Considering my extremely high expectations for Kuang’s latest release after the triumph of the poppy war trilogy, which carved my heart out, I am even more overjoyed that Babel lived up to the hype. Having finished it days earlier, I still feel hollowed out. Keep reading this book review for my full thoughts.
1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation — also known as Babel.
Babel is the world’s center of translation and, more importantly, of silver-working: the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation through enchanted silver bars, to magical effect. Silver-working has made the British Empire unparalleled in power, and Babel’s research in foreign languages serves the Empire’s quest to colonize everything it encounters.
Oxford, the city of dreaming spires, is a fairytale for Robin; a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge serves power, and for Robin, a Chinese boy raised in Britain, serving Babel inevitably means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to sabotaging the silver-working that supports imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide: Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence? What is he willing to sacrifice to bring Babel down?
(Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
TW: child abuse, racism
Babel is a book that has completely written itself into my heart. Even days after finishing I’m not convinced I’ve fully captured how much this book means to me or the full brilliance. It is thought provoking to the very ends of the fiber of my being. Haunted by the ways in which Kuang was able to simultaneously deliver a novel that provoked more critical thought than perhaps my university education, while also being a deeply emotional story speaking to the violence of racism and imperialism.
As a former literature student who considered academia herself, Babel is a magnificent introspective story about the violence of academia and translation. The ways in which racism is so deeply ingrained into the fabric upon which students sit. All the inherent power imbalances between those who study, who are removed from the subjects they observe, and the very