Books of Babel 1
“It is easier to accept who you’ve become than to recollect who you were.”
So what’s the book about?
The Tower of Babel is considered the navel of the world. It is the vertical centre of science, culture and progress. No one knows how many floors it consists of. No one knows who built it. What happens inside it cannot be explained. You have to experience it. It is a mystery, a wonder – and a popular holiday destination. Thomas Senlin wanted to spend his honeymoon with his newlywed wife Marya in the tower. A last getaway before they start their life together in their small village, where Senlin works as a school headmaster. But even before they entered the tower, the unthinkable happened. Senlin lost sight of Marya for just a second – and she was gone. Now he has to look for his wife in the tower. Jokingly, Marya said that they would meet at the top if they lost each other. On his journey through the floors, he learns to understand: The tower takes more than it gives, and what – or who – it once has in its clutches, it will not let go.
“Learning starts with failure.”
These aspects attracted me the most while reading.
- Senlin Ascends plays neither in our reality nor in our timeline, but in an alternative universe, which, however, seems as real as if I too could buy a trip to the Tower of Babel. Whether it could be a dream paradise like Hawaii or it could be a nightmare, we will find out relatively quickly. The wild chaos that immediately overwhelms him at the foot, the sheer mass of people separating him from his wife Marya, seemed to me to depict a scene that turns from a dream into more of a nightmare. And this is only the outside part of the tower, which already gives a frightening feeling. There is a huge discrepancy between external and internal perception: from a distance it is seen as a symbol of all civilisational achievements; up close, however, it turns out to be an unparalleled cesspit of sin in which humanity shows itself from its ugliest side. I liked the light steampunk atmosphere that Bancroft evokes with his descriptions of the interior. Steam and Victorian-tinged elements are encountered by Senlin at every turn.
- Numerous obstacles challenge Selin and question his sense of self. Paradoxically, I think Senlin is able to take on the tower precisely because he doesn’t fit in at all. His stubborn refusal to conform, the great value he places on integrity, righteousness and decency despite his bizarre experiences with a fascinating mix of personalities, protect him to some extent from the corrupting breath of the Tower. He outgrows himself and discovers qualities he would never have thought himself capable of. However, Bancroft leaves open whether his change is to be seen as positive or negative. We do not (yet) learn whether Senlin is developing into a version of himself that he cannot live with. From this consideration I derive the core question of Senlin Ascends: can a man stand against a corrupt, immoral society without losing himself?
- Intellectually, I admire Josiah Bancroft for the unique story he begins in Senlin Ascends. The subject, structure, metaphor and symbolism impressed me greatly because the novel conveys philosophical weight without coming across as too artificial or abstract. And yet, I also cannot deny that I enjoyed the book immensely. Each layer of this tower reveals a new exciting story, peppered with new extraordinary secondary characters. It’s really hard to leave a layer, because you also know that the abstruse characters you have a lot of fun with will leave with you – fun is often a matter of opinion, because for us readers it’s fun to read, but for our poor characters it seems more like horror. Only the last 50 pages had the only weakness for me. I find the tower so interesting and unfortunately I can’t escape it either, but the focus here was too much on this final battle. I liked that there were few fights or up to none at all, which is why I would have preferred the ending to be resolved differently.
“I’m suspicious of people who are certain.”
So what are my final thoughts about it?
The wonderfully precise language takes the reader on Thomas Senlin’s journey through the rings of the Tower of Babel. Each ring is wonderfully unique, held together by the concerns and plans of the main character as he searches for his missing wife. I am terribly curious, want to meet Marya and hope Senlin will surprise me again. It is possible that I too have succumbed to the tower: another soul he will not let go.
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