GUEST REVIEW by Terence Hawkins
TELL THEM OF BATTLES, KINGS, AND ELEPHANTS
Despite its slender elegance, this book is more than equal to the enormous themes it takes up: east and west; labor and talent; male and female. Its point of departure is an invitation in 1506 from Sultan Bayezid II to Michelangelo to design a bridge to span the Golden Horn in Constantinople. Michaelangelo never accepted the commission or visited the city. This novel imagines that he did.
The city had fallen to the Turks only fifty years before. It’s divided by the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus, whose banks constituted the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. Bayezid was eager to have his bridge designed by the best Italy had to offer. First he offered the commission to Leonardo—whom Michelangelo describes as “that oaf who scorns sculpture.” Da Vinci went so far as to build a model of his proposal. The Sultan rejected it as impractical. (It was ultimately built on a smaller scale in Norway in 2001.) His offer to Michelangelo is sweetened by the observation that it will provide an opportunity to succeed where his older rival failed.
Powerful as his jealously may be, what drives Michelangelo to accept the job is that bane of all creatives, Renaissance and modern: money. Pope Julius II, his patron and chief client, refused to pay him. Furious, he takes ship without papal permission and arrives in a Constantinople that overwhelms him with its beauty and sensuality. And Michelangelo has neither. His skin is leathery, his hands scarred; his muscles are those of a laborer. He smells bad, “as bad as a barbarian or a slave from the north.” But despite all this, Mesihi, a poet and secretary in the entourage of the Grand Vizier who has been assigned to Michelangelo as a guide to the city, develops a full-blown crush on him.
In his early days among the Ottomans Michelangelo demonstrates a formidable work ethic. He draws constantly in a notebook. Talent is nothing without labor. Elard envisions that images from Constaninople will find their way into Michalangelo’s subsequent work, that Mesihi will appear as Adam on the Sistine Chapel dome. There is destruction as well. Newly installed in a studio on the palace grounds, Michelangelo is shown Leonardo’s model bridge. He smashes it to pieces.
Mesihi takes Michelangelo to a party at which an dancer from Andalusia is performing. Just eighteen years before, the province had fallen to the King of Spain, marking the end of Muslim Spain. The dancer is entirely androgynous, and the Florentine is entirely smitten, regardless of gender. “If it’s a woman’s body, it’s perfect; if it’s a man’s body, Michelangelo would pay dearly to see the muscles of his thighs and calves stand out. . . .” Elard manages to conceal the dancer’s sex even while undressing at a second meeting that Mesihi has contrived. Finally we learn she is a woman, and that Michelangelo rejects her. During a long night’s pillow talk reported at intervals through the book, she recounts the subjugation or dispersal of her people at Christian hands and whispers the phrase that gives the book its title: “You conquer people by telling them of battles, kings, elephants, and marvellous beings.”
Michelangelo soon learns that the Sultan is no more generous a master than the Pope and will not pay him until the work is far along. Threats of excommunication or worse reach him from Italy. Ultimately his departure from Constantinople is hastened by an incident in which Mesihi and the dancer are both involved. To describe its nature and effect would be far too much of a spoiler.
We know next to nothing of Michelangelo’s sexuality. It seems only to have been expressed in sonnets and madrigals addressed to a single, much younger man, late in the artist’s life. Otherwise he appears to have been entirely chaste, disdaining love as much as food and drink, in which he indulged only out of necessity. Enard paints an artist entirely enslaved to his work, driven exclusively by the needs to get it done and get paid for doing it, drawn to the Andalusian not as an object of desire—he rejects her physically, after all– but an object of beauty. Enard compares his reaction to the dancer with his first glimpse of Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine cathedral recently converted into a mosque: “Every time he touches beauty, or approaches it, the artist shivers with happiness and suffering intermingled. . .”
The book is eloquently translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell. At just over a hundred pages, it packs a wallop wholly disproportionate to its length. Do yourself a favor and read it.
Ideas drive all of Terence Hawkins’ work. His latest book, The Rage of Achilles, is an extensively revised and re-imagined edition of his first novel. In it, Homer’s epic heroes are no more glorious than the tired, scared grunts they command. Informed by Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, its gods are only the hallucinations of men and women desperate for direction in the collapsing society of the late Bronze Age. Hawkins’ realistic account of Homeric warfare has been described as “visceral,” and his prose “elegant and terse.”
In a Best Book of 2020 review, Kirkus called Hawkins’ short story collection Turing’s Graveyard “extraordinary stories that will make readers laugh, shiver, or perhaps both.” Booklist described it as “a beautiful reading experience” and compared it to the Twilight Zone.
In naming his second novel, American Neolithic, a Year’s Best, Kirkus described it as “a towering work of speculative fiction.” Its revised edition was compared to Orwell’s 1984 in Midwest Book Review.
Hawkins was the founding Director of the Yale Writers’ Conference, which he managed and developed from 2011 to 2015. In 2014, he started the Company of Writers, offering workshops and manuscript services to writers at all levels of experience. The Company has hosted seminars with Amy Bloom and Colum McCann, as well as a program on the intersection of literary and genre fiction with John Crowley and Louis Bayard.
Hawkins grew up in a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania. His home county was the site of the original “Night of the Living Dead.” His grandfathers and several uncles were coal miners. He graduated from Yale, where he was publisher of the Yale Daily News. He lives in Connecticut.