“Everything is harder once you reach man’s estate” was the phrase Mathias Énard used to begin his compulsive, thundering novel Zone (2008), a phrase that unspooled onwards into a single 517-page sentence encompassing the life and crimes of its speaker: a sometime secret agent traveling on a journey from Rome to Milan by train, wrestling internally with the weight and depth of human atrocity, his only luggage a dossier on war criminals. By the time the sentence was finished, and the had novel reached its close, the literary world was listening.
The obvious, loud comparisons were drawn: Énard had written the Moby Dick of war crimes; Gravity’s Rainbow for the end of history; a unique fusion of Joycean monologue and Homeric epic. But there were also ambivalent voices. The suspicion lingered with some readers that, for all the death and destruction detailed in its half-thousand pages, Zone might not amount to much more than a random heap of horrors, and that the novel’s many admirers had simply been blinded by its formal ambition.
Like many of the works it was compared to, Zone was possible to love but difficult to like. The same can’t be said of Énard’s next eye-catching novel, 2015’s Compass, winner of the Prix Goncourt. On the face of things, it was a similar prospect: told in the interior first person, Compass followed the thoughts of a dying ethnomusicologist, picking through the ruins of his life over the course of a single night.
Both of these hefty books confronted the burden of a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and regret. But Compass was a gentler, more personal book than Zone. Its narrator, Franz Ritter, ranged over his memories of international turmoil and intimate revelation with a scholastic’s eye, picking each moment up for loving inspection before dropping it, before moving onto the next object of interest. It was a book stuffed with learning and humorous digression, illuminated by Énard’s own passion for the Middle East. The experience of reading Zone was a narrowing, all past choices leading inexorably to a cramped railway compartment, rushing along a fixed line towards its terminus. In Compass, Ritter’s long dark night of the soul led, albeit tentatively, to a new day:
I’ll copy out another passage from a song, Schubert and winter, there, half-blinded by the dawn that’s pointing to the Danube, the atonal light of hope […] you’re always surprised by what always comes, the answer of time, suffering, compassion and death; the sun, which keeps rising […]
Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a pleasingly different prospect. First published in 2012, but only translated into English this year, it weighs in at a trim 137 pages. Set in sixteenth-century Constantinople, its main character is Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni, better known as plain old Michelangelo, sculptor of David and painter of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The novel springs from an intriguing historical curio. In the early 1500s, Sultan Bayezid II asked both Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo to provide designs for a bridge to cross the Golden Horn. The sketch that Da Vinci made for his structure has had a happy afterlife in the real world, and in recent years has inspired the Leonardo Bridge Project, which aims to implement his fluid, single span design to cross rivers all over the world. Until now, though, little has been said or thought of Michelangelo’s unbuilt bridge. Énard’s novel imagines what might have happened had he accepted this proposal, and travelled to the heart of the Ottoman empire.
The novel is historical, then, but hypothetical too. Because Michelangelo never did make this trip, possibly out of fear that the fearsome Pope Julius II, with whom he had at best a difficult relationship, would excommunicate him from the Catholic Church. Yet when the first meets the sculptor, the passage reads as if it has been sketched from documentary records unearthed from some distant archive.
Three bundles of sable and mink fur, one hundred and twelve panni of wool, nine rolls of Bergamo satin, the same quantity of gilt Florentine velvet, five barrels of saltpetre, two crates of mirrors and one little jewellery box: that is the list of things that disembark with Michelangelo Buonarotti in the port of Constantinople on Thursday 13th May 1506.
There is certainly something sensual in all this velvet, fur and satin. But the writing also rings with a sense of historical objectivity. This is a self-professed list, and the implication is that it was copied from an inventory, or a customs declaration. A historical distance is opened up, and the relationship that is established between Énard and his protagonist is that of a stylish academic biographer to his subject. Elsewhere he describes Michelangelo’s surprise at receiving the Sultan’s invitation:
We can imagine the artist’s surprise, his little eyes opening wide […] he turns the letter over in his hands. Vellum is one of the softest materials there is.
This tension—between an insistence on objectivity (“we can imagine”) and a fascination with the sensuous and immediate—runs throughout this intriguing tease of a novel, which is in equal parts beguiling and elusive.
