Hello, everyone! I’ve finally finished my review of Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang. This has been a tough one because I’ve struggled to put into words how much I love this book.
Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.
Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
Babel — a thematic response to The Secret History and a tonal response to Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire.
***Thank you to Harper Voyager for providing a copy of the book via NetGalley! My review contains my honest thoughts about my reading experience.***
How do I even put into words how much I loved this book? I honestly don’t think I can do it justice. However, I’ll start by saying that the title tells you everything you need to know about the book and whether you might like it. You can tell it was written by an academic (LOL, IYKYK), and the rest of the writing in the book has a similar quality to it, which makes the story read almost like an academic annal from years past. There’s tons of really cool footnotes, which I loved, and it was obvious the author did a great deal of homework in preparing this manuscript.
In many ways, this book felt like a love letter to language. The magic system was based on translation, and almost all of the characters were scholars devoted to the study of language. They used the act of translation, and the power it created, to do fascinating things. There was so much knowledge about language and its history buried within this text, and I ate it up. Back in the day (think boarding school and undergrad), I loved studying language, including Latin, French, Spanish, and some classical Greek, and etymology. I’ve unfortunately lost most of my proficiency over time due to disuse, but it was still so much fun reading about the origins of different English words and all the information about the Chinese language/characters scattered throughout this story. In short, if you love learning about language, you will probably enjoy this book.
The story and writing were also incredibly immersive. I was surprised by how alive this version of Oxford felt, as if I was there roaming the campus and halls myself alongside the characters. Kuang also captured the feelings of the journey through academia better than anyone else I’ve ever read. The progression of the characters brought to life the excitement of being one of a few chosen people selected as the next experts in your field, the intensity of bonding with one’s cohort, the inevitable disillusionment once the shine wears off and the workload becomes unmanageable, and the surprising feelings of loss that accompany having achieved one’s goal. I was surprised by how much I related to these characters despite our many differences.
Speaking of the characters, I loved them so much. The first half of the book delves deep into their characterization and the building of their relationships, which made the tragedies of the second half all the more bitter and gut-wrenchingly heartbreaking. However, I’m not going to say any more about that because I don’t want to spoil all the pain. Just know it is coming. 🙂 Back to the characters… Robin’s journey in this book was quite astounding. He was plucked from nothing, literally the edge of death, and he went on to accomplish truly incredible things. The boy at the beginning of the story was so different from the man at the end. The rest of Robin’s cohort and the other supporting characters all felt just as three-dimensional as Robin. There’s so much I’d like to talk about each of them, but I don’t want to spoil the story. So, I’ll just say that these characters allowed for the exploration of so many topics and themes, especially as it relates to group dynamics and cohesiveness of individuals from wildly different backgrounds with various amounts of privilege and clashing worldviews.
There were so many powerful themes explored in this book that I could probably write an entire book about them. It tackled the inherent classism, sexism, and racism prevalent within academia, as well as the tokenism that goes along with it. It also highlighted the destructive nature of colonialism and capitalist systems and proposed a timely and important question: can oppressive systems be changed from the inside or must the system be destroyed outright before meaningful change can occur? This led to another interesting ethical quandary. Is violence justified when the cause is just? The characters also provided a fascinating window into the allure of proxy privilege and how it can be used to keep the oppressed in line and uphold the status quo. Ultimately, I don’t know how anyone could come away from this book without questioning who is paying the price for our largely comfortable, overly consumptive modern lifestyle. After all, the resources to maintain it have to come from somewhere, and, if history has taught us anything, someone, somewhere is likely being exploited to obtain them.
Ultimately, I felt a lot of things while reading this book. I was nostalgic at times. I was enraged and enlightened at others. Then there were the times I was heartbroken, so deeply sad at how unfair life can be. This book was truly a masterpiece. I cannot recommend it enough, and it has become my favorite book of ALL TIME. It is rare that I want to read a book again immediately after finishing it, but I’m ready for a re-read and will definitely be adding this one to my shelves to read over and over for years to come.