Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard translated by Charlotte Mandell
Although he spends long hours seeking inspiration through sketching, it’s not all work and no play. With a young poet as his translator and companion, Michelangelo is beguiled and confused in equal measure by the buildings and culture of the capital of the Ottoman Empire. His sketches will inspire his later work in the Vatican; a musician he admires, unsure whether man or woman, is persuaded into his bed.
But not everyone welcomes the infidel and, before the project is complete, and before he’s been adequately paid, he’s fleeing for his life. A couple of years later, an earthquake turns the fledgling bridge to rubble.
First published in France in 2010, this is a lovely novella about politics, creativity and the challenge of bridging cultures. Charlotte Mandell’s eloquent translation is published in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions who provided my review copy.
Connect by Julian Gough
Hyper-informed of his neurological limitations, Colt sees an opportunity in his mother’s research. Naomi herself has been reluctant to publish her disturbing and controversial findings, that began with methods of blocking pain and led to evidence for the evolutionary advantage of rape in Barbary ducks. But it’s her work on the next step on from stem cell therapies that interests her son. By isolating the imaginal discs instrumental in the metamorphosis of the monarch caterpillar to butterfly, she’s successfully regrown limbs in mice and gerbils and is awaiting ethical approval and funding to move on to primates next.
Having no difficulty hacking into her computer, Colt has submitted a paper to a conference in New York. His motives are twofold: proud of his mother’s work, he believes it should be disseminated but he also wants her out of the way in order to break into her lab and test the technology on himself. He wants to run an upgrade on his own brain.
The tension ratchets when officers from the National Security Agency, recognising the military potential, swoop into the conference to suppress Naomi’s research. Back on the home front, Colt’s experiment has been almost too successful, his corpus callosum has outgrown his skull. To survive the increasing threats to their health and safety, including from Colt’s father, mother and son must collaborate in a way they have never done before. In particular, while still needing her guidance to navigate the outside world, Naomi must allow her special-needs someone to take more of a lead.
Wow! Connect is a big book with big ideas about the potential for the future interface between humans and machines. Although I’m not sure I always followed the logic of the game world, where the final battle takes place, but I was happy to keep turning the page. Despite the boy’s-own-adventure arc and artificial intelligence theme, it’s an extremely human story about growing up, accepting limitations and learning to love. And I was moved by the optimistic slant on machine domination: with the capacity to objectively analyse all the data on what makes for a successful civilisation, the case for a more equal distribution of resources becomes abundantly clear. Thanks to Picador books for my review copy.
I’m a little late with my response to Charli Mills’ call for 99-word stories linking mashed potatoes with an unusual superpower. I hadn’t completely digested her post – a shame, since she’s given me the honour of a name check – so glossed over the word unusual when inspiration struck on my morning walk. But, moved by her post and by the hero’s journey in Connect, I could defend my choice. Not like me to compose such a hopeful piece, nor to borrow a title from the Bible.
He isn’t the man she married. Not even the man whose passions she failed to comprehend. Ten hours to cook a meal consumed in ten minutes? Ten herbs and spices to flavour the flesh when one would do. Now the gourmet’s reduced to eating pap.
When the diagnosis came she panicked. How would she live with his shell when the man it was built for was gone? Now, feeding him mashed potato like a baby, she draws on the power he gave her long ago. Back when he found her, lost and wounded, and, by loving, taught her love.