By R.F. Kuang

Harper Voyager


660pp/$27.99/August 2022

Cover by Nicholas Delort

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

R.F. Kuang's Babel opens with Professor Richard Lovell rescuing a nameless Chinese orphan from his home in Canton after his mother died from cholera. Informed he was being taken to England and needed an English name, the boy adopted the name Robin Swift. The novel follow Swift's admission to Oxford and the Royal Institute of Translation, nicknamed Babel, located in an eight-storey tall building. Raised by the distant Lovell, who is a professor at Babel, Swift manages to find a place for himself at the University surrounded by the other tree members of his class, Ramy, Letty, and Victoire, despite the racism they experience on the streets of Oxford.

The first half of the novel covers their first three years at Babel, a time when they are learning who each other are and bonding together and discovered the fairy tale world of academia, knowing that the knowledge they are acquiring in Babel will offer the opportunities throughout their lives to be part of something bigger and more important than themselves. Although Kuang scatters hints that the idyllic Oxford they are experiencing won't last, the storm clouds are distant as the characters live a mostly carefree life.

The idyll ends during a trip to Swift's native Canton before the start of their fourth year at Babel. What Swift sees there opens his eyes to the horrors of colonization and the realization that the scholars of Babel are not only complicit in those crimes, but are actively driving them. The novel is subtitled The Necessity of Violence and the second half of the novel explores the rift between Swift and his friends, some of whom see the need for violent revolution to end the horrors of colonization and those who want to attempt to work within the system to reform the growth of the empire. Between Swift's actions and the activities of the nebulous revolutionary group Hermes, Kuang does make it clear that those who want to work within the system tend to be those with the least to lose if the current system remains in place.

Kuang marries two main themes in Babel, the first is an exploration of language, specifically how it relates to etymology and translation. The other is the dehumanizing effect colonization has. On the surface the two themes seem unrelated, but it is clear that the translation efforts and use of various languages by the professors at Babel is incontrovertibly linked to the expansion of the British Empire and the colonization of cultures around the world. Over the course of the novel, it becomes clear that the British who are teaching at Babel view their students, especially Ramy, Robin, and Victoire, who are not Caucasian, as inferiors, potentially merely as tools to be used in the expansion of the empire. This attitude even stretches to Professor Chakravarti, who has clearly succumbed to the lure of belonging and mirrors the opinions of his colleagues.

Unfortunately, Swift's view of colonization and the professors at Babel is binary, without any shades of gray, which makes him less than sympathetic in his ultimate actions, even if the reader can understand his rationale and support it. Despite Swift being the protagonist, his cohort, Victoire, Ramy, and Letty, all of whom are capable of understanding nuance better than Swift, are far more interesting, even if (or perhaps because) their background is limited by seeing them through Swift's eyes, although the limitations on Swift's understanding of what he sees makes the reader wonder how much can be trusted.

Babel is an ambitious work and, for the most part, Kuang pulls it off. The movement against the status quo doesn't come across as well as the earlier portion of the novel in which Kuang builds up her world before focusing on tearing it down. The second half of the book, however, spells out the arguments that are implicit in the design of the world in which Swift and his cohort move. Babel, Oxford, and the world in which they live can't continue to exist within the confines of the novel.

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