The relationship between Michelangelo Buonarroti and Julius II, the warrior Pope, was a complex one. Julius was frequently exasperated by the artist’s intractability and his demands; the artist felt undervalued and underpaid, perhaps, even, unloved by his master. However, much as their respect for each other was grudging they had a long and fruitful relationship. This is the story of an event that strained that relationship. A dispute between the two men that contributed to Michelangelo’s disappearance from Rome just as the groundwork for St. Peter’s Basilica began. Several times Michelangelo had called on the Pope petitioning for money to pay for the materials and the men he needed for his work, only to rebuffed and even refused an audience. Angry he returned to Florence, brooding on the situation, wondering whether to offer the Pope an olive branch but resisted the capitulation, he was too proud to write to Julius II to smooth things over. Out of the blue an opportunity is presented to the artist to escape for a period to Constantinople. Franciscan monks deliver the invitation; three months work for 50,000 ducats, (five times what the pope has paid for two years work). Still he hesitates, currently there is peace with the Ottoman empire but there is still the matter of faith. Ultimately it is vanity, (flattery and jealousy), that decide the matter for Michelangelo. This could be his chance to outshine da Vinci and Raphael.

“The monk, without realising it, immediately found the words that would convince Michelangelo: You will surpass him [da Vinci] in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal, like your David.”

Enard has taken the sketchy details of Michelangelo’s trip to Constantinople, as reported by Condivi, the man Michelangelo confided in many years later, and created a novel of his trip to build the Sultan’s bridge. So on Thursday 13th May, 1506, after six days sailing, Michelangelo sets foot in a new a new city, a new country, a new world. Michelangelo is to design a bridge to spans the Bosporus, joining the great Muslim city to the Holy Roman Empire, spanning the golden horn. But Michelangelo is bewildered at first, consumed by curiosity and finally seduced by the Ottoman world. Too distracted by debauchery and by the city’s architecture, particularly The Santa Sophia Basilica, to design the bridge. Only when he feels the inspiration of the east does Michelangelo settle to his task. This story brings us closer to the politics and the culture of the time. It is a tale of espionage, of illicit love, of desire, of loss and understanding.

I first read Enard’s novel Zone which was published in 2010. It’s the story of a former French intelligence officer, Francis Mirkovic, traveling to Rome with a briefcase full of documents he intends to sell to the Vatican. It contains information on war criminals, arms dealers, and terrorists in the Zone, (the Mediterranean region: Africa, Europe, Middle East). He’s a wash out, addled by drugs and drink, reliving past conflicts and his own involvement in the terrible violence that has blighted the region. It’s a powerful tale on human tragedy in the twentieth century. The follow up novel, Compass, is the tale of a Viennese musicologist, Franz Ritter, an insomniac with a love of the oriental and also deals with memory and the past. It’s a novel that explores the relationship between the east and west and its also a powerful love story.

Anyone familiar with those brilliant but epic and labyrinthine novels, Zone and Compass, will be a little bit surprised by this novella length masterpiece. The storytelling is much more straightforward but the essential themes of Enard’s work are still present. The story is set in 1506 with the Renaissance, possibly the most remarkable creative period in European history, in full swing. Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants involves one of the towering giants of the period, Michelangelo Buonarroti. He’s in his early thirties and he is famed for his sculpture David. Michelangelo travels to Constantinople, the heart of the Ottoman empire at the invitation of the grand Sultan. He is a proud man, still young enough to believe this is all about him and his art. His only awareness of the political and religious ramifications of undertaking this work relate to his personal relationship with Pope Julius II. Michelangelo wonders how the news of his post will be received by Julius II: “This thought instils in him a rather pleasant mixture of excitement and terror.” He plans a short stay, a few months, do the work and leave, richer of course. Only things do not work quite like that, he has not accounted for how the art, culture will impact upon him. Michelangelo is beguiled and seduced, by the city and by the people around him.

Here we have one of Enard’s principle themes; the relationship between East and West, the clash of the religious and political worlds that none the less reveals a symbiosis. Even in the most hostile of times, and this is not one of them because there is currently a peace between the two empires, the development of one is bound to the other. Through Michelangelo’s eyes we begin to recognise his Christian appreciation and understanding of the Muslim world. We tend to think of the Renaissance as an exclusively European event when in fact it owes much to the Arab influence, how much is debateable but not deniable. Enard manages to get across his love of the history and culture of the Ottoman world. He is particularly good on linking apparently distant events and peoples and making you realise how things are interconnected. This elegantly structured tale presents a cogent view of how history has consequences.

Enard is keen on physical journeys as a way of opening a door on a metaphysical, philosophical journeys. Michelangelo’s perspective is altered by coming into contact with the east but we also sense the limitations of his thinking. We see barriers that prevent people gaining a wider understanding of each other.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a novel of rare insight, of exquisite beauty a thoroughly believable account of the journey Michelangelo made, an exciting adventure. Enard is an orientalist, a respected professor and a translator from Arabic. His love for the east, (shorthand sorry), shines out in his work. The title is drawn from Kipling Life’s Handicap: Being Stories of Mine Own People, (1891).

A brief, apparently light story that is thought provoking and incisive, a beautiful memorable read.

Paul Burke 5/5

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard
Fitzcarraldo Editions 9781910695692 pbk Nov 2018