Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Microreview [Book]: Babel by R. F. Kuang

 It's definitely dark, it's definitely set in academia, but this is far more powerful and far less aesthetic than that label implies. 

Cover art by Nico Delort

Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, to give it its full title, is not a gentle book. It is not a book inclined to mince words about its topics. It is about a lot of things - colonialism, both physical and cultural, racism and classism, white fragility, love, linguistics and the power of belonging, and of not belonging. To quote the author, it is a "love letter and break up letter to Oxford". It is a story of how a small group of people try to find a way to fight against the seemingly insurmountable force of the British Empire in the early 19th century, in a world where we imagine magic powered by silver and language exacerbates the technology and various societal effects of the industrial revolution. It is unflinchingly critical and honest about history, academic culture, and the untrammeled self-interest of those in charge.

In the world of Babel, languages can make magic - by inscribing words that translate, but with some meaning lost in the process, onto a bar of silver, the linguistic dissonance can cause some thematically similar effects in the real world, when the match pair of words is spoken by someone fluent in the languages. Collecting more words, more translations, more languages, allows the translators of Oxford to find more effects, which in turn are sold for exorbitant profit, or used to fuel the expansion of the British Empire. This in turn brings in more silver to inscribe, more languages to plunder and more speakers of those languages to exploit - because native speakers of the more "foreign" languages, ones who have had less cross-pollination with English, are particularly prized by the Translation Institute, and what better way to get those speakers than when they are young and can be moulded to fit an English lifestyle?

Our protagonist Robin is one such, taken from his home in Canton after the rest of his family died of cholera, himself on the brink of succumbing, healed by the English Professor Lovell, then raised in his house on a diet of languages until he was ready to take a place in Oxford.

By getting Robin's perspective, raised to think of Lovell with gratitude for saving him, to focus on nothing but language, starved of affection and people his own age, Kuang is in a position to give us the authentic feeling of coming up to Oxford as an undergraduate but on overdrive. And at this, she is devastatingly effective. The passages of the first years having their first tutes, discovering their intellectual curiosity, the sparkling feelings of joy talking to other people their age about the things they've all been raised to hold most dear, they feel so palpable, so painfully real. The bond between Robin and his three cohort-mates is immediate and vivid and so earnest, and all of their bond together with Oxford as a place and a feeling is so instantly, intensely passionate, a sense of sudden belonging after a childhood of various hardships.

Which makes the rest of the book all the more bittersweet. Because the thesis of the book is about how that belonging is false, an impossible dream none of them could ever realise. The carrot dangled before them to lure them along, alongside the stick of what would happen, what their lives would be, if they didn't give in to the temptation. And watching them realise this in slow motion, as events unfold that force them to see what was there all along, force them to realise they can't shut their eyes to it all, is devastating. It is a story of the shattering of pleasant illusions by bitter realities, and it is impossible not to grieve with the characters for the lost dreams, even as we and they know those dreams were never going to actually happen. The whole thing builds slowly through the course of the book, but by the end it is entirely gutwrenching.

As an emotional journey, the story is pretty flawless. Robin's slow progression from childhood ignorance to youthful academic zeal to disillusionment is beautifully, poignantly told, as are his relationships to both England and Canton, and China more broadly, and his own sense of nationality and identity. We move from mood to mood in smooth progression, and it is incredibly easy to latch onto his changing feelings, and slip from one to another as events dictate.

On the flip side, some of the early parts are a little repetitive in their world building and exposition. The beginning of the book has a lot of telling us about slavery, oppression and exploitation in the world of the early 1800s. All of what it tells us is true, clear, unambiguous and necessary, but is occasionally undercut by some of the footnotes - where the text will give us a pretty well-drawn picture of the world, the footnote spells it out so basically that it feels almost as if it doesn't trust the reader to have understood what it was telling them, which is occasionally a little grating. However, this mostly clears up once Robin reaches university, so it's possibly some of the tone is meant to be through the lens of his understanding of the world (or lack thereof), and if so, some of that heavy underscoring makes a little more sense. There are also so many delightful bits of historical accuracy, in the details. For instance, Robin once asks the Professor "what do I need Latin and Greek for?" and is met with "to understand English", which is such a 19th century view, and there are enough nuggets like this hidden among the childhood parts that it becomes relatively easy to forgive some of the overemphasis where it crops up.

