Sable, mink, wool, satin, velvet, saltpeter...
Exotic lists permeate this short work of historical fiction like incantations, lending it a mysterious, magical air.
Peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, nutmeg, camphor, dried pepper, saffron pistils...
Like sneaking backstage to learn how a magic trick works, Mathias Enard's Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants sends you searching the nonfiction collection, the history, art, and geography sections especially. But here, knowledge gained doesn't take away from the sorcerer’s effect.
Come with us now to Italy, some five hundred years ago. Pope Julius II, "The Fearsome Pope," rules from Rome, fiery and mercurial yet a generous patron of the arts. It's the High Renaissance, and two of the greatest artists ever to have lived are engaged in a protracted rivalry. Leonardo da Vinci, fresh from painting The Last Supper, is toiling at a small portrait called La Gioconda, better known today as Mona Lisa. Michelangelo Buonarroti's Pieta has surpassed expectations, and he has somehow topped even that by freeing a sublime David from a chunk of Carrara marble.
Meanwhile, in Constantinople, Sultan Bayezid II has solicited and then rejected Da Vinci's design for a bridge across the Golden Horn. Michelangelo is offered the commission, and, frustrated by a Pope who seems to be ignoring him, has decided to secretly accept.
And so we embark on a 130-page voyage through the nearly-unknown.
Lateen sail, storm jib, topping lift, halyard, unfurling...
Just like that, we're in a foreign land. Michelangelo is given a room, and he waits. He draws not bridges but "horses, men, and astragals" for three days. Enard's foreign-sounding incantations become even more so: caravanserai, janissaries, spahis, scimitar, shehremini, defterdar... We are introduced to guides, translators, and functionaries, and the curiosity of "Michelangelo the Great" begins to grow as he glimpses bits of the great city of Constantinople.
At last, Michelangelo is shown a model based on Leonardo’s rejected design for the bridge. Acknowledging to himself that the design is ingenious, "so innovative that it is frightening," he nonetheless sweeps the model to the floor and crushes it.
Enard follows this scene of surprising fury with one of rapture, ecstasy following agony, as Michelangelo encounters the heart of Santa Sophia: "The sculptor has never seen anything like it. Eighteen pillars of the most beautiful marble, serpentine tiles and porphyry inlays, four perfect arches that bear a vertiginous dome... Such an impression of lightness despite the mass... It nearly brings tears to the sculptor's eyes." Like other as-yet unencountered pieces from this journey that stick in the artist's soul, hints of the soaring dome will later show in Michelangelo's works.
Enard continues to work his magic, weaving song and dance, lust and betrayal, spirit and flesh into his brief tale of bridges. Not just 16th-century bridges to the Golden Horn, but bridges between East and West, past and present, self and other.
I am new to Mathias Enard's work, but he is a well-known and much honored author in Europe. He was born in France, learned Arabic and Persian, traveled widely, and now lives in Barcelona. Digging around online, I've been impressed by the quantity of his awards, and the quality of his award acceptance speeches as well.
Battles, Kings, and Elephants, written in 2010 but translated last year, itself serves as a bridge to Enard's subsequent, meatier works exploring the intersections of East and West, indeed questioning the difference while exploring the very concept of each other. As he pointed out upon receiving the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding:
“Cervantes himself, the great, unique Cervantes, inventor of the novel, claimed that the story of Don Quixote was actually the work of an Arab from La Mancha, Cide Hamete Benengeli, thereby in one stroke giving an Arabic ancestor to the entire European tradition of the novel.”
-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.