Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants *

2356412883.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book #99: ♫ Parle-leur de batailles de rois et d’éléphants / Tell Them Of Battles, Of Kings and Elephants* by Mathias Enard ★★★★½
Source: Municipal Library
Edition: Audiolib (2011), Unabridged MP3 CD; 3h20
Awards & Distinctions: Goncourt des lycéens (2010)
Goncourt Shortlist (2010)
Original publication date: 2010

I picked up this amazing little book because it came highly recommended in a “best of” directory consisting mainly of French writings (La bibliothèque idéale RTL edited by Bernard Lehut); it has not been translated into English yet, but it can only be a matter of time given it won a prestigious French literary award, its vastly famous protagonist—the artist Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, aka Michelangelo—and the compelling premise that the great Italian Renaissance master had made a trip to what was then known as Constantinople in 1506 after being invited by Sultan Bayezid II.


8th Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Bayezid II (1447 – 1512)

From a few verifiable facts, Mathias Enard has weaved a highly poetic tale on the premise that following the Sultan’s invitation, (which Michelangelo’s famous biographer Giorgio Vasari noted in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects), the great master did in fact accept the invitation and spent three months in Constantinople to present plans for a bridge connecting the Eastern and Western parts of the great capital. Sultan Bayezid II has been mostly forgotten by history, but it seems he was a great visionary who promoted learning, fine arts, poetry and earned the epithet of “the Just” because of the smooth running of his domestic policies. Among other things, he organized the evacuation of Jewish and Muslim Spanish civilians who were evicted from Spain as part of the Inquisition, and granted them full Ottoman citizenship. Bayezid II was keen to have a bridge designed by one of the great Italian Renaissance masters, and asked Leonardo da Vinci to submit his designs first. This drawing is still in existence today, but it seems the proposed bridge was deemed impossible to build with the technology available at the time and it was rejected by the Sultan’s engineers, after which Bayezid II turned to Michelangelo.

The story he weaves here begins with Michelangelo’s arrival to Constantinople in May 1506, where is he given shelter by an Italian merchant and greeted by one of the Sultan’s protégés, the Ottoman poet Mesihi of Pristina. The two men couldn’t be more different; Mesihi, though now still considered as an important contributor to Ottoman letters, having died young in an impoverished state and total obscurity, while Michelangelo went on to become rich and famous and died towards the end of his ninth decade. Mesihi enjoyed much food and drink, and openly courted both men and women, while Michelangelo was of an ascetic nature, refusing all drink and eating little. But here Enard imagines the two men developing an unlikely friendship and the poet introducing the renaissance artist to a performer of great beauty and indefinable sex during one of their outings. The language is sublime, and we are privy to some of Michelangelo’s actual correspondence with one of his brothers, which Enard has translated into French for his book.

As for the intriguing title of the short novel, the author took the sentence from Rudyard Kipling’s preface of Life’s Handicap, a short story collection. This preface contains a fictive conversation between Kipling and “Gobind the one-eyed”, a holy beggar, who explains the art of telling stories:

“Tell them first of those things that thou hast seen and they have seen together. Thus their knowledge will piece out thy imperfections. 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. All the earth is full of tales to him who listens and does not drive away the poor from his door. The poor are the best of tale-tellers; for they must lay their ear to the ground every night”.

Such a beautifully told tale that it’s well worth reading twice in a row.

*Proposed translation for the English title


Rich, Dark and Fascinating

f82e1d6edf8d49759716a676a51444341587343♫ Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth ★★★★½
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2014), Unabridged MP3; 19h26
Original publication date: 2012

Partly based on the true life story of Charlotte-Rose de la Force—a cousin of the Sun King, Louis XIV—who was banished from the court of Versailles by the King for a series of scandalous affairs to live in a nunnery, this book interweaves her own life story with the fairy tale we’ve come to know as Rapunzel. According to Wikipedia, Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, or Mademoiselle de La Force, was a French novelist and poet, and her best-known work was her 1698 fairy tale Persinette which was adapted by the Brothers Grimm as the story Rapunzel, though it seems this story originally came from an Italian folk tale which Mademoiselle de La Force would have had no way of becoming acquainted with, and Kate Forsyth uses her ample skill as a novelist to suggest how this now famous fairy tale might have been transmitted to her.
When Charlotte-Rose arrives at the convent where she is to spend the rest of her life locked up and isolated from the rest of the world, she meets with a harsh and brutal reception. Stripped of her luxurious court garments and shorn of her cascading locks of hair, then systematically bullied by her overseer, she is eventually taken under the wing of an old nun, Soeur Seraphina, who comforts her with an old Italian folk tale about a young girl who was taken from her parents because her father has stolen a handful of bitter greens; before little Margherita was born, her mother nearly died during the pregnancy because she was unable to eat. At her request, her husband stole a handful of herbs from the garden of the renowned courtesan next door. According to the story, Selena Leonelli was a famous courtesan in the Venice in the 16th century, the favourite model of a great painter, and by that point also a powerful witch with dark powers. When she catches Margherita’s father stealing the herbs, she threatens him with declaring him to the authorities, the punishment for theft being the cutting off of both hands. A bargain is made, and so the parents must agree to eventually give their daughter away. On her seventh birthday, Margherita is taken away, first to a convent to receive a proper education and then into a tower where she is shut off for years, her only visitor being Selena Leonelli on monthly calls and blood rites. There are monstrous secrets hidden in the tower, which has no doors nor stairs, and Margherita must drag around yards of hair which the witch uses to climb up to the only window every month, and the only company the girl has the rest of the time is her own beautiful voice to distract herself, with the hope that someday somebody might hear her and come to her rescue.

