The title of Jérôme Ferrari’s newly translated novel, which won the 2012 Prix Goncourt, refers to the sermon St Augustine delivered after the sacking of Rome by the Visigoth leader Alaric in 410. Augustine sought to explain why God would have allowed the imperial city to be destroyed, arguing that it was a divine corrective to human sinfulness. These terrible events, Augustine contended, were a reminder of just ‘how unsteady and fragile … all worldly trivialities’ are when compared with the eternal. Ferrari, who teaches philosophy at a lycée in Abu Dhabi, assigns Augustine a major allegorical role in his latest novel. The great theologian’s writings on imperial decline and crises of religious and secular faith mirror Ferrari’s own fictive concerns.