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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Tell Them of Battles, Kings,
and Elephants

Mathias Énard

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To purchase Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants

Title: Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants
Author: Mathias Énard
Genre: Novel
Written: 2010 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 136 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants - US
Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants - UK
Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants - Canada
Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants - Canada
Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants - France
Erzähl ihnen von Schlachten, Königen und Elefanten - Deutschland
Parlami di battaglie, di re e di elefanti - Italia
Habladles de batallas, de reyes y elefantes - España
  • French title: Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants
  • Translated by Charlotte Mandell

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Our Assessment:

B+ : Nicely imagined alternative history

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/11/2018 Boyd Tonkin
FAZ . 5/10/2011 Lena Bopp
The Guardian . 28/10/2018 Ben East
The Guardian . 12/12/2018 Leo Robson
Le Monde . 21/10/2010 .
NZZ A 14/1/2012 Georg Renöckl
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/12/2018 Elisabeth Zerofsky
The New Yorker . 26/11/2018 Julian Lucas
The Spectator . 8/12/2018 Suzi Feay
TLS . 11/1/2019 Lucy Dallas
Wall St. Journal A 30/11/2018 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today . Winter/2019 M.N.Wafy

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A) compact fiction with much to say about the bridges -- personal and cultural -- that we cross or fail to cross. (...) Enard packs a feast for the senses into this short book. He loves to cite the catalogues, the inventories, the cargo manifests, that evoke the cross-Mediterranean traffic of the time." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Mehr als einem Roman ähnelt es daher einem Conte, in dem sich Märchenhaftes mit Realem verbindet, wobei man sich an persische Liebesdichtung genauso erinnert fühlt wie an die französischen poèmes en prose. Wie gut er auch diese Form beherrscht, von der Énard selbst behauptet, sie sei viel schwieriger zu gestalten gewesen, zeigt sich an der Vielzahl der Konflikte und an der Vielschichtigkeit der Persönlichkeiten, die sich in dem schmalen Buch auftun. (...) So liegt der große Reiz dieses Buches zum einen in der subtilen Raffinesse, die Énard beim Verweben der Fiktion mit der Historie beweist. Vor allem aber zieht es Kraft aus dieser Unsicherheit, die alle Orte, alle Figuren und mithin alle Zeiten durchzieht" - Lena Bopp, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Thick on the atmosphere of the 16th-century Ottoman empire, it’s a far easier, more obviously satisfying route into Énard’s ongoing fascination with the connections between east and west." - Ben East, The Guardian

  • "Énard’s taste for paradox -- everything we call “eastern” is partly western, and vice versa -- pre-empts and even cancels the larger argument about points of east-west contact that his novel exists in order to reveal. A palimpsest has no use for a bridge." - Leo Robson, The Guardian

  • "Le roman remplit son programme, convoquant un Orient et un siècle épiques et capiteux, peuplés de bûchers, de dagues et d'intrigues de palais. Il permet aussi à un lyrisme plus intime de se développer dans le lien qui se noue entre un artiste de la Renaissance italienne et un poète ottoman. (...) Parle-leur de batailles... parle surtout du coeur des hommes, et, comme le texte de Kipling où il prend sa source, des pouvoirs du récit, capable de bâtir des ponts entre l'Orient et l'Occident." - Le Monde

  • "Erzähl ihnen von Schlachten, Königen und Elefanten ist ein spannendes und anregendes Gedankenexperiment, das die Renaissance auch in die zweite Hauptstadt des antiken römischen Imperiums holt und mit der Möglichkeit spielt, dem Mittelmeerraum auf symbolischer Ebene ein Stück seiner verlorengegangenen Einheit zurückzugeben. Die Geschichte einer gescheiterten Brücke ist mehr als ein historischer Roman. Sie ist ein sensibles Künstler- und Stadtporträt, lässt sich aber auch als intelligente und poetische Parabel über die konfliktreichen und fruchtbaren Beziehungen von Orient und Okzident lesen." - Georg Renöckl, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "There is a lush materiality to Énard’s prose, thick and smooth, so that following the artist’s expeditions through Ottoman opium dens feels nearly as immersive as being in them. (...) But reading Tell Them of Battles, originally published in French in 2010, feels somehow radical in 2018, provoking a kind of wistfulness at the wonder and uncertainty that Michelangelo experiences" - Elisabeth Zerofsky, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(A) richly suggestive Renaissance counternarrative (.....) (A) tale of bastard genius that might have been, and a cautionary fable about the consequences of parochial timidity. Yet the book itself, scarcely over a hundred pages long, is marked by a certain reticence. A third-person narrative unusual in Énard’s œuvre, it suggests a sketchbook rather than a marble likeness, executed in terse, muscular scenes interspersed with lists, drawings, and letters—many of them taken directly from the artist’s correspondence." - Julian Lucas, The New Yorker

