If I hadn’t read some articles in the past (such as ‘Bridging the gap: the east-west divide in art’), I’d have entirely believed the central story of Mathias Enard’s new novel. It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo were invited by Turkish rulers in Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn, but neither ever journeyed to this Eastern superpower. However, “Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants” imagines Michelangelo travelling to work for the sultan in the summer of 1506. He’s embittered by Pope Julius II failing to deliver timely payments for commissions and enlivened by the thought of surpassing the talent of his rival Leonardo da Vinci whose design was rejected. During this stolen season, Michelangelo comes into contact with Muslim culture and people outside of his staunch Christian beliefs. An encounter with a mesmerising androgynous dancer also prompts him to adopt a more fluid attitude towards sexuality and gender. It’s a brilliantly told fantastical tale that plays on ideas concerning history and the power of story-telling.
Enard does a lot to support the seeming validity of his novel including letters, lists of ship cargo and sketches of Michelangelo’s proposed bridge. Like Damien Hirst’s famous ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’ exhibit/documentary which assemble rare art objects he claims to have retrieved from the bottom of the ocean, Enard’s novel is an elaborate joke and entirely serious in its quest to reconstruct an imagined period of Michelangelo’s life. Art and literature not only reflect the culture they emerge from but fashion versions of how that civilization wants to be remembered. We can also retrospectively read into these artefacts myths around their creation and how we’re positioned within their lineage. So part of why Enard’s novel feels so believable is because we want to believe in this great exchange between the Renaissance and the Orient (or the European fantasy of the East.) However, it never really happened and the fact of Enard’s construct says as much as the content of his intricate fable. With this novel he forms a radical confrontation with lost corners of history and the marginalized invisible people whose stories aren’t often reflected in art.
Interspersed with descriptions of Michelangelo’s time working for The Grand Vizier are accounts by the nameless androgynous dancer that mesmerised him. This performer speaks to the artist while he sleeps in an ingenious kind of counter-narrative to “One Thousand and One Nights”. Instead of trying to lull him to sleep the dancer urgently wants to open Michelangelo’s eyes to the people he doesn’t see, what is left out of his art and the consequences of the legacy he leaves. The dancer is a slave stolen from another place entirely as are several people the artist encounters in Constantinople. Most of their stories have vanished from history just as they have lost their countries of origin. I kept thinking back to the recent novel “The Sealwoman’s Gift” which describes a mass kidnapping and enslavement of Icelandic people by Barbary pirates.
The dancer is aware how being slighted in story-telling amounts to an erasure of being. Imperialism functions through myth-making as much as it does through brute force. The dancer observes how “You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings and elephants and marvellous beings… But you will know, since you are here pressed against me, you ill-smelling Frank whom chance has brought to my hands, you will know that all this is nothing but a perfumed veil hiding the eternal suffering of night.” Through constructing Michelangelo’s imagined journey, Enard enables this voice from the past to cut through time with the power of a knife.