Book Review: Babel, by R.F. Kuang

I found this book while browsing in the small bookshop at Point Reyes Station, where I’d bought the Centennial Edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses a year before. Like Joyce, Chinese-American author R. F. Kuang has constructed a unique world where individual consciousness, history, and an altered sense of reality are woven together in a compelling novel that I found utterly spellbinding.

Steampunk meets Harry Potter

Part steampunk, part Harry Potter, and yet absolutely unique, Babel invites us into a magical world of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ in early-Victorian Britain.The four protagonists are plucked from their families and enrolled as undergraduates in the gothic Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel. Housed in the tower portrayed on the cover, the fictional Institute sits between the Radcliffe and Bodleian libraries. An Author’s Note apologies for the lack of historical and geographic accuracy, despite the novel being crammed with historical and linguistic references that are stunning in their range and accuracy. Extensive footnotes refer to everything from the Peterloo Massacre, organizational competence of the Luddite movement, the French term for an unfortunate situation (Triste comme un repas sans fromage), and a dizzying number of word derivations and root meanings.

A central theme is the challenges of translation and the power of language.

Linguistic powerhouse

The power of words is, in fact, quite literal. The Britain of the 1830s is, in the author’s telling, a global imperial power due to a monopoly of silver. In this novel, silver bars are the engine behind all aspects of the Industrial Revolution: powering factories, transport systems, guns, and maintaining everything from sewer systems to bridges. The bars are empowered by ‘matched-pairs’ of words with closely associated meanings. The Institute trains and houses native-language speaking scholars from across the Empire who create match-pair words and engrave them on silver bars — as do arcane skills of computer engineers today engrave their code onto silicon chips with the circuitry that powers our world.

Cognates — words in different languages that shared a common ancestor and often similar meanings as well — were often the best clues for fruitful match-pairs, since they were on such close branches of the etymological tree. But the difficulty with cognates was that often their meanings were so close that there was little distortion in translation, and thus little effect that the bars could manifest. There was, after all, no significant difference between the word ‘chocolate’ in English and Spanish. Moreover, looking for cognates, one had to be wary of false friends — words that seemed like cognates but had utterly different origins and meanings. The English ‘have’ did not come from the Latin ‘habere’ (‘to hold, to possess’), for example, but from the Latin ‘capere’ (‘to seek’). And the Italian ‘cognato’ did not mean ‘cognate’ like one might hope, but rather ‘brother-in-law’.

page 227-228

It’s a testament to the author’s storytelling skills that passages like the one above become utterly engaging as the plot develops. This is in no small part to how she paints the academic life in such rich colors. There are more than a few shades of Hogwarts in the eccentric professors, cycle of terms and holidays, midnight japes, and sinister secrets. Threaded throughout is a trenchant critique of British imperialism, racism, and exploitation of the working class. This is as sharp a critique of the early 19th century as it is of today’s headlines:

‘You’re trying to win by punishing the city,’ said Professor Chakravarti. ‘That means the whole city, everyone in it — men, women, children. There are sick children who can’t get their medicine. There are whole families with no income and no source of food. This is more than an inconvenience to them, it’s a death threat.’

Page 497

Hence, the full subtitle of the novel ‘Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.’

Immediately after the exchange above, the main protagonist claims, ‘Violence was the only thing that brought the colonizer to the table, violence was the only option.’

And yes, Frantz Fanon gets name-checked.

Throughout this mesmerizing novel, Kunang never loses her way as she weaves the many threads of the story together. It made me want to visit Oxford before the silver bars decay, and the city is lost to time.

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