Sunday, February 24, 2019


Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphantsParle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants by Mathias Énard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an amazing book, and I was fortunate to have read it in its original French. The short story line is a little known putative episode in the life of the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo, who goes on to accept an architectural assignment from Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1481 to 1512, after being snubbed by his Roman patron Pope Jules. In the hope of righting himself financially and besting his much senior arch-rival Leonardo, Michelangelo, not 30 years of age yet, sneaks out of Florence on a merchant vessel and takes temporary residence in Constantinople, where he mingles with the locals of all walks of life, undergoes a cathartic "cultural immersion" and barely escapes his ultimate undoing at the hands of some devious courtiers, hell bent on discrediting his Ottoman sponsors and their pet project.

It is a story of change, constancy, friendship, rivalry, and above all, art, beauty, and unconditional unattainable love. Enard, who is a specialist in Persian and Arabic literature, evokes the much loved metaphors of wine and perfume, dusk and dawn, nightly city, dreaming, awakening and visions of the beloved. In fact, the whole books is written in short chapters of poetic metaphoric language that draw on the time honored traditions of Eastern poetry. The impermanence and dream like quality of the imagery is haunting and vivid. There is nothing superfluous, every phrase and detail has its precise place in this pageant of the mind....

Enard got to some literary fame with his language experimentation, and if this were to be one of those experiments, it is a successful one. I was thrilled that with my not so consistent grip on literary French, I was not hindered by having to struggle with the original, or (worst of all), tempted to give up and read the translation (of which I read some good reviews, and hoping the book would get recognition here in the US that it merits). Enard's idiom is so clear, gorgeous and transparent that it is a joy to read and contemplate, with no extra detail or thread to distract the reader from the enjoyment of the story.

The dreamlike quality of the narrative is so haunting that if you cannot help thinking that Michelangelo got transported to Constantinople in his sleep and awoke just in time to paint the Sistine ceiling... if it were to be the case, the dream served its purpose... a handy act of God that destroys (almost) all evidence of it possibly ever existing in reality allows the poetic metaphor to stay separated from the documented facts....



View all my reviews

No comments: