Thursday 2 December 2010

Literary orienteering

Parle-leur de batailles, de rois et d'éléphants, by Mathias Énard (Leméac/Actes Sud Coédit, 2010)

Mathias Énard’s fifth novel Parle-leaur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants (Talk to them about battles, Kings and elephants) which was placed in the final selection for the esteemed literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, and also the initial selection of the Grand Prix du Roman de l’Académie Française; has been, perhaps, his greatest success at prose fiction so far, quite surpassing his previous novel Zone published in 2008, an ambitious and hypnotic 500-page exploration of war and memory, which many class as his breakthrough into literary recognition.

For Parle-leaur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants Énard has elaborated on an obscure event in the life of the Renaissance artist Michelangelo, when he took a trip to Constantinople, the beating heart of the Ottoman Empire, during the time of expansion, when it was fast becoming the preeminent power of the Eastern Mediterranean; abandoning his work on the tomb of Pope Julius II, to meet with Sultan Bayezid the Just, who had invited him to the capital, to discuss the building of the Bosphorus Bridge.

The narrative remains strong throughout, diverting into captivating tales of seduction, love and faith; the themes are many and would for any other writer, perhaps, prove too difficult, to do as Énard has done, make sense of them in just 155 pages. The clash of civilisations, the intricate planning of constructing a mighty bridge, the trials and tribulations of a growing Empire, freshly drenched in the blood of its enemies. What must be pointed out, is that this is a novel of fiction and not fact, the event Énard writes about, though a true one, was not, at the time, written about at great length; for example, many biographers of Michelangelo, and indeed the authors of Turkish history, only ever mention the event in passing, if at all, never going into any great detail. In essence, Parle-leaur de batailles, de rois et d’éléphants is a delcious fantasy and a testament to Énard’s wondrous imagination and creativity, as he paints some very illustrious pictures of Michelangelo, the Sultan and the early Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina.

Énard sumptuously evokes the fragile Constantinople in transition, as she slipped from being the spiritual and political hub of the ancient Holy Roman Empire, into the hands of the marauding Islamic conquerors, who were now, under the rule of Sultan Bayezid, moulding and transforming the city in their own idealised image. It is no surprise that the depth and lyricism of this novel is so immense, for this is the perfect tale, set in the perfect period for Énard, who has long been fascinated by the history of the Orient; studying Persian and Arabic in his youth and now teaching Arabic at the University of Barcelona. 

Upon finishing the book, one gets a rather warm nostalgic feeling; the traditional literary style of old fashioned story telling, makes for a quite refreshing experience. A charm reminiscent of Kipling, from whom Énard got the title for his book, plundering into an obscure collection of Kipling’s fables Life’s Handicap which in the preface gives a most inspirational literary observation, on the art of storytelling. Written in the form of a conversation between a Holy beggar and Kipling himself - ‘Tell them of what thou alone hast seen, then what thou hast heard, and since they be children tell them of battles and kings, horses, devils, elephants, and angels, but omit not to tell them of love and suchlike’ – instructs the beggar; a curious mixture of the styles of two worlds, the East and the West play out in the conversation. This is exactly what Énard has attempted in his book, to mix the literary styles of East and West, with his observations, biographies and tales, creating something quite unique in the process.


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