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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Yasmina Reza

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To purchase Babylon

Title: Babylon
Author: Yasmina Reza
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 202 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Babylon - US
Babylon - UK
Babylon - Canada
Babylone - Canada
Babylone - France
Babylon - Deutschland
Babilonia - Italia
Babilonia - España
  • French title: Babylone
  • Translated by Linda Asher
  • Prix Renaudot, 2016

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Our Assessment:

B : decent humorously-dark slices of contemporary life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 26/7/2017 Simon Strauss
Le Monde . 25/8/2016 Jean Birnbaum
NZZ . 15/8/2017 Roman Bucheli
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/9/2018 Erica Wagner
Le Temps . 31/8/2016 Eléonore Sulser
Die Welt . 22/7/2017 Tilman Krause
Die Zeit . 20/7/2017 Ijoma Mangold

  Review Consensus:

  German critics all annoyed by her just doing her usual stuff

  From the Reviews:
  • "Aber bei Reza wird aus der Mücke (beziehungsweise dem Hühnchen) natürlich gleich wieder ein Elefant. Überraschend ist nur, dass die Eskalation dieses Mal nicht im spannungsreichen Modus der Konversation stattfindet, sondern recht unprätentiös direkt in eine brachiale Tat mündet (...) Der Rest der Handlung setzt sich aus verschiedenen Versatzstücken einer klassischen Kriminalgeschichte zusammen. (...) Erzählt wird das alles in einem unbestechlich präzisen Ton. Aber was fehlt, ist die Pointe. Dass ein Bio-Hühnchen zum Ehemord führt, ist ja nicht mehr als morbider Sarkasmus. Was dahinter an Gesellschaftskritik steckt, erschließt sich nicht recht. (...) Überzeugend wird dieser Roman erst jenseits von Rahmenhandlung und Dialogszenen." - Simon Strauss, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Hingegen bleibt in Yasmina Rezas Roman nichts, auch nicht das Geringste im Unsichtbaren. Sie zerrt alles ans grelle Licht, sie benennt jede Einzelheit, damit auch gewiss nichts im Zweideutigen verharren kann. Sogar dort, wo sie nur raunt und vage Andeutungen macht, geschieht es lediglich um des Effektes willen: Sie zeigt dem Leser, dass sie etwas weiss, was sie an dieser Stelle noch nicht gleich preisgeben möchte." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(I)n Reza’s work, characters have always been inclined to go too far, to act out the impulses most of us keep in check. And so a middle-class set-piece takes on the color of a tale by Georges Simenon. Reza is the bard of bourgeois, neoliberal angst." - Erica Wagner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Une nouvelle fois, et avec un brio mêlé de tendresse, ce qui confère à ce livre un charme certain, Yasmina Reza scrute l’étrange étrangeté des choses. (...) Il y a du vaudeville dans le petit théâtre romanesque que dresse ici Yasmina Reza. La romancière lance la mécanique implacable dès les premières pages" - Eléonore Sulser, Le Temps

  • "Jedoch stellt sich unweigerlich die Frage: Was will uns die Autorin eigentlich sagen ? (...) Von solchen (fragwürdigen) Botschaften sind bereits die anderen Yasmina-Reza-Bücher voll. Man kennt sie jetzt allmählich." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt

  • "Yasmina Reza könnte eine bedeutende Romanautorin sein, wenn sie nicht jedes Mal, um die Handlung ins Rollen zu bringen, eine Klamotte schreiben würde. Dabei schafft sie Figuren, die von ihrer seelischen Tiefe her für ganz andere Erfahrungen gerüstet wären, aber dann lässt sie sie doch wieder nur auf einer Bananenschale ausrutschen." - Ijoma Mangold, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Babylon does center around a 'big' event -- someone gets killed -- but it's far from your usual mystery or thriller. Narrated by sixty-two-year-old Elisabeth Jauze, what happens does also lead to her life being examined, by officials, "with ridiculous zeal" -- which, as she sees it, amounts to: "a ridiculous determination to manufacture a false picture"; in a sense Babylon is an attempt, in much more relaxed manner, to present the actual reality. Babylon is more about the lives, and their milieu, than the murderous act (and the after-act(s) that follow); Elisabeth not only doesn't lead with it in her account, but for quite a while barely does more than hint at what happened: the first mention that something terrible happened comes with a casual mention of someone who: "had heard about the drama in our building and was obviously hungry for the details". Elisabeth will give the details, but she takes her time getting there.
       Elisabeth introduces herself and then sets her small-world stage in a roundabout way. She seems to be feeling her age, wondering where it all went wrong: "I can't say I've figured out how to be happy in life", she admits -- sounding as much puzzled as regretful. She's not miserable, but she does look back a bit longingly on her freer-seeming youth. She works -- as a patent engineer -- at the Pasteur Institute (a job title that: "means nothing to people and I no longer try to describe it in any appealing way"), and she's long been married, apparently reasonably happily, to Pierre; they have a grown son, Emmanuel; she's also still close to her sister.
       Elisabeth organized a 'Spring Celebration', a party in their apartment to mark the beginning of spring. It's clearly not the kind of thing she did often -- she realizes she has too few chairs and even glasses for the crowd she has invited, for example -- but she organizes everything, and it's a more or less pleasant evening -- "It was actually a good party", she thinks, when all is said and done -- with a mix of friends, family, and colleagues, comings and goings, flirtations and arguments.
       Among those invited to the party are upstairs neighbors Jean-Lino and his wife Lydie. Jean-Lino is yet another character whose life didn't work out quite as he planned: he opened his own restaurant, but it failed, and he now handled: "after-sales support on home appliances" for a store-chain (it's this simple, devastating summing-up of a life, in barely more than an aside, that Reza does so well). His first wife left him after the restaurant failed, but he found love again -- though was left with the disappointment of never having had a child. He desperately tries to be a part of Lydie's grandson's life, but the obnoxious little tyke isn't having much of that. (There's also an unpleasant cat to deal with.)
       Claustrophobic Jean-Lino doesn't take the elevator, and Elisabeth also takes the stairs, so they run into one another occasionally, and a relationship of sorts developed; "I developed some affection for Jean-Lino Manoscrivi", she admits. The couples don't really mix and aren't exactly on familiar terms, but Jean-Lino did proudly invite her and Paul to come hear Lydie sing once, and so Elisabeth has them over for the party as well.
       While the party does go reasonably well, there are a few slightly unpleasant moments, as some of the guests don't mix so well -- but it's hardly more than one would expect at any larger gathering of people. There is one incident that gets a bit uncomfortable, but even if feelings are hurt it doesn't seem horrific. And yet the consequences ultimately are. The party comes to an end, Elisabeth and Pierre clear up and go to bed -- and soon later are woken up with the rather unsettling news that there's been a murder.
       What follows is something of a comedy of errors -- including Pierre's decision not to call the police, followed by his going back to sleep (he did have quite a bit to drink, but this still is rather hard to believe). Elisabeth, meanwhile, decides to be helpful, entangling herself in a situation that gets a bit out of hand. Predictably, efforts at corpse-disposal do not get very far, and eventually the authorities show up and take the more or less clear cut situation into hand. Except it's not entirely clear-cut, and requires a bit of a cover-story if Elisabeth is to avoid being found complicit in at least some of what happened (as, in fact, she is).
       Elisabeth handles the situation calmly enough, with an almost amused detachment -- as is indeed the case for almost her entire account. Memories and pieces of the past come up, and life also goes on in its same old ways after the murder -- as, for example, Elisabeth's mother dies (something readers learnt before they hear about the murder). The sense of absurdity -- of everything from life in general to this particular situation -- is nicely redoubled in the final scenes of the book, which include a recreation of what happened that fateful night, history play-actingly repeating itself: not first as tragedy then as farce, but in fact as both, both times.
       It's her mother's home health aide who is curious about what happened, early on, before Elisabeth has revealed anything, and when Elisabeth doesn't satisfy her curiosity she recounts some family tragedy she heard about -- complaining then to Elisabeth:

What I don't like is, they tell you all that and then afterwards it's total silence. You hear the story over all the radio stations and then zero. They lure you in and then they slam the door in your face.
       Elisabeth's account in Babylon isn't quite the opposite of that, but it is much more concerned with context: it is much more filler (of the characters and events behind, or surrounding, the crime) than the actual deed. What happened remains a mystery, in the way any near-spontaneous-seeming crime of passion remains a mystery, but much is also understandable, rooted in personality, happenstance, and events leading up to it (both distant and more immediate). So also with Elisabeth's reaction/actions once she is drawn into what happened. If she remains slightly baffled by it all, little surprises her -- an interesting take on the usual human-condition murder tale.
       It's a somewhat odd narrative, in the way Elisabeth's account swirls around, lapping out into bits and pieces (and photographs) from the past, while the crime itself is almost pathetic (and the victim then presented as barely more than an object).
       Reza is at her best in the asides, the easy summing up of lives -- and life slipping away -- and the awkwardness of human interactions. The balance -- with actual murder -- is a bit harder to strike, but in teasing out what happened, and the small twists that then follow, Babylon is reasonably successful.
       Not quite a thriller, Reza's more melancholy-philosophical speculation on the human condition is still quite well done and entertaining.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 August 2018

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Babylon: Reviews: Yasmina Reza: Other Books by Yasmina Reza under Review Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of French literature at the complete review
  • Index of Prix Renaudot-winning works under review

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About the Author:

       French author Yasmina Reza, born in 1959, achieved her first great success with the play 'Art'. She has also written fiction and screenplays.

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© 2018 the complete review

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