The novel begins in darkness and in mystery. A voice, unknown, speaks of night and its people, the drinkers, the poets, the lovers, the banished and condemned (though for what and how and by whom we do not know). A voice, who we will later attach to the text’s central enigma—a singer, dancer, prisoner, and erstwhile assassin—speaks to another figure whose name the novel here withholds. We know he, the second figure, has a Turkish friend, that he desires beauty. We know his beliefs—a prison of ideas comprising of strength and bravery and triumph, glory and wealth. We know that the voice sees through this shroud of conviction because the man is here, concealed in the night, in the “glistering uncertainty of darkness.” What the man really wants is possibility, unboundedness, an end not to doubt, but to the pains and limitations of his experience. The novel never reveals the voice’s name. The man is Michelangelo Buonarroti.
Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, translated by the ever-superb Charlotte Mandell, imagines a version of history in which the most celebrated artist of Renaissance Italy flees his native country and arrives at the court of Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. His purpose there is to plan and supervise the construction of a massive feat of engineering—a bridge across the Golden Horn, linking Constantinople with Pera. The task, already attempted by “the immense” Leonardo da Vinci, whose design the Sultan found “rather ugly, despite its lightness,” would have been the crowning achievement of the young Michelangelo’s career, an undertaking to rival any of his architectural works back in Italy.
In truth, this journey almost happened.
We know that at the end of April of 1506, while struggling to begin work on Pope Julius II’s tomb, Michelangelo and the pontiff fought bitterly. The record is unclear as to the cause, but it was either due to a lack of funding for materials or, less likely, on account of a screaming fit the artist pitched from atop his scaffolding, unaware that the functionary he was browbeating below was the Pope himself. Whatever the reason, we know that Michelangelo went hastily from Rome to the north, seeking protection from Piero Soderini, the Gonfaloniere of Florence. In a letter dated the second of May, Michelangelo wrote to the architect Giuliano da Sangallo: “I had cause to think that if I remained in Rome, my own tomb would be sooner made than the Pope’s.”
And so ensconced in Florence—during which time Michelangelo kept himself busy with a sequence of lesser accomplishments, primarily concerned with the adornment of the city’s Great Hall—the artist fell into what Martin Gayford, author of Michelangelo: His Epic Life, calls a “highly wrought state.” He brawled, was banned from certain neighborhoods, and, according again to Gayford, allegedly performed an unsanctioned dissection of a corpse belonging to a member of the powerful Corsini family. This he undertook, in the words of Soderini, “to add to his art.”
The Pope, meanwhile, sent three official briefs demanding Michelangelo’s return to Rome. Letters arrived on the 9th and 10th of the month from Giovanni Balducci the painter and Piero Rosselli the architect. Both implored Michelangelo to return to Rome. Michelangelo either did not reply or his return letters are lost—the Carteggio, the collected letters of Michelangelo that survive today, don’t list another letter written by the artist until December of that year. By the end of the summer, Michelangelo’s reticence brought Italy to the brink of a diplomatic crisis.
According to both his contemporary biographers, Giorgio Vasari and Ascanio Condivi, it was at this time that Michelangelo received a visit from a group of Franciscan friars, bearing the request from Bayezid, as Condivi writes, “to throw a bridge from Constantinople to Pera, and for other works.” In a copy of Condivi’s Vita di Michelangnolo Buonarroti, owned by Tiberio Calcagni the sculptor, Gayford notes that “next to the passage [were] the words, ‘It was true, and he told me he had already made a model.’” Ultimately, Michelangelo returned to Rome in the fall of 1506, with the prevailing view being that the artist never took seriously Bayezid’s request. It is from this point that Énard’s fiction diverges.
For the author of Compass, a hauntingly beautiful, elegiac novel about the influences of Islamicate culture on modern Europe, placing Michelangelo in the Ottoman court seems an almost too perfect project—exactly the kind of story on which Franz Ritter, Compass’s beleaguered, melancholic narrator might fixate. But whereas Compass allowed the scale of history to filter through those who study it—a cadre of lost soul academics variously strung out across Europe, Syria, and Iran—Tell Them reads more like a Saidian thought experiment, a historical counterfactual wrapped in the cloak of a novella. The bridge that the Sultan commissions from Michelangelo is, of course, not just imaginary architecture, but also a familiar, well-worn metaphor—the fantastical connection between Europe and Asia that never really was, or really never was so simple.
Énard’s Michelangelo is terse, a serious and deeply proud man who nonetheless burns with a desire for a world beyond his own. He arrives in Constantinople, furious at the Pope and not without a sizable helping of petulance. The impiety of a Christian artist plying his trade in one of the major capitals of Islam is not lost on him.
