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  • Writer's pictureKara San

Book Review: Babel, or the Necessity of Violence

Saved inches from death by Professor Richard Lovell, an orphaned boy from Canton is whisked away to England by his new guardian, where he adopts a new name (Robin Swift) and receives private tutoring to prepare him for the Institute of Translation (also known as Babel) at the University of Oxford. Robin should be happy at Babel, shouldn’t he? Rare opportunities, material comfort, a group of friends he’d do anything for—but when he stumbles across and assists a smuggling operation by the shadowy Hermes Society, Robin must decide between his love for his idyllic image of Oxford and the ugly reality of what has maintained Babel, and by extension, what continues to drive the expanding British empire.


This book is marketed as dark academia and a “response” to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. However, I failed to see any actual unique parallels to The Secret History apart from the students committing crimes and a lot of the story taking place on a university campus—which is basically dark academia in a nutshell anyway. What I loved was that RF Kuang dressed her anticolonial message and critique of the subgenre in exactly the aesthetic she’s critiquing. Robin struggles with that same internal conflict between his love for Oxford and his resentment towards the violent truth behind it. Dark academia is how Kuang lulls us into a romanticised 19th century prestigious university life, before ripping us and her characters out of that dreamland and into the reality of the systems that maintain that much-loved aesthetic.


The magic system (silverworking) is an interesting one: it uses silver bars with engravings of translations across different languages to make magic happen. How it works is that the difference between the different languages, the thing that is lost in translation, manifests itself into magic. And since languages develop, Babel is increasingly in need to native speakers from far away to manifest more magic from languages that are vastly different from English. That’s why Robin is here; that’s why Ramy and Victoire are here: to maintain the system that put them in the situations they are in, and yet expects them to be grateful for the opportunities they are given, never mind that most of their white schoolmates like to pretend they don’t belong. It is this system of silverworking that helps England stay so technologically advanced, and also powers its weaponry to enable it to wage war to acquire more silver for its silverworking. Hermes tries to fight back, but what is a secret society of sorts against a system that’s been ingrained for ages? What can a handful of minority scholars do against a greedy imperial force that cannot be sated?


Babel starts out atmospheric and seems almost a love letter to Oxford, but at the same time, Robin (and we as the readers) are unable to guiltlessly immerse ourselves into that environment; there’s always the nagging feeling of turmoil and conflict in the world outside the university’s grounds, be it the workers being put out of work because of the technological advancements brought about by silverworking or the vague awareness of the empire’s moves on other countries. Finally, something happens that prevents Robin from ever being able to ignore his new home’s crimes, that doesn’t let him turn a blind eye to the bigotry he and his friends have to experience from their white schoolmates, and it all goes downhill from there. Like in The Poppy War (book), we see just how disruptive and jarring the reality outside the bubble of academia is; it is a fantasy that no one can return to, once the ugly truth is laid bare. The only path forward is for the oppressed to find common ground to fight back, to answer violence with violence. Ultimately, Babel is an argument to take up arms against the oppressor, for collective action against a greedy empire that gorges itself through exploitation.


Where the book falls short is that it comes across as didactic; as much as I agree with the author’s views, l also felt like I was being repeatedly whacked over the head with the book, with someone yelling “colonialism is bad, we need to defeat it using violence”. I think the message would’ve been loud and clear without my having to be reminded of it virtually every chapter. In that sense, perhaps I am not the book’s target audience; maybe RF Kuang’s intended audience is people like Letty, who are convinced they are allies to minorities but have to be coddled into precarious allyship, whose allyship is conditional upon not being painted as a threat or an enemy. Or perhaps the target audience is so vast that the book needs to go to great lengths accommodate different kinds of readers and reader opinions, steering all of us towards the same conclusion: that the only effective course of action in response to colonialism should be resistance via violence. There is no room for humanising the aggressors when they don’t even see the people they’re trying to dominate as human, and there is likewise be no redemption for characters like Professor Lovell or Professor Playfair.


I think the book itself can be read as an act of resistance. The full title being Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution—there’s a scene towards the end of the book where Robin passes two copies of a manuscript of sorts to one of the allies, a working-class white man who had lost his job because of silverwork. Robin says the manuscript contains the rebels’ stories, because while general history will write them as a threat, the arcane history will tell anyone willing to read it exactly why the rebels had to do what they did. Perhaps we can take the book as a publication by someone who was willing to share this alternative history.

Before everything went to hell, Babel was enjoyable—it was like reminiscing my undergrad days, and perhaps my familiarity with a lot of the things that Robin learnt or read helped me enjoy it a lot more; although I wouldn’t say it’s less accessible if you don’t have a background in Literature or Languages. It’s more that this background knowledge let me pick up easter eggs, kind of like a shared inside joke with the author. Once we are out of that narrative of university friends as found family, there’s only pain, conflict, tension, violence—and no way to return to the way things had been before.


Having already read her Poppy War trilogy, there came a point in Babel when I had an idea of how it would end, and I hated that I was right, even if that was the most logical ending. An empire can’t be toppled overnight, or even in the span of a few years, for that matter. Perhaps the epilogue lets us choose to be a little optimistic, even if we have to pin our hopes on a single character who is determined to survive, to live, despite the odds. Perhaps, compared to The Burning God, where the survivor is forced into survival rather than it being their own active choice, Babel’s conclusion is marginally less depressing. In both conclusions, we are left with a survivor for the cause, and all we can do is hope they can carry the torch, and that the empire doesn’t crush them before they manage to do so.


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