Kate Forsyth has a gift for storytelling and we get a narrative from three points of view: there is Charlotte-Rose, locked away in the convent and looking back on her youthful follies and excesses; Margherita in her tower, becoming a woman and looking back on her childhood while learning to outsmart a powerful witch; and Selena Leonelli, telling her own fascinating life story starting in the plague-ridden Venice of the early 16th century and explaining how and why she became Margherita’s jailer. The long narrative of her life is perhaps the most fascinating of all.

I haven’t yet read Angela Carter, and looking forward to redressing that omission, but from the descriptions I’ve read about the way she retells fairy tales, it seems Kate Forsyth has also adopted a very modern, adult and feminist point of view which is rich, dark and fascinating. Certainly miles away from the Disney folks and their ilk. A thrilling book with which to start the year, and heartily recommended.

Five Stars for Tremain


a79296240f2981a596941556967444341587343Restoration by Rose Tremain ★★★★★
Edition: Blackstone Audio (2013), Unabridged MP3, 13h00
Original publication date: 1989

This was my third five-star read so far this year; I don’t hand out that rating very easily, and when I do, it’s because the book has surpassed any expectation I may have had, made me want to start again right from the beginning as soon as I’d finished it, and opened up a universe which was somehow magical to me. As far as expectations go, they were pretty high with this novel, as it first came to my attention because it had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I had read very positive reviews for it, and it had been on my wishlist for a long time. My first book by Rose Tremain, which was among my favourites of 2013, was Music & Silence, and there’s a certain quality about her writing, or about the way she tells her stories, or about the characters she creates, or all of these put together, which I find very exciting. With these two books, I was willing to follow her wherever she wanted to take me with the very first words.

This story is set in the England of 1665 and is told as a first person account by one Robert Merivel, who relates the events as they are happening, probably in the form of a personal journal. All the events take place over the course of approximately one year, and it’s a year filled to the brim for Merivel in the England of the Restoration. Introduced by his father, a glovemaker to the King, Young Merivel, a student in medicine, meets Charles II for the first time and immediately falls under his spell, so that when King Charles asks Merivel to save one of his dying dogs (his beloved spaniels of course), Merivel jumps at the chance to be part of the inner circle of Whitehall Palace and successfully cures the dog, mainly by doing nothing (as I recall he drinks too much, falls asleep in his cozy palace bed, and leaves the dog to work out his own business). Merivel further captures the king’s favour with his comical antics—he is a rather ugly man and uncouth in his manners, liking to amuse the court with his frequent farts, among other things—and the king comes to affectionately call him his Fool, which delights Merivel, as he’s willing to do anything to be in the king’s favour for pure love of the man. For his loyalty and services, he is given a grand estate, and immediately sets about decorating his large house in an effusion of baroque colours, in the most vivid hues, then finding the practice of medicine distasteful to him, takes an interest in painting and music, and indeed he observes all around him with an artist’s eye. One day the King tells Robert that he would like him to wed one of his mistresses, Celia Clemens, simply because the king likes his last name and likes to think of his mistress as the future Mrs Merivel. The one condition he sets it that the marriage must not be consummated, and so enamoured is Merivel with his monarch that he immediately accepts an arrangement that few others would willingly comply with. Merivel is a great lover of all the finer things in life; along with the decorative arts, fine cuisine and wines, he also enjoys the company of women and rarely denies himself anything, so of course it follows that however good his intentions are, he is bound to fall in love with Celia, even though the latter detests him to the core. The trap is set, and what rises must fall, and throughout this novel we follow Merivel’s progress from King’s physician to wannabe artist and musician, to his time spent in the New Bedlam hospital, in Norfolk, where he tries to cure the insane once he has fallen from grace, a place from which he manages to fall from grace even further. Merivel is a fascinating character and though he doesn’t dwell much on why he is so obsessed with the king or any of his other inner motivations, he doesn’t lack in observational skills and describes his daily life and the happenings among these unusual circles of people in a very amusing manner, though the novel doesn’t lack for depth and melancholy observations on life, nor tragic events, as, among other things, the Great Fire of London (1666) plays a large role in the narrative.