The bulk of the novel is spent hovering behind Michelangelo’s ear as he wanders the streets of Constantinople, accompanied at first by his dragoman—one of the many excellent words scattered throughout the book, it derives from the Arabic and Turkish words for interpreter and describes a man, often Greek, fluent in Turkish, Arabic, Persian, who serves as a guide to visiting Europeans—and then by Mesihi of Prishtina, who is also a real historical personage, poet and secretary to the Vizier Ali Pasha. Michelangelo draws, sketching his own left hand, men, horses, an elephant. He acquires a monkey, a gift from Mesihi, which he also draws. Énard’s language lingers in these scenes, writing around the activity of the artist rather than indulging in encomia of genius. “It’s work, above all.” Michelangelo says to Manuel the dragoman, “Talent is nothing without work.”
Early on, Michelangelo intuits that his bridge must emerge from an understanding of the city, rather than from an abstract aesthetic principle. This is where Leonardo’s design failed, the “singular bridge, two parabolas that form a deck at their asymptote, supported by a single arch, a little like a cat arching its back,” held no common truck with the metropolis it sought to unite.
The bridge over the Golden Horn must unite two fortresses; it is a royal bridge, a bridge that, from two shores that everything keeps apart, will form a huge city. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is ingenious. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is so innovative that it is frightening. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing is devoid of interest because he is thinking neither of the Sultan, nor of the city, nor of the fortress. Instinctively, Michelangelo knows he will go much further, that he will succeed, because he has seen Constantinople, because he has understood that the work demanded of him is not a vertiginous footbridge, but the cement of a city, of the city of emperors and sultans. A military bridge, a commercial bridge, a religious bridge.
A political bridge.
A piece of urbanity.
But here, Michelangelo’s confidence outpaces his comprehension. He has been in the city less than a week and has seen what little he has from the boat entering the harbor, from the window of his rooms, on the brief walking tours to the Hagia Sophia and to the Sultan’s palace. These influences, the novel tantalizingly suggests, will crop up 20 years later, in his design for the dome of the Basilica of St. Peter, but as yet they remain inconceivable. “The sculptor has never seen anything like it.”
As is so often the case, it is through the traveler’s local proxy, here the poet Mesihi, that the city opens up. Guided by this poet, this man very much in love with his visitor, Constantinople becomes a twilight and midnight and dawn city, nights of wine and melancholy, poetry that Michelangelo only half understands to be about “love, drunkenness and cruelty.” As night falls, evening after evening, Énard’s tone broadens, the perspective widening into a descriptive beauty that he denies in the austerity of daylight.
They head west, where the sun has disappeared, leaving a pink trail above the hills; they pass the grandiose mosque that Bayezid has just finished, surrounded by schools and caravanserais; they follow the crest a little, then go downhill before reaching the aqueduct built by some forgotten Caesar which bisects the city with its red-brick arches. There is a little square there, in front of a church dedicated to Saint Thomas; the view is magnificent. The fires on the Pera towers are lit; the Golden Horn is lost in the meanderings of dark fog and, to the east, the Bosphorus outlines a grey barrier dominated by the sombre shoulders of Santa Sophia, guardian of the gap that separates them from Asia.
It is at night, too, that Michelangelo encounters the voice that begins the novel, a dancer who moves furtively in and out of the story, occasionally a distant silhouette disappearing into shadows, in other moments supplanting the narrator to speak directly to the artist and, by extension, us. The tragedy of this figure, at times both man and woman, bears the emotional and moral core of the novel, propelling a breathless intrigue that carries Tell Them to its remarkable final act. “If you had breathed the madness of love into me,” the dancer says to a sleeping Michelangelo, unable to hear, we gather, even if he were awake, “perhaps we could both have saved ourselves.” A bridge goes up and a bridge comes down, and history records neither its creation nor its fall.
With Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, Matthias Énard continues his role as a profound chronicler of loss, a scribe of the long, sad story of Europe’s relationship with Asia. The Western imagination, his texts insist, is only ever partially capable of accepting the difference of its neighbors. Even as the tragedies of history are spoken, the listeners are asleep. And yet, Énard remains optimistic, his novels a powerful reminder that the possibility for connection remains. “Beauty,” Énard writes, “comes from abandoning the refuge of the old forms for the uncertainty of the present.” Would so-called Western civilization more easily recognize its debt to points east, had the events of this novel transpired? Perhaps. But perhaps, uncertain, the lesson is worth learning all the same.