  • "Judging from his previous fiction, Enard is fascinated by east-west cultural connections spanning the Mediterranean, for which the bridge across the Bosphorus inlet becomes a fitting symbol. (...) Enard’s Michelangelo is ugly, smelly and soap-averse, his powerful hands and bold presence undercut by his fears, nervous jealousies and tumbling emotions. He’s an endearing creation, who despite facing shadowy threats, must, we know, be delivered safely back to Italy" - Suzi Feay, The Spectator

  • "(A) short, elegant, unflashy story, a sort of quiet counterfactual from 500 years ago. (...) The dramatic denouement feels a little too much, set in this subtle, fragmented story, which is full of hints and gestures towards big ideas and other stories without ever spelling them out for us; still, those French teenagers chose well." - Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Its delicacy speaks to the subtle nature of Michelangelo’s artistic renewal. In this charming little reverie of a book, inspiration springs from our unguarded confrontations with the unfamiliar." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "Énard brilliantly captures the quandary in which Michelangelo became embroiled as he struggles to design the bridge. The great Renaissance sculptor is hesitant and vacillating all through the novel." - Muhammed Nafih Wafy, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants is a neat little piece of alternate history, imagining that in 1506 Michelangelo accepted an offer from the Sultan of Constantinople to plan, draw, and start work on a bridge across the Golden Horn, connecting Constantinople and the district of Pera. It is not a huge historical stretch: apparently, Bayezid II did in fact issue such an invitation to Michelangelo -- Vasari mentions it -- and, indeed, Leonardo da Vinci had been approached previously and a sketch of his proposal is preserved. (In an Afterword Énard lists the various factual bases for the short novel.)
       Coming conveniently at a time when the thirty-one-year-old artist is frustrated with his dealings with Pope Julius II, after yet another unsuccessful attempt to be properly remunerated, the sultan's mouth-watering offer -- a great sum, as well as the opportunity to travel to the exotic Orient -- is certainly tempting, and after hightailing it first to Florentine safety, away from Rome, Michelangelo decides to accept the offer.
       This wonderful premise allows Énard to yet again write of east meeting west, and cultural exchange -- almost literally: bridge-building ! (Yes, it's almost too on the nose, so it helps that the hoped-for bridge, in fact, never quite materializes.)
       A favorite in the court, the poet Mesihi of Prishtina (also an historic figure), is, along with translator Manuel, one of those assigned to help Michelangelo around. He is a different kind of artist, explaining also to Michelangelo that Western-style paintings, and especially representations of people, are not permitted in their religion and instead: "Calligraphies are our images, Maestro, images of our faith". He is a master of the written word: "the calligrapher-poet gives a face to words, to phrases, to lines or verses" -- in contrast to the life-like images Michelangelo sketches. (Nevertheless, it's a nice touch that Mesihi: "is known to have drawn miniatures as well, but none of these images seem to have survived" -- while Michelangelo of course also penned some sonnets .....)
       Michelangelo takes his time adjusting to the novel surroundings -- where he also finds temptations of the flesh (and Mesihi's interest in him is also tinged by lust) as well as court politics that aren't much different from those he fled in Rome; a nice touch too is that Michelangelo wants to best Leonardo, an elder and rival whom he obviously measures himself against.
       Énard spins a simple but clever enough story in his sequence of short scenes, a mix of the exotic and the universal-human; he further grounds the story in the real by appropriating authentic letters that Michelangelo wrote, used verbatim. In presentation, Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants itself is like a quick series of artful sketches, with Énard certainly capturing both local color and the human elements, as well as giving a decent sense of the court- and various domestic politics of the day, and the always tenuous positions of underlings serving at the whim of the masters. The bridge-project is central, but not dominant -- necessarily, in part, because of course that, historically, is the one thing that did not quite work out -- which is fortunate, too.
       The title of the novel comes from lines by Kipling, presented here as epigraph:

Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike.
       And Énard does, indeed, also cover 'love and suchlike' to go with all the exotica, in a nice balance.
       (Re. the epigraph: curiously, in the original French edition, it is unattributed -- and also briefer, ignoring the first part of the quote and beginning with: 'Since they be children ...', a subtle but not insignificant shift in focus.)
       While the wonderful premise alone could probably sustain almost any form of story-telling, Énard's presentation -- short chapters, quick but evocative sketches, sequences of almost clipped, short sentences (but in moderation), shifts in voice -- certainly enhances the story. If anything, of course, the premise makes almost everything too easy and obvious -- Michelangelo ! bridges -- between cultures, between east and west ! Constantinople at its most colorful ! -- but Énard doesn't get too carried away; the book probably benefits from its lightness, and that it isn't too long or tries to go too much more in depth, though that does also reïnforce the sketch-like feel to it. In this it also mirrors the bridge-project: sketched out and conceived, but ultimately only just begun and never (as such) completed, its final solid, spanning form remaining a conception rather than reality.
       A certainly entertaining and in many ways delightful read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 November 2018

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Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants: Reviews: Other books by Mathias Énard under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Mathias Énard was born in 1972.

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© 2018-2019 the complete review

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