written by Gregor Christiansmeyer
photo by Vanja Čerimagić
A work full of literary references and a voice without transparent manifestation. This are two of the aspects discussed with French author Mathias Énard, who says that the title of his most recent book has been a gift he could not refuse. Have a read to discover the birth of a story!
“You have an audience to conquer, Mathias”, this is how moderator and literary critic Margot Dijkgraaf welcomes Mathias Énard to the stage for the closing event of Bookstan 2022. A challenge that storyteller Énard is more than willing to accept. For both it is the first time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but this makes them not less motivated to enchant their Sarajevo audience.
Experiences that become writing
The attendants are invited to follow Énards wanderlust from his home town, western-French Niort, first to Paris, where he studied Arabic and Persian, “also because it was not offered in the province, and it constituted a chance to go abroad”. But studying these languages actually led him to live abroad – among other places to Lebanon, where Énard worked as a photographer embedded in the Lebanese Red Cross just after the end of the civil war, which had devasted the country for as long as the period from 1975 to 1990. In the wider eastern Mediterranean, the author further discovered what he calls “Arabic literature, sounds, culture”. His experience of a violence-struck context still rich of diverse traditions made him an author, first in poems and finally in 2003 with his first novel La Perfection du tir, which is written from the perspective of a Lebanese sniper.
Énard further explored the wider Mediterranean with longer stays in Damascus, Teheran, and Rome, while he is mainly based in Barcelona for more than 20 years now. During his stay in Rome for a residency programme in Villa Medici he also got his inspiration for Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants (translated as Pričaj im o bitkama, kraljevima i slonovima), a book very different of his usual dealing with violent (hi)stories: “In the first half of the day I was writing a very violent book – Zone, so I had to dedicate myself for something different in the afternoons,” Énard remembers, “I went to the wonderful library, reading mostly on art and art history.” This is also, where the French author stumbled upon Giorgio Vasaris Le vite, more concretely upon the vita of Michelangelo Buonarroti and within the vita a hint to a mysterious invitation by the Sultan to build a bridge across the Bosporus.
A book between East and West
This contact between East and West, crossing the border between Europe and Asia in the Mediterranean fascinated the author and made him research about a possible trip of Michelangelo. The results of the research were not too motivating: Seemingly also Leonardo Da Vinci had been invited to draft the bridge requested by the Sultan, but his draft had been rejected. But apart from the invitation no more information on a possible visit by Michelangelo. While an encounter with an art historian gave the last blast to Mathias Énard research, he decided to make the scenario the starting point of his new novel: What if Michelangelo travelled to Istanbul to build a bridge for the Sultan?
Before writing a novel there were still a lot of questions to answer, among others regarding the live in Istanbul at Michelangelo’s times. But not less important for Énard: “Why would Michelanglo accept the Sultans offer?” When researching about the artists character, there were a series of motivations for a possible engagement in abroad among them “eager for money, power, influence, but also working for the enemy of the enemy” – reflecting Buonarroti’s conflict with the pope and the Church states’ conflicts with the Osman empire. Furthermore, working on something that the older and still more popular Leonardo Da Vinci failed with, might have been an additional incentive for an imaginary trip of ambitious Buonarrotti to the East.
Limits and risks of imagination
Based on this chain of motives and assumptions, the French author could start the imaginary trip to the meeting point of East and West. Filled with details, unmarked quotations from mostly Persian poetry and other reflections: When asked by moderator Dijkgraaf about the gender of the third voice of the novel next to the narrator and Michelangelo, a voice that seems to be in an intimate relationship with the artist, Mathias Énard argues that this is inspired by his readings; “in Persian poetry there is no gender!” But at the same time, he admits, that his work by romanticising the past is also vulnerable to orientalist patterns, still arguing that the possibility to reimagine the past is of utmost importance for him as a novelist.
Another detail of the imaginatory work of Énard catching the audience’s interest towards the end of the evening is that in his novel Michelangelo gets granted with “a Bosnian village” as reward for his services to the Sultan – a very common practise back in that time. Following the almost obvious question from the Sarajevo audience, how this village is named, he admits, that it is nameless – and promises “I will write a short story on that”. We are looking forward to seeing this promise kept on Mathias Énards next visit to the region!