Book Review: Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

battles kings elephants

Mathias Enard’s Compass won numerous awards and garnered rave reviews from the great and the good of the literati following its release. Whilst recognising the quality of the writing, I found reading the story akin to hard work – ‘A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia’. It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants. I did so because of recommendations from fellow bloggers – discerning readers but without the literary baggage carried by certain professional critics. I am glad I did not turn away from the author due to my reaction to just one of his works.

The protagonist of this story is a young Michelangelo. He has completed his apprenticeship in Florence, funded by the Medici’s. He has created his famous statue, David. The tale opens with him fleeing Rome – and a Papal commission for which he has not received the promised payment – for Florence, from where he travels to Constantinople. The Sultan there has offered a huge sum of money for the design and planning of a bridge to span Istanbul’s harbour. The Great Turk has already rejected the drawings submitted by Leonardo da Vinci.

“You will surpass him in glory if you accept, for you will succeed where he has failed, and you will give the world a monument without equal”

Based on historical fragments – what is known about true events – the author creates a tableau of the Ottoman Empire in the early sixteenth century, complete with sights, sounds, smells and cultural attitudes. Due to his esteemed reputation and commission, Michelangelo moves within the upper echelons of the city. He comes across as a somewhat temperamental aesthete, albeit one who eschews many offered pleasures.

Structured in short but richly evocative sections, the reader travels through Constantinople on strolls the artist takes alongside those tasked with looking after his needs. He befriends a poet and is drawn to a beautiful singer / dancer. He struggles to picture the bridge he knows he must help create.

Although this latter issue is drawn out in the telling, what fills the pages is a picture of an elite with sensuous appreciation of the arts but one that still harbours deeper, more bestial dangers. The powerful wield their systems of reward and punishment with ruthless vigour. Michelangelo is favoured but, as an infidel, is a magnet for his patron’s enemies.

“Here too there are conspiracies and palace intrigue; jealousies, plotters ready to do anything to discredit Ali Pasha in the Bayezid’s eyes”

A beautifully written account of a time and place that remains concise without sacrificing detail. A skilful imagining of a defining period in Michelangelo’s life that is as much about Constantinople as it is about the artist.

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Book Review: Compass

Compass, by Mathias Enard (translated by Charlotte Mandell), narrates the thoughts of a middle aged academic as he spends a sleepless night in his apartment in Vienna. Franz Ritter is a musicologist suffering from insomnia. He believes he is ill, possibly dying, although doctors have yet to diagnose any specific ailment. As he lies in his bed he thinks back over key events in his life. These include travels in the Middle East, acquaintances he spent time with there, and his obsession with a woman he has been friends with for many years. Franz met Sarah, another academic, when she was working on her thesis for her PhD. She has since gone on to enjoy success in her field. Despite being an intelligent, articulate and personable colleague, Franz regards her through the lens of desire. He has an image of how she should look and behave, expressing annoyance when she diverges from this construct. His supposed love for her is based on possession; he grows jealous when she expresses interest in other’s work.

As the night progresses Franz recounts conversations and adventures with other colleagues, many of them fellow academics. They take themselves and their work very seriously, assuming each will be remembered for what they regard as important contributions to obscure studies. Franz is often condescending, self-aggrandising and self-pitying. When Sarah laughs at his habits and conceits he feels hard done by. When others show an interest in Sarah he develops a dislike for them.

Despite travelling extensively himself, Franz complains of the activities of tourists in Vienna. His arrogance would be amusing if this story were not so heavy. Franz’s melancholic nature permeates each rambling recollection. There is a huge amount of detail provided. Some of this is interesting if sieved from the surrounding asides.

As with anyone’s tired night-time thoughts, the discourse wanders. Franz considers the lives of musicians and composers alongside the histories of Middle Eastern countries. He remembers his encounters with eastern natives and the reactions of the westerners he travelled with. All are explored in depth, piecemeal, alongside his memories of Sarah. The night drags on, as did my progress through these pages.

It was not the quality of the writing but rather the garrulous pretentiousness of the narrator that stifled engagement. Franz’s devouring passions may be interesting but were drowned by the relentless intensity with which he shares. He is easy to dislike with his opium habit, hypochondria, and treatment of female colleagues. Given this, the denouement was unexpected.

“better to publish well-chosen, brief articles than vast works of erudition”

A book about an insomniac that offers a cure for insomnia; reading this felt like hard work. There is much about the Middle East that piqued my interest, but I felt relief when I turned the final page.

Compass is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.