Reviewed by Ian Lipke
If you prefer an easy read, I suggest you look elsewhere than R.F. Kuang’s Babel or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution. This multi-barreled title is more than sufficient to persuade me to return the book to the shelves. The subtitle offers only confusion, yet for whatever reason, I persevered in reading the book to its very end.
The main characters, being men and women of non-English heritage, are outsiders to the Oxford tradition and are unfamiliar with nineteenth century British academic traditions. The story begins with a quaint, typically English setting in which Cantonese-born Robin Swift, Calcutta-born Ramiz Rafi Mirza, secretive Haitian-born Victorie Desgraves and self-righteous Brighton-born Letitia Price explore experiences of mixed-race students in an Oxford University environment. For much of the book, Robin and his friends are captured by the picturesque nature of the university and the demands their studies place upon them. While they are marginalized groups in a society that holds no respect for them, (Kuang makes clear that this would have been an uncomfortable existence for them), they are required to meet the high standards their mentors expect.
In addition to this exemplar of British superior cultural might, Kuang introduces a society known for its complacence, a society where others suffer because present and past mainstream students did not speak up and fight for them. Hence the book questions the British reliance on colonialism and draws attention to the labour of people who are the fruit of that colonial idea.
The story is compelling. It forces the reader to reflect on a society that he may have admired hereto. The book requires repeated reading. With each reading the reader grasps another level as new details surface and change the overall image. Babel excels with every sentence. The prose is beautifully expressed, never more so than when it explains the meaning and derivation of specific words and when waxing poetic about the transformative power of language. Unfortunately, the author is unable to leave well alone. She adopts the position that readers may not be capable of grasping the themes of oppression and prejudice without her help. She preaches, she teaches, she hammers home facts that should have been obvious.
Babel is revealed to be the centre for Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation but also the centre for silver-working, a process which transfers by magical means in the creation of silver bars the true meaning of words lost in translation. Babel’s research into foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonise all that it encounters.
A central problem faces Robin Swift. He is caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organisation dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. This approach allows the depiction of bigotry and misogyny for which Kuang claims Oxford is famous and reveals the corruption and systemic racism that characterizes the world of Oxford. Swift’s friends remain free to a large extent of the poisonous effects of the Hermes doctrine, but the conversion of Letitia Price to the opposite side is a ‘stretch too far’ and the ending of the book is weak.
Overall, the book is a satisfactory reading experience.
By R. F. Kuang
$32.99; 560 pp