Once we reach his time at university, there is a definite shift in the way the narrative moves - we speed up, steadily at first, matching the pace of his own growing understanding of the world and his place in it, and this match of prose and tone to content is both subtly and skillfully done. By the time the book reaches full flow, it feels impossible to put down, and utterly immersive in its worldbuilding.

We also go from his limited character interactions as a child - seeing really only Professor Lovell, his tutors and the cook - to a more richly peopled world. The sparseness of the childhood parts again mirror in the reader Robin's experience of his narrow world, and emphasise again the sheer emotional intensity of his coming up to Oxford, and the friends he meets and makes in his cohort.

And what a cohort they are. The four characters, who comprise most of the books main social and emotional interactions (alongside the Professor and one other), have a beautiful web of love and hate and co-dependency, understanding and ignorance, between them. There is the tension between the two boys and the two girls (who have their own struggles in an Oxford that barely accepts women might be capable of study), between white Letty and the other three, and then between Victoire and Ramy, and the sometimes-white-passing Robin. It is a book, encapsulated in these four, that really wants us to see the many, many different ways the world chose to oppress people, and how difficult it could sometimes be for people to see outside of their own struggle to those of others, even those nearest and dearest to us. The progression of the four way relationship in the Babel cohort is one of best written parts of the book (which is saying something), and it is just so, so good. It's "emphatic hand gestures while failing to find the right words to tell people how good it is" good.

It is also to some extent the tension of the main plotline writ small - because when we come to the events of the latter half of the book, Kuang manages to encompass so much of what was going on in the world of the 1830s, and so well, and it is brilliant. She draws in threads of the social and economic harms of industrialisation, the struggle of the working class, sexism, racism, the self-serving nature of apparent philanthropism, the intersections of religion with both liberation and oppression, the sheer hubris of empire, the self-sabotaging nature of colonialism, the blindness of people to the harms around them, and so, so much more, and connects and contextualises them with each other. And she manages to do this without flooding us with extraneous information that the reader might juggle to hold in their head all together. We don't need to know every single piece and part of every struggle that forms a part of the whole - she gives us what we need for the narrative to work, and for it to feel immersive, coherent and natural as a world, and this is absolutely critical for both allowing the story to move along at the speed it does, and for it to balance so well with the arc of the character relationships. This is, of course, to some extent helped by the fact we view the world through the lens of sheltered academics, and so can be presented information as somewhat new that many outside of the Oxford bubble would have been well aware of, but even so, it is extremely well-handled.

As is the magic system, and the necessary smattering of linguistics that gets thrown in as part of it. Because the silverwork relies on translation, and understanding words and how they come to be as they are, it is necessary to explain some various bits and bobs of philology to move the story along. And obviously, these are all factually good and sound, but more critically, what is included, the real and fake scholars' works that are quoted, work together to build such a perfect vibe of linguistics as a discipline in the early 1800s (with some tweaks for the story, of course). The ubiquity of Latin and Ancient Greek, as well as the abundance of German scholarship, the insistence on biblical underpinnings, the inter-country feuding and prides at stake, all builds together to create a great pastiche of the linguistics discipline as it did, or could have, looked.

And then, of course, the brutal honesty of the end thesis - on the necessity of violence. The crux of the novel. It is an inexorable, powerful, sophisticated and sharp conclusion to an argument we've been led along through the book. It is devastating and it is brilliant, and that is all I can really say about it.

As I was reading, several other books came to mind as drawing on similar themes in different ways, but the one I would most pick up is how the portrayal of the poisoned-fruit lure of Oxford in Babel is extremely resonant with Mahit's infatuation with the Teixcalaanli culture in A Memory Called Empire. Both manage to capture exactly the feel, the siren song of that beautiful, cursed and toxic coloniser culture, through the eyes of someone immersed but othered, whose highest possible aspiration in the eyes of that culture will be "one of the good foreigners", as though that were the best compliment that could be paid. And both manage to capture the impossible position it puts those who live between the worlds in, and how, whatever they pick, whatever path they walk, whatever life they lead, they will never win.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 I very nearly cried at the end. God, the ending.

+1 Almost painfully accurate in the portrayal of the allure and awfulness of academic culture

Penalties: -1 some of the early parts feel a little repetitive

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: R. F. Kuang, Babel [Harper Voyager, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea