The Millions

Lost in an Infinite Twilight: Mathias Énard’s ‘Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants’

The novel begins in darkness and in mystery. A voice, unknown, speaks of night and its people, the drinkers, the poets, the lovers, the banished and condemned (though for what and how and by whom we do not know). A voice, who we will later attach to the text’s central enigma—a singer, dancer, prisoner, and erstwhile assassin—speaks to another figure whose name the novel here withholds. We know he, the second figure, has a Turkish friend, that he desires beauty. We know his beliefs—a prison of ideas comprising of strength and bravery and triumph, glory and wealth. We know that the voice sees through this shroud of conviction because the man is here, concealed in the night, in the “glistering uncertainty of darkness.” What the man really wants is possibility, unboundedness, an end not to doubt, but to the pains and limitations of his experience. The novel never reveals the voice’s name. The man is Michelangelo Buonarroti.

’s , translated by the ever-superb , imagines a version of history in which the most celebrated artist of Renaissance Italy flees his, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. His purpose there is to plan and supervise the construction of a massive feat of engineering—a bridge across the Golden Horn, linking Constantinople with Pera. The task, already attempted by “the immense” , whose design the Sultan found “rather ugly, despite its lightness,” would have been the crowning achievement of the young Michelangelo’s career, an undertaking to rival any of his architectural works back in Italy.

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