Book Review: Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, by R.F. Kuang
Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.”
Every once in a while, you read a book that you can tell is something special. Not just because the story or characters are exceptional. Not just because the pacing is perfect and the prose is exquisite. Not just because it covers important topics in new ways. No, sometimes the book you’re reading is special because you know that it will go beyond standing the test of time; it’s destined to become a classic. You can see this book not only still being read a century from now, but being discussed in a classroom setting. Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution is such a book. It tackles some truly weighty material, specifically colonialism and racism, in profoundly eye-opening ways. It houses a discourse on etymology and translation that is absolutely fascinating. And even while balancing all of these dense topics, Kuang still manages to create an incredible cast of characters that experience a phenomenal among of growth, as well as a perfectly paced, page-turning plot where the stakes are high and the emotions wrought in the reader are even higher. I can’t think of a superlative strong enough to adequately convey how powerful and nigh-on perfect Babel is as a piece of art.
“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.”
Kuang approaches colonialism through a unique lens in Babel, that of language and translation. This approach breathes new life into the topic and allows readers to see the atrocities of colonialism with fresh eyes. These atrocities, both hidden and blatant, have been so often discussed and grazed over that readers, specifically white readers, tend to overlook them. Yes, we acknowledge what a travesty they were, but then we go right along with our lives and move onto something more comfortable upon which to set our thoughts. Which is one of the main points of this novel, I think. White people think of themselves as allies when convenient, and honestly believe that we in this modern age would never so dehumanize our fellow man over something as inherent as skin color or heritage. And yet, how often do we still whitewash history, drifting past the portions most painful to look at as quickly as possible? In this book, Kuang showcases a multitude of ways, both harsh and subtle, in which the British Empire exerted her control upon the colonies she claimed. Specifically, we see how little England cared for the people of these other nations, seeing them as less than human and little more than something to siphon. In this alternate history, silver can house magic when etched with words from multiple languages, catching whatever is lost in translation. Which means that even the very language of a people is something to be harvested and wielded by colonizers against those indigenous to that particular land. The addition of such an integral part of culture as something the Empire sees as a resource to be used as they see fit is an eye-opening demonstration of the parallels between colonialism and rape, the taking by force of what you desire because no one is powerful enough to stay your hand.
“But that’s the great contradiction of colonialism… It’s built to destroy that which it prizes most.”
This colonialism goes hand in hand with the casual racism with which Robin and his cohorts are plagued during their lives as pawns of the Empire. Even at Oxford, where they are given such generous stipends for their contributions to the School of Translation housed within Babel, they are seen as less than their white counterparts and are expected to cow-tow and perform as their “betters” see fit. Robin is often called an exception, or credit, to his race, as England views the Chinese as lazy and stupid. I can’t imagine having to live under this constant belittlement of heritage and race, and others expecting me to be thankful to have “escaped” the home from which I was taken.
“A dream; this was an impossible dream, this fragile, lovely world in which, for the price of his convictions, he had been allowed to remain.”
Kuang also demonstrates here how very insular academia can be. When immersed in campus life and classes, it can become all too easy to ignore the problems of the world around you, because you feel so set apart from that world. Someone claimed that this novel was both a love letter and breakup letter to academia, and it truly is. Because while Kaung doesn’t shy away from shining light on the shortcomings and failings of academia, she doesn’t deny its beauty. One can acknowledge the beauty of the broken without excusing the brokenness, which is exactly the balance maintained here.
“Languages had to be lived to be understood, and Oxford was, after all, the opposite of life.”
One of my favorite lighter elements of the novel was the presentation of the joys of etymology. I’ve always loved words, both for the stories they can tell and for themselves, so I was delighted to learn about the origins and hidden or forgotten connotations of so many words from so many languages. It was illuminating to say the least. I also loved the discourse surrounded language as an idea and different languages as they relate to each other. In the hands of another, so much erudite information and the abundance of footnotes could have become tedious. But that definitely wasn’t the case with Babel. Kuang maintained a beautiful balance between information and story.
“Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving thought the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation — a necessary endeavour, however futile, to move between them.”
I’ve said very little about the story itself, and that’s for a very simple reason: I think readers should go into this book as blind as possible. The synopsis provided in the book itself is more than enough. However, I will say, as vaguely as possible, that I adored the story. It was so tightly tied to all of the topics discussed above that there’s no way it could be parted from them. The plot is slow but steady until it suddenly isn’t, and the ratcheting of the pace was brilliantly done. The characters were diverse and lovable and flawed and deep, and I came to either love or hate all of them. Strong feelings are definitely evoked here, both in regards to the characters and the plot itself. There is high drama, but never for drama’s sake. And the writing is always exquisitely balanced, never flowery but always evocative and powerful.
“That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.”
Babel is one of the most brilliant — and most devastating — works of fiction I’ve ever encountered. I am in awe of every element of this book. The writing is exceptional; the character development is somehow both rich and subtle; the political maneuverings and philosophical conundrums are perfectly balanced with the plot, so as never to bog down the pacing; the etymology is fascinating and impeccably well researched; and the stakes and tension are keenly sharp without ever feeling the slightest bit melodramatic for the sake of drama. Not only is this a very good story incredibly well told, its message is breathtakingly powerful and abundantly clear. Kuang demonstrates the epitome of artistry here. I’ve not read her Poppy War series because I was scared of the darkness, but if the writing is of the same calibre as Babel, I think it will be worth the pain. I’ve found an author whose every word I plan to read, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.
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