The story is told in short chapters, frequently no longer than a page, that sketch out in rough chronological order the artist’s stay in Constantinople. Initially, these fragmentary chapters give only an oblique picture of the famous artist, often focusing on a specific object: three pieces of chalk used up in drawing; the water closet Michelangelo “has no use for, because he never washes”; “clear, cool water”. These fragments feel almost like prose poems, and it should be mentioned here that no praise is high enough for Charlotte Mandell’s translation: the reader rarely, if ever, remembers that this book was not written in English.
There is a second voice in this novel too, a mysterious, disembodied voice speaking at an unknown moment in time to Michelangelo:
Your arm is hard. Your body is hard. Your soul is hard. Of course you’re not sleeping […] Are you afraid, foreigner? I’m the one who should be afraid. I’m nothing but a voice in the darkness, I will disappear with the dawn. I will slip out of this room.
In time a clearer picture emerges. Michelangelo is proud, passionate, silent. He hates Da Vinci, who he feels will work for anyone who pays him. He himself has taken the Sultan’s commission because he hates Julius II even more, hates the power the pope has over him. “Since the dawn of time”, we read, “people have had to humiliate themselves towards the Caesars.” He is enthralled by exotic animals and Byzantine architecture. His favourite part of the human body is the bicep, “on which you can most easily imprint movement, expression, will.” He is ambivalent about love.
Énard skilfully draws the contours of a meeting between east and west before those concepts, however false or illusory, were fully fleshed out. Coming from a world of religious tyranny, the sculptor is amazed at the way that people of different beliefs are allowed to coexist peacefully in this new city. He sees Constantinople not as a melting pot of east and west, but a fusion of Venice and Rome. And it’s not the East that is Other here, but Michelangelo: at a reception held to honour him he sees that for his hosts “he is nothing but an image, a reflection without substance”.
Michelangelo’s guide in Constantinople is the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Prishtina, another historical figure. Where the artist is almost cold in his unwillingness to give in to passion, Mesihi has lost his life and reputation in the pursuit of pleasure. He drinks and sleeps with Ephebes; he is regarded in courtly circles as a lost cause. As the idea for a bridge germinates, Mesihi begins to fall in love with the sculptor. Michelangelo himself becomes entranced by a mysterious figure who he watches dancing, who could be a man or a woman, and whose name we never discover. In time it becomes clear that this figure is the other voice in the novel, who returns again and again, addressing Michelangelo in the dark.
You don’t desire me? Then listen. Once upon a time, in a country far away… No, I won’t tell you a story. The time for stories has passed. The era of fairy tales is over.
Of course, Énard is too quick not to play with the obvious comparison point:
I will not entertain you with my stories till dawn. I will speak to you neither of good genies, nor terrifying ghouls, nor of journeys to dangerous islands.
The figure becomes a black mirror of Scheherazade, keeping her lover awake by lamenting the pointlessness of telling stories: “You don’t like my story? I doubt you’re really listening to me.” At which point the reader suspects, with a sinking heart, that this is going to be a story about the nature of storytelling. But thankfully the moment passes. While Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is concerned with the act of creation, it has a stranger, more interesting question at the heart of it than what it means to tell stories. How, Énard asks, can we understand the history or significance of connections that were never made?
That might sound too theoretical, too academic for some, and one can almost hear the interminable, Foucauldian question unfurling amidst a slurry of academese. But Énard is a humanist deep down, and he is as interested in the heart as he is in history. This novel is full of connections that almost occur, but don’t. A bridge that is almost built, a passion that’s almost consummated, a dagger that’s almost plunged into someone’s heart. A love that is almost confessed. And the most famous moment of near contact in western art history, Michelangelo’s depiction of the Creation of Adam: “two extended fingers that don’t touch each other.”
Equally, though, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants never quite surrenders itself to its reader. Perhaps Énard’s intention was only ever to gesture at unexplored possibilities—the final line of the author’s note on sources reads “For the rest, we know nothing”. The story holds back deliberately, mirroring the moments of contact that never quite come to be. The mimetic effect is admirably achieved, but this structural restraint also makes the book less ultimately satisfying than it promises be. In this sense, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants may offer more to the literary analyst than to the reader. This is an easy book to like and admire. But it would be difficult to love it.
John Phipps  is reading for a Masters in Early Modern Literature; he is the Editor of The Oxford Review of Books.