I was very happy to discover that Tremain wrote a sequel in 2012, simply called Merivel, and it won’t be long before I pick it up. I listened to this book wonderfully narrated by Paul Daneman, one of those narrators I liked so much that I immediately tried to find what other books I could get which were read by him, but unfortunately, this is the only one on offer at present, and as this English actor passed away quite some time ago, there are unlikely to be others. There will be more Tremain in the near future for me however; other than the follow-up novel above-mentioned, I also have The Colour in the stacks, and just got hold her first book Sadler’s Birthday, as I’m tempted to read her complete works in due course.

Most highly recommended!

Speaking of the Man


080419257X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan ★★★★½
Edition: Books on Tape (2013), OverDrive MP3 Audiobook; 8h08
Original publication date: 2013

I don’t celebrate Easter, but rarely does Easter go by without me thinking of Jesus, even though I’m not and never was a Christian. And I guess it wasn’t such a great coincidence that I decided to finally pick up this book—which had been around the top of my reading list since it was released—toward the beginning of this month. And then of course I couldn’t resist the temptation of posting the following comments on Easter Sunday. I don’t think it’s possible for me to talk about this book and why it’s now among my favourites so far this year without giving a short history of my family’s religious backgrounds and how that came to shape my views on the man who came to be known as Jesus Christ, so this is more of a personal account than an actual review.

My paternal grandmother’s father was what is known by the Hebrew word, as a shochet, and though in the original language this is a designation for any kind of butcher, the English interpretation rightly describes what my great-grandfather was; a religious Jew duly licensed and trained to slaughter mammals and birds for food according to kosher standards. I’ll always remember granny Sonia as a voracious reader, with piles of books by the bedside, and how she always had several open at once. This in itself was not an unfamiliar sight to me, since my own mother has always equally been surrounded with mounds of books as far back as I can remember. But my grandmother Sonia’s reading abilities amazed me because like many East European Jews of her generation, she spoke several tongues and read books in three languages (German, Polish and Russian, though she could also read Hebrew and Yiddish). She read great works of philosophy and literature, but though she grew up in a devout Jewish household, she abandoned religion in her teens, when she became part of the Jewish Socialist movement. Needless to say that had she passed on religious traditions to my father, who got his dose of religion from weekly readings of the Torah in school (much as I did, years later while living in Israel for a few years), needless to say I wouldn’t have gotten any teachings about Jesus the man or the Christ from that quarter. Though interestingly enough, Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus the Man taught me more about some of the traditions of that branch of my lineage than I had ever been able to assimilate so far.

My mother on the other hand was raised in a devout Catholic household and spent most of her childhood and teens as a boarder in Catholic convents, being taught and supervised by nuns 24 hours a day, which was a standard form of education in Quebec in the 1950s. Like most children of that generation, she was loyal to the teachings of the Roman Catholic church and took weekly confessions very seriously, even making up sins when no real offences had been committed, just so she’d have something to tell the priest. But again, none of that religious education trickled down to me, or at least not as any code of conduct of belief system, because as soon as she was able to get her hands on forbidden books in her teens, she read voraciously and as widely as she could about all the banned subjects, and this probably contributed to dispel any belief in the Immaculate Conception, one of the core Catholic doctrines, among other things. But since I went to French school in Montreal at a time when the Catholic School Board was still going strong, there came a time when I very much wished to have my first confession so I could wear a tiny white wedding dress with matching white shoes and socks and be wedded to Christ. What finally convinced me to put that idea out of my head was my mother’s patiently and repeated explanations that in order to go through that ceremony, I would have to first be baptized and receive comprehensive religious teachings. This did not appeal as strongly as the notion of the white dress and the gift watch, so I let it go. A few years later, apparently influenced by a friend from Chile whose family held a veritable cult of Christ, I got bitten with that passion too, put up pictures of him holding his bleeding heart on my walls and prayed to him before going to sleep at night and waking up in the morning. This phase probably didn’t last long, and I remember it amusing and bemusing my mother, understandably enough I guess.

But growing into adulthood, matters of faith mostly remained in the periphery of daily life, if at all, and I think I figured out quite early on that no matter what my personal belief system may be, I could not become a willing participant in any form of organized religion, because I’ve always been resistant to doctrinal notions. All the same, the figure of Jesus, celebrated as he is in the Christian world at least twice a year come Christmas and Easter, has always held a certain amount of fascination for me. Who was this man? How and why did he come to have such devoted disciples and followers? Why did both Jews and Romans have it in for him? How and why did his crucifixion become such a powerful symbol? What are the Gospels and the New Testament?

Perhaps I’m moved by the same motivation which led Reza Aslan to preface his main subject by summarizing his own religious evolution and relationship with Jesus before tackling the meat of his book. I suppose this makes sense when you are about to discuss at some length one of the most powerful religious icons, while more or less stripping him of the trappings of his saintly image, to present him simply as Jesus the Man, conceived and born in the conventional way, and like any human being, filled with complex and sometimes contradictory motivations. That is: present him as a historical figure first and foremost and explain how and why he came to be a religious icon, an approach which could understandably upset certain groups of people. What I read about his approach is precisely what attracted me to this book when it was released, because Aslan’s work promised to provide answers to things which had long excited my curiosity. The man who was Jesus has always been a fascinating figure to me, more than the one who was considered as the Son of God, since the latter would have required for me to either have a religious background I do not possess, or to have made a conversion of faith which isn’t within my scope.

My expectations were well rewarded. Basing himself on two decades of research into the New Testament and the origins of the Christian movement, Aslan delivers a narrative about the man and his time which is so exciting, so filled with momentous events, realistic details and a sense of immediacy, of being plunged into the Palestine of 2000 years ago, that it became an unputdownable book from the first page of the introduction:

“The First century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the unofficial Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon (the land would not be officially called Palestine until after 135 C. E. [i.e. current era]). Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God’s imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. The prophet Theudas, according to the book of Acts, had four hundred disciples before Rome captured him and cut off his head. A mysterious charismatic figure known only as “the Egyptian” raised an army of followers in the desert, nearly all of whom were massacred by Roman troops. In 4 B.C.E, the year in which most scholars believe Jesus of Nazareth was born, a poor shepherd named Athronges put a diadem on his head and crowned himself “King of the Jews”; he and his followers were brutally cut down by a legion of soldiers.”

What Aslan does brilliantly here, is explain the sociopolitical context of the times Jesus of Nazareth was born into, of the conflicts between the Jews and the Roman rulers, in what became an ongoing war, when the Jews zealously fought to retain their distinct religion (Aslan calls Judaism a cult throughout) at a time when polytheism was the most commonly accepted belief system throughout the Roman empire. Believing in only one vengeful God, who could only be approached through the intercession of the powerful and rich priestly class with expensive sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem; with background information given about how the Jewish priests came into their position and made a living, what the sacrifices entailed in terms of cost and details of how they were practiced, and of how the Temple was rigidly organized, we can understand why Jesus made a scene there; although, the Jesus of Nazareth he describes was very much steeped in Judaism, was devoutly religious and sought to follow the teachings of the Torah and of Moses above all else, never thinking of creating a new religion. I suppose these are the kinds of details most Christians would be familiar with, but I learned as much in this book about Jesus’s faith and the state of the Jewish religion and practices of those days as about how the cult of Christianity was born. I also learned much about what kind of place Israel was (then, as always it seems, a locus or roiling political and religious tensions) and I was finally able to put together many dispersed bits of knowledge I’d acquired about the Israel of 2000+ years ago, when I lived there as a child and repeatedly visited Masada, various Roman ruins and Old Jerusalem and it’s environs, and was taught about historical events that until now were disconnected in my mind.

As logically follows, Aslan then patiently demonstrates how far from the real man the early Christians—and particularly Saul of Tarsus, known as Paul the Apostle—deliberately reinvented the image of Jesus Christ, to distance Jesus from the Jewish ‘cult’. Since to most Jews, Jesus of Nazareth was simply another zealous messianic figure among many others (who were rather ubiquitous at the time, as he makes clear in his introduction) and also very much a political animal who sought to incite the Jews to free themselves of Roman domination, there was little hope then of converting many Jews to the new creed. He also needed to be  reinvented as a supernatural being who required only belief, without the trappings of a temple or priests or costly sacrifices, and certainly with <i>no</i> political intentions to make him accessible to gentiles and that much larger pool of potential converts to the new religion. Yet Aslan convincingly argues that in this time of turbulent conflict, Jesus could not have been a meek, peace-seeking and all-forgiving saintly figure, though interestingly enough, he also doesn’t attempt to rationalize the miracles he performs, and instead brings us to understand that the zeitgeist was so completely different from the world view we understand today, that miracles might in fact have been possible. And he does all this by quoting from the scriptures and by describing many historical details and events of the times, based on an extended bibliography. Most importantly, he confirmed to me the impression I’ve long held, that while each person can choose to believe or not in Jesus Christ, Jesus of Nazareth certainly was a fascinating human being, and made me understand how such a person came to have such a powerful cult built around him, as perfectly expressed in the closing paragraph of the book:

(obviously, this is a spoiler of sorts, if there is such a thing as a spoiler in a work on non-fiction…)

 “Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and required nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers to make. Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”

This is a book I’ll definitely want to revisit.

(Quotes transcribed from the eBook edition.)