Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants

Mathias Enard

Translated by Charlotte Mandell

French paperback with flaps, 144 pages
Published 1 November 2018

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In 1506, Michelangelo – a young but already renowned sculptor – is invited by the sultan of Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. The sultan has offered, alongside an enormous payment, the promise of immortality, since Leonardo da Vinci’s design was rejected: ‘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.’ Michelangelo, after some hesitation, flees Rome and an irritated Pope Julius II – whose commission he leaves unfinished – and arrives in Constantinople for this truly epic project. Once there, he explores the beauty and wonder of the Ottoman Empire, sketching and describing his impressions along the way, and becomes immersed in cloak-and-dagger palace intrigues as he struggles to create what could be his greatest architectural masterwork. Constructed from real historical fragments, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a thrilling novella about why stories are told, why bridges are built, and how seemingly unmatched pieces, seen from the opposite sides of civilization, can mirror one another.

New Statesman Books of the Year 2018Spectator Books of the Year 2018 

‘Any year Mathias Enard brings us new work is always worth celebrating. He invites us to engage with subjects as intricate as beauty, history and art, and always finds some way to make it still feel vital, leaving you with a resounding sense of hope and generosity. While Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants may at times feel like reading the most beautiful poem as the world slowly degrades around you, it might also convince you that art is invincible. An important idea to hold on to, I think, as we wait for our political pantomimes to play out. Charlotte Mandell translates and the book is a miracle.’
Guy Gunaratne, New Statesman

‘In some alternative universe, a beautifully elegant four-arched Renaissance bridge straddles the waters of the Golden Horn in the city now known as Istanbul. As every schoolchild in that other world might know, Michelangelo designed it in 1506 after Sultan Bayezid II invited the Florentine sculptor, architect and painter to work in Constantinople … Out of the tantalising might-have-been of Bayezid’s bid for Michelangelo’s genius, French writer and Middle Eastern scholar Mathias Enard has crafted Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, a compact fiction with much to say about the bridges – personal and cultural – that we cross or fail to cross…. Translated with sensuous flair by Charlotte Mandell … Enard packs a feast for the senses into this short book.’
Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

‘[A]n elegant, passionate love letter to world civilisation and its agents, most prominently Michelangelo, whose sojourn in Constantinople in 1506 infused his work with oriental poetry. Charlotte Mandell’s translation is yet another proof that great books can, and should, travel.’
— Anna Aslanyan, Spectator 

‘Mathias Enard traces a parable about connections between the monotheistic Christian and Muslim faiths, about the many ways mankind has tried to use art and engineering to counter the forces of gravity, and about how people from other lands so often turn out to be less different from us than we realise. Translated by Charlotte Mandell, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is a short but magical work.’
Fiammetta Rocco, 1843 

‘[A] rush of invention of a kind that is conceivable from few other contemporary writers. 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.’
— Elisabeth Zerofsky, New York Times

‘A richly suggestive Renaissance counternarrative by the author of Zone and Compass. Like Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the story hangs on the electric potential of an unrealized touch: Énard imagines what might have happened had Michelangelo exposed his genius, so decisive in the history of European art, to the great Ottoman metropolis.’
Julian Lucas, New Yorker

‘In this charming little reverie of a book, inspiration springs from our unguarded confrontations with the unfamiliar.’
Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

‘[A] Borgesian thought experiment, describing the deep impression made on Michelangelo by something that never happened.’
Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books

‘[B]eautifully wrought in its simplicity – credit must go to Charlotte Mandell’s translation – with a perfectly paced narrative that reaches a dramatic denouement.… Enard’s taut prose carries the reader swiftly and satisfyingly through chapters (which are more like fragments, really) to the extent that one does not wish for the tale to end. Upon closing the book one feels like reading it again. I did. Enard won the 2015 Prix Goncourt for Compass. He is a writer worth discovering.’
— NJ McGarrigle, Irish Times

‘[A] subtle, fragmented story, which is full of hints and gestures towards big ideas and other stories without ever spelling them out for us.’
— Lucy Dallas, Times Literary Supplement

‘Necessary – no one writes like Mathias Enard.’
— Francine Prose

‘A masterful exercise in brevity…. Enard’s descriptions consistently dazzle throughout this short book … Enard weaves an imaginative and suspenseful tale of civilizations and personalities clashing, of love, of being an artist in a violent era, of enthralling “what ifs,” and of the figurative – and perhaps literal – burning of bridges and connections.’

Ian Maleney interviews Mathias Enard for Granta

Mathias Enard, born in 1972, studied Persian and Arabic and spent long periods in the Middle East. He won several awards for Zone, including the Prix du Livre Inter and the Prix Décembre, and won the Liste Goncourt/Le Choix de l’Orient, the Prix littéraire de la Porte Dorée and the Prix du Roman-News for Street of Thieves. He won the 2015 Prix Goncourt, the 2017 Leipziger Book Award for European Understanding, the Premio Gregor von Rezzori and was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for CompassThe Annual Banquet of the Gravediggers’ Guild is his fifth novel to appear with Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Charlotte Mandell has translated fiction, poetry, and philosophy from the French, including works by Proust, Flaubert, Genet, Maupassant, Blanchot and many other distinguished authors. She has received many accolades and awards for her translations, including a Literature Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts for Zone by Mathias Enard. Her translation of Enard’s Compass was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.