This imagined account of Michelangelo's 1506 journey to Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn is constructed from real historical fragments, meditating on why stories are told, why bridges are built, and how seemingly unmatched pieces, seen from the opposite sides of civilization, can mirror one another.
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.