michelangelo?

Mr. Enard builds his story from hints, scraps and fragments, and there is much that is real in this imaginary tale. He grounds the reader in lists and in specificity, citing sources familiar to art historians to further the veracity of the tale. The details serve not only to make the fantastic realistic, but also to make bright the real world in which the fantasy is set. The choice of this particular bridge is crucial to the story as well: a bridge crossing the Golden Horn on this site has for much of history suggested also the bridging of Muslim and non-Muslim people, of the native and foreign people of Istanbul.

But, despite its beautiful prose, there is something amiss in this telling. Perhaps it is that, like Michelangelo drawing his bridge, it takes a long time to really get started, leaving the reader wondering if it ever actually will. Once it has hit its stride, the story is already almost over, and we feel it is too soon. Perhaps it is like all travel in that way, but some readers might be tempted to simply “go home,” even though the book is quite short.

For those who enjoy the journey, though, there is some good and some bad news. The bad news is that while Mr. Enard is the author of many well-regarded books — he won the Prix Goncourt with “Compass,” which in its English translation was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize — four of which have now been translated into English, his books are all very different. “Zone,” for example, is treated as something of a curiosity because it is told all in one sentence. “Street of Thieves” is about the Arab spring, and “Compass” is the reminiscences of a musicologist, though it too looks East. The good news is that Mr. Enard’s inventiveness and his interests show through in all these works, and though they are not similar, they are all worthwhile.

Mr. Enard is himself a translator, and has had the good fortune to find an English voice that honors his works. Originally published in French in 2010, Mr. Enard’s fifth novel was beautifully translated by his traductrice attitree, Charlotte Mandell. Her thoughtfulness and skill are evident in the work, but truly shine in interviews about her process.

“Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants” takes place in all too short a blink. But, perhaps a glimpse is all we need to get the point. For a moment, we see the connection between the great Michelangelo and a great city. One that was not, but that might have been.

• Tara Wilson Redd is the author of “The Museum of Us” (Wendy Lamb Books, 2018).

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