“But how does this happen?” he continued. “How does all the power from foreign languages just somehow accrue to England? This is no accident; this is a deliberate exploitation of foreign cultures and foreign resources. The professors like to pretend that the tower is a refuge for pure knowledge, that it sits above the mundane concerns of business and commerce, but it does not. It’s intricately tied to the business of colonialism. It is the business of colonialism.”
“Pamphlets. They’d thought they could win this with pamphlets.
He almost laughed at the absurdity. Power did not lie in the tip of a pen. Power did not work against its own interests. Power could only be brought to heel by acts of defiance it could not ignore. With brute, unflinching force. With violence.”
I didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s debut novel The Poppy War as much as most people I know. I wrote back in 2019 about how her voice and literary styling impressed me at the same time as I found myself frustrated by how much of the plot was taken directly from the headlines of the history of east Asia in the 19th and 20th century, which meant that I didn’t bother reading either of the sequels. However, I also speculated that the book would have been stronger had she abandoned the fictional world for the real one and expressed my interest in what Kuang put out subsequently.
Kuang did exactly what I had hoped for in her latest novel, Babel, or the necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution. The result was not only a brilliant fantasy novel, but also perhaps my favorite campus novel.
Babel is principally the story of Robin Swift, an orphan from Canton whose mother died in a Cholera epidemic in 1829 who comes into the care of Professor Richard Lovell, who whisks him off to England. Lovell rears Robin in his household for years, drilling him in Latin, Greek, and Chinese with the sole ambition of gaining him admission to the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University, colloquially known as Babel, where Lovell is a professor.
This institute, which is housed in a tower at Oxford, is the radiant hub of Britain’s colonial empire. Scholars working at Babel discovered the latent power in the slippage in translation that they can inscribe onto bars of silver. With the right semantic links, British silver can do anything from create swift-moving transit to reinforce buildings to power weapons of war. They only require a steady supply of silver and a roster of fluent linguists.
“Professor Playfair put the bar down. ‘So there it is. It’s all quite easy once you’ve grasped the basic principle. We capture what is lost in translation—for there is always something lost in translation—and the bar manifests it into being. Simple enough?’
Upon making his way to Oxford, Robin joins the three other students who have been selected for admission to Babel, Ramiz Rafi Mirza (Ramy) from Calcutta, Victoire Desgraves from Haiti, and Letitia Price (Letty), a white woman whose father was an admiral in the British navy. The quartet settles into a routine, supporting one another during the grinding years of coursework. During this period, all four suffer what we might term micro-aggressions even though their affiliation with Babel insulates them from the worst effects of racism and sexism. However, it is also in this period when Robin meets Griffin, Professor Lovell’s previous ward and likely Robin’s half brother. A former student at Babel himself, Griffin introduces Robin to the Hermes Society, a secretive association of people dedicated to resisting Babel’s power. Before long it becomes clear that there is only one path forward: Robin and his friends must seize Babel and thus the means of magic production.
Babel is a fictional history, and Kuang notes in her author’s note that she moved certain chronological details to meet narrative needs, but it is also set against very real historical events and phenomena. The British Empire is a given, and the climactic events appear against a backdrop of the Opium Wars, but Kuang also introduces historical personages and linguistic texts omitted from most textbooks, which gives the setting the texture of reality.
At the same time, Kuang uses this story to address the very nature of the academy, without resorting either to the secretive cultishness of The Secret History or the (in my opinion) mean-spirited satire of Lucky Jim. Rather, the pages of Babel are filled with the characters immediately recognizable to anyone who has spent time in college. Lovell’s stern and reclusive scholar who wants to be engaged with the grand affairs of the day is one archetype, but so too is the female scholar who has to work twice as hard to receive the same recognition and junior researchers who sympathize with radical social movements but also have to keep their heads down to receive promotion. I laughed aloud at a scene where the energetic senior professor who puts on a show in lectures and arranges the security measures at the tower that can kill or maim expresses his outrage that they can no longer reveal exam results with a ritual where students attempt to enter the tower: those who fail trigger the tower defenses. This sort of erudite bonhomie in class juxtaposed with a cruelty around exams and “qualifications” is altogether too common. Thus, with Babel, Kuang offers an incisive portrait of an institution that claims to be a progressive meritocracy while perpetuating a structure that is fundamentally conservative.
Then an interlude chapter told from Letty’s point of view opens with this sentence:
Letitia Price was not a wicked person.
The chapter goes on to dissect all of the problems with white feminism in just a few pages.
Put simply, Babel is a triumph, blending a clever magic system with a specific time and place, and themes that allow Kuang to speak to the present moment.
This is the first of several posts on that I read in late 2022 when I became chaotically busy (I finished Babel in October). I read a bunch of good books in the intervening period, so my goal over the next few weeks is to get caught up.