The OF Blog: Sébastien Doubinsky, The Babylonian Trilogy

Monday, May 31, 2010

Sébastien Doubinsky, The Babylonian Trilogy

In 2009, PS Publishing put out an interesting book by acclaimed French author Sébastien Doubinsky.  I recall reading all sorts of positive reviews at the time, but for some reason, I never got around to buying this book until a few weeks ago.  Needless to say, I am regretting that I waited so long before purchasing this book, as this was a challenging, inventive set of interconnecting vignettes that form an engrossing serial murder mystery and a complex look at a modern-day Babylon.

As the title suggests, the book is broken down into three connected novellas.  The first, "The Birth of Television according to Buddha," contains cryptic references to a war that is transpiring around the lives of several characters.  Not all of them reference this war, but bits and pieces of it are revealed in the 1 to 2 page vignettes that appear in this section.  Take for instance two such vignettes:


"You're a dog!"  she said, and suddenly Waldo realized that it was true.  He fell on his four legs and began to chase her out of the apartment, barking, drooling and growling.  When she was gone, he curled up on the carpet and got ready for a nap.  Right before falling asleep, he wearily looked up and saw that the world was much better when you looked at it from underneath. (p. 18)


The village was empty.  Or rather, there wasn't much left of the village.  The Air Force had done a pretty good job.  Acrid smoke filled the air.  Large holes poked the ground, surrounded by scattered bodies, torn and black like strange trees.  Steve began to count them mentally.  One, two, three.  The captain moved cautiously in front of the column, gun in hand.  Four, five, six, seven eight.  He told Steve to check a ruined hut.  Nine, ten, eleven.  Then another ruined hut.  Twelve.  And another.  Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen.  "How many did you find?" the captain asked a soldier who was coming from the other side of the village.  "About twenty, sir."  About twenty, Sir.  About?  What in the hell did he mean by "about?"  Steve felt a rage napalm his heart.  What was the point in counting when he was the only one doing it seriously? (p. 19)
At first, these two vignettes, although side-by-side, do not seem to fit well together.  However, as Doubinsky adds layer upon layer of vignettes for the first hundred pages of this 297 page book, a composite image of war in the city begins to unfold.  This use of short fragments told from a plethora of viewpoints may be a bit confusing at first, but it is within this very confusion that Doubinsky's overarching story gains its strength, ultimately creating a much more interesting and fractured tale than what would have been the case if this had been a straightforward linear narrative.

The second novella, "Yellow Bull," revolves around a police commissioner, Georg Ratner, who is trying to solve the case of a serial murderer while his wife has become a mental vegetable after a car accident.  Again, Doubinksy utilizes short, fractured vignettes to create a mosaic that explores Ratner's grief, his guilt over having a mistress who always said "yes," and his tortured feelings regarding his profession.  I found this middle section to be the most powerful of the three, as Ratner's character is seen from several perspectives, allowing the reader to construct a mental image that perhaps would be more vivid than if his character had been developed in a more traditional pattern.

The final novella, "The Guardians of Babylon," revolves around three characters trying to escape the city.  Elements of the first two novellas are present in this short novella of barely 70 pages, and while it was fascinating, it did not have as much of the vitality to it that I found in the previous two novellas.  However, it does serve as a fitting coda for this novel.

Overall, The Babylonian Trilogy is a story (or rather, interlocking stories) that I enjoyed greatly.  Due to the very short, fractured storytelling format, the pacing was very rapid for me, with a series of jolts and clashes that I believe Doubinsky purposely included in order to create this sense that the narrative was not as straightforward as one might expect.  For some readers, this type of tale likely would be quite frustrating; for me, it was like manna from heaven.  Great read.

1 comment:

Liviu said...

The next two novels in the "city series" of the author (Absinth - hopefully tbp 2011 and The Potemkin 2012) are more unitary but still awesome

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