What is it of Mathias Énard’s prose that is so beguiling? The latest to be translated into English by Charlotte Mandell, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, is made up of straightforward declarative sentences, smoothly plotted and without the tortured density of novels like Zone or Compass.
I’d been reluctant to read this latest, despite being bewitched by each of the three previous novels published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, disliking historical fiction by instinct with its strained effort to recreate period. Énard’s story is more of a mood piece, avoiding the tedium of historical documentation. There is a quiet immensity to his story; though crammed with impressions, Énard imposes a form on his material that heavily filters his research through a mediating intelligence.
What I am left with is a dark vitality, a sequence of quiet passages that celebrate the reticent beauty of Istanbul (Constantinople), and an artist’s endeavours. Énard makes the period and city palpable because, as in the other novels, he writes so effectively about distance—those distances between lovers and would-be lovers, achievement and ambition, and that between pride and humility.