Compared to the author's 500-plus page, one-sentence-long novel Zone, [the book] is a masterful exercise in brevity. It also kept me guessing, as it moves quickly from one scene to the next, never letting you get too comfortable in one place ... Énard's descriptions consistently dazzle throughout this short book ... Énard 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. As the novel is grounded in concrete facts, what I love best is how well Énard manages to blur the lines of truth and fiction ... Énard's prose is vivid and elliptical, and his novel, like the sculptor's intricate designs, is a true achievement in form.
Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants (deftly translated, like Énard’s three previous English releases, by Charlotte Mandell) is 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. Impressions are the principal access to Michelangelo’s mind; he apprehends the city in sumptuous catalogues of spices, minerals, dyes, and other rare merchandise that he records in a notebook. The structure leaves a measure of white space, creating a sense of encounter with a 'lost' artifact ... Ultimately, Énard’s imagined history confines itself to threading a nearly invisible influence through Michelangelo’s existing work ... There is hardly a glimpse, though, of what kind of world a worldlier Michelangelo might have made. Which is not to suggest that Énard should have written a full-fledged alternate history. Fragments, after all, can be keys. But it’s never quite clear what doors Énard is trying to open; why, if Michelangelo had travelled to Constantinople, it would have mattered.
[Énard’s] beguiling, feather-light fantasy follows Michelangelo’s reluctant immersion into the wonders of the city, a far more sensuous place than the ascetic artist has known in Italy. Mr. Énard fits a thwarted love story and a murder into his tale but his deepest engagement is with the bridge ... In this charming little reverie of a book, inspiration springs from our unguarded confrontations with the unfamiliar.
[An] excellent translator ... 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.
Translated with sensuous flair by Charlotte Mandell, this slice of tweaked history avoids the full-strength counterfactual mode, with the entire course of the Renaissance re-set by Michelangelo’s defection to the other side ... 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 ... Enard knows, too, that richly embroidered yarns from distant times and places both seduce and mislead. As the singer says, storytellers 'conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants and marvellous beings'. Enard both indulges and mocks this brand of traditional 'Orientalism'. Like Michelangelo’s project in Constantinople, it remains an alluring fantasy.
Énard is keen to alert the reader when things cannot be known or, when they are known, to give a source ('Ascavio Condivi, his biographer, tells us'). Unfortunately, when history is able to help, it helps mostly with items and objects ... The clash of the novel’s identities (essayistic critique of historical fiction? Conventional historical novel?) is most obvious in the scene when we are told that Michelangelo 'will not talk about this night in the quiet of the bedchamber' with 'the few lovers he is known to have had'. Unverifiable speculation about an event that may well not have taken place swiftly gives way to the rigours of the record ... 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.
For about half its modest length, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants passes muster as a Borgesian thought experiment, describing the deep impression made on Michelangelo by something that never happened ... But then soupier material starts to pile up and the title, referring as it does to the elements necessary for concocting a potboiler, comes to look like a confession hiding in plain sight ... Even before Enard starts incorporating some fairly feeble thriller elements (conspiracies and deadly daggers), his central romantic triangle...seems perverse ... This doesn’t seem much like a vision transformed by otherness. A novel that seemed to take aim squarely at the head, with its art-historical reflections, instabilities of manner and tweaks of the cultural record, lowers its sights to the heart, perhaps too confident in assuming, with Kipling’s Gobind, that this is an easier target.
Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants [is] translated by the ever-superb Charlotte Mandell ... Tell Them reads more like a Saidian thought experiment, a historical counterfactual wrapped in the cloak of a novella ... With Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants, Matthias Énard continues his role as a profound chronicler of loss, a scribe of the long, sad story of Europe’s relationship with Asia.
All the characters are genuinely likable and relatable, especially in their flaws ... A snappy writing style and changing viewpoints make the pages of this debut fly by as readers will want to know what happens next.