Sultry suppositions

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday January 22, 2019
Share this Post:
Sultry suppositions

The French novelist and polymath Mathias Enard turned heads west of the Channel when his 2015 novel "Compass" was shortlisted for the 2017 Booker International Prize; many of those heads promptly exploded. "Compass" is an erudite, 450-page opium dream from which not everyone awoke.

Still, if this sounds like your stuff, a shorter, somewhat easier point of entry to Enard has just been published in English, from his regular and indefatigable translator, Charlotte Mandell. "Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants" (New Directions), written in French in 2010, is an intoxicant of a different kind, even if the named intoxicants in it are of manifold kinds.

Enard takes his title from snippets of a Rudyard Kipling poem, "Life's Handicap," which he includes as an epigraph. It's as if he takes its opening line as an injunction: "Tell them of what thou alone hast seen."

In the strict sense, the novel is a story only Enard himself has seen. In a way similar to that used by Ersi Sotiropoulos in "What's Left of the Night" (which imagines a brief Paris idyll by Constantine Cavafy, of which there is no historical account), Enard imagines Michelangelo traveling to Constantinople in 1506 to design and build a bridge over the Golden Horn. After a design by Leonardo da Vinci was deemed unbuildable, the historical Michelangelo did get such an invitation, but declined it. Oh, what he missed.

Enard's short chapters, written from multiple points of view, are like 100 more tales of Scheherazade, not only in their exoticism but also in their function. Lest you miss the point, Enard supplies a character substitute for Scheherazade, an androgynous Andalusian singer-dancer slave who ensorcells Michelangelo, makes it to his bed, and tells him not who she is, but who he is.

This is no broken-hearted Dido; she sings to Michelangelo on their last night: "It's not me you desire. I am nothing but the reflection of your poet friend, the one who sacrifices himself for your happiness. I do not exist. Maybe you're discovering that now. You will suffer from it later on, of course: you will forget; in vain you will have covered the walls with our faces, our features will vanish little by little."

"Your poet friend" is Mesihi of Prishtina, the Maestro's appointed guide in Constantinople. Mesihi's own taste runs to "ephebes," but in no time at all he's besotted with Michelangelo. Mesihi's mounting passion goes unrequited. "Michelangelo," Enard tells us, "is searching for love. Michelangelo is afraid of love just as he's afraid of Hell. He looks away when he feels Mesihi's gaze resting on him."

Enard gives us a true-to-life Michelangelo, a rough, heavy-drinking, ham-fisted galute who happens to have been kissed by God. Michelangelo bathes, or rather is bathed, only once during his months-long stay in the Ottoman court. Still, nothing could be clearer than that he is homosexual. Bayezid II, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Ali Pasha who has invited the Maestro to compete for the commission, is bisexual, but at least he has the discipline to hold his single-purposed place in Michelangelo's Bosporus sojourn: getting his bridge, not bedding the artist.

The tireless brilliance is in the way Enard weaves fact and fiction. This historical Grand Vizier is little more than a stand-in for Pope Julius II of Rome, to whom the fiercely independent Michelangelo feels himself enslaved by commissions in which money is withheld, or meted out in dribbles. The Grand Vizier offers him an entire Turkish village, which the Maestro regards as, at best, a booby prize.

It's hard to imagine a movie more vividly delivering this Constantinople than Enard's rich, incantatory prose. There are catalogues of food and drink, architectural interiors and exteriors, some splendid, others rude. There's also a breath-catching moment when Michelangelo is being led through a slave market and is moved by the lines of humans of many races hoping only that their domination will be less than brutal. He recognizes himself, an Italian Catholic, as an outsider and infidel.

Near the end of his time in Constantinople, Michelangelo's ebony concubine reminds him, "You are a slave of princes, just as I am a slave of innkeepers and procurers. The truth is that there is nothing but suffering: we try to forget, in the arms of strangers, that we will soon vanish."

But with whatever pain, the artist knows that he is more than a slave. "It's true," he tells Arslan, a Constantinople confidant. "We all ape God in his Absence."