It’s easy to be intrigued by a story that not only contains a Kipling epigraph, but also entitles the novel with a quote from a Kipling poem. And, by the way, has Michelangelo as its protagonist straddling Renaissance Italy and Ottoman Turkey. And does all this in a lyrical 140 pages.
Mathias Enard wrote Tell Them of Battles Kings and Elephants as historical fiction inspired by real incidents from Michelangelo’s life including the Turkish Sultan’s invitation to the artist to visit Constantinople and a rendering – probably by Michelangelo – of a bridge spanning the Golden Horn. Enard’s work is also replete with actual contemporary personages.
Tell Them is a dialogue between history and conjecture positing that Michelangelo spent a sabbatical in the Ottoman capital wrestling with the architectural challenges of spanning the Golden Horn with the building materials extant a half a millennia ago. He is also portrayed as wrestling with the distractions of love and lust and the frisson generated by competing cultures – as well as his own pride and three dozen psychological demons.
Tell Them is evidently an out-take from Enard’s much longer and more complex story Zone ( https://bit.ly/2SlqR9t ), a 150,000 word novel written as a single sentence (holy shit!). However, Tell Them is plenty complicated in its own way; more of a novella than a novel, the story nevertheless is packed with ideas and motifs. It’s by turns allusive and precise with several lists of everyday items that Michelangelo encountered as part of his travels.
The novel’s themes seem to include artistic creativity confronting power, the inspiration for creativity, the collision of competing cultures, in this case the Christian kingdoms of sixteenth century Western Europe and the Ottoman Turkish Empire near the zenith of its power in the eastern Mediterranean. Further, Tell Them notes the power of a story to delight and divert us from despair.
Love and jealousy are also part of this story in the form of a triangle between an Albanian court poet, a dancer and Michelangelo that comes to a sticky end, but inspires the sculpture and poet to creative flights.
So what’s not to like about Tell Them? For starters, the characters can seem rather flat particularly Michelangelo who is sketched and then marched through his paces. Likely, this is partly due to the brevity of the story; perhaps Enard set himself the challenge of crafting a very short novel and then limed the character with others’ reactions to Michelangelo and his occasional letter home. Further, the great sculptor has already been portrayed in any number of biographies and biographical novels such as The Agony and the Ecstasy, full of the Sturm und Drang of titanic egos battling over the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling. Aside from Tell Them’s episodic dives into Michelangelo’s psyche, delving further into his mentality may have seemed pointless. Speaking of drama, the poet, Mesihi, the foil to Michelangelo, is also a bit overwrought.
Further, the linear plot can appear to be just a framework to paste episodes onto from various points of view with poetic, but spare descriptions of action and setting. And, throughout, the novel seems self-aware and mannered with grand, wonderful, but only touched on themes.
However, the work’s virtues outweigh its challenges and for a less august author of fantasy and historical fiction such as myself ( https://amzn.to/2Hg1Nz2 https://amzn.to/2HqdqU5 ), Tell Them is a concise, imaginative and ambitious effort that’s edifying to read. Along these lines, even without being a member of the academy, it’s great fun to watch Enard blend an awareness of modernist and postmodernist structural concerns with interesting story-telling in an absorbing historical era.