Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution by R.F. Kuang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This review is going to be rather long, and the reason is this:
See all the bookmarks at the top? That's the bits of paper I tore up and stuck in the pages, marking passages I wanted to go back to. I don't usually do that with books, but this story is an accomplishment of the highest order, and the best book I have read this year. I wanted to be able to explain why.
This book is a brutal, detailed, layered examination of both academie and British colonialism, set in a 19th-century alternate history with one crucial difference: the metal silver, when cast into bars and engraved with similar words from different languages, has been discovered to have magical properties. Use the right words in translation and a specific magical effect will be produced. This singular diversion from "our" history has utterly transformed both British society, global capitalism, and England's colonization of other countries, and not for the better (not that it was good to start with, but now it's worse). Silver-working props up Britain's entire economy and way of life, and the powers that be will kill to preserve it.
(In other reviews, I've seen people complaining that such a thing would have altered world history far beyond the indicated timeline, and ordinarily I would agree. However, after thinking about it, I believe in this world this was a relatively recent discovery, say within a century or two of the book's setting in the 1830's. Of course the English, realizing its potential, jumped right on it to make use of and expand their rapacious colonization and exploitation of other countries.)
The center of British silver-working is the titular tower of Babel in the city of Oxford. Because languages blend and drift over time and the effect of "match-pairs" is gradually reduced, a steady infusion of new languages and translators is needed. Cue the first and primary protagonist of our four main characters, Robin Swift, a Chinese boy brought to England at the age of ten. His biological father, Richard Lowell, one of Babel's professors, believe Chinese will be Babel's language of the future. After the death of his mother, Robin is integrated into Professor Lowell's household, given an education, and expected to go to Babel to put his Chinese translation skills to use for the British Empire.
(Thinking about this setup after I finished the book, I came away with the unpleasant conclusion, especially after Robin's older half-brother Griffin was introduced, that Professor Lowell made a habit of this sort of thing. Visit China, seduce a young Chinese girl, and sire a child on her to provide a steady stream of Chinese translators he could then bring back to England. He didn't care in the least about these kids as human beings, as was made evident by the fact that the first thing he does is insist Robin choose an English name and forego his Chinese one. We never hear it and don't know what it is, and in this way the erasure of Robin's heritage and culture starts immediately.)
Robin grows up and dutifully goes to Babel, where we then meet the other three primary characters: Victoire, a Black woman from Haiti; Ramy, a brown man from Calcutta, India; and Letty, a white British woman who was accepted into the Royal Institute of Translation, or Babel, only after the death of her older brother Lincoln. I mention the ethnicities of these characters because they are vital to the plot. In addition to colonization, this book drills down into the intersections of racism, white supremacy and sexism, and this is reflected in the character arcs of all four protagonists. But the main themes of the book are the twin cancers of white supremacy and capitalism, and how the British and Europeans use them to oppress the rest of the world to the point where, as the book's title suggests, 'the necessity of violence' arises to throw them off.
At the beginning, Robin is naive and conflict-averse. He loves what he is doing at Babel and is reluctant to give up his translator's creature comforts. Even though he meets his older half brother Griffin and for a time is roped into supplying silver bars and manuscripts for Griffin's underground Hermes Society, he is torn between the memory of China and the life he has at Babel. It's not until more than halfway through the book, four years into Robin's studies at Babel, when he returns to his home city of Canton in China to negotiate a truce between the Chinese emperor and the British corporations wanting to open up more trade, that the scales fall from his eyes. The British, led by Professor Lowell and others, intend to use this incident to declare a full-scale war on China....a war that, thanks to the advantages silver-working has given their armed forces, they intend to win.
From then on Robin and his three friends are irrevocably drawn into the revolution. There is considerable grief, guilt and pain for all of them, and this being an R.F. Kuang novel (as you know if you've read any books in the Poppy War trilogy) the author is unsparing as to the consequences of her characters' actions. For this book that means most of the characters will be killed off. Kuang does not write uplifting books or happy endings, so if you're not in the mood for grimness you might want to skip this one.
But I hope you won't, because it's so good, and so beautifully written. For instance (flipping to one of my bookmarks) this is how Robin describes his work:
I think translation can be much harder than original composition in many ways. The poet is free to say whatever he likes, you see--he can choose from any number of linguistic tricks in the language he's composing in. Word choice, word order, sound--they all matter, and without any one of them the whole thing falls apart. That's why Shelley writes that translating poetry is about as wise as casting a violet into a crucible. So the translator needs to be translator, literary critic, and poet all at once--he must read the original well enough to understand all the machinery at play, to convey its meaning with as much accuracy as possible, then rearrange the translated meaning into an aesthetically pleasing structure in the target language that, by his judgment, matches the original. The poet runs untrammeled across the meadow. The translator dances in shackles.
And when Robin returns to Oxford after his epiphany and realizes what his life there always was:
But the dream was shattered. That dream had always been founded on a lie. None of them had ever stood a chance of truly belonging here, for Oxford wanted only one kind of scholar, the kind born and bred to cycle through posts of power it had created for itself. Everyone else it chewed up and discarded. These towering edifices were built with coin from the sale of slaves, and the silver that kept them running came blood-stained from the mines of Potosi. It was smelted in choking forges where native labourers were paid a pittance, before making its way on ships across the Atlantic to where it was shaped by translators ripped from their countries, stolen to this faraway land and never truly allowed to go home.
Kuang sets a lot of plates spinning for this book, and she keeps all of them in the air until the end. As I said, it's not a happy ending, but it's the only ending that could be written. She was nominated for a great many awards for the Poppy War trilogy, but damn....this book is even better. If it were up to me, I would give her all the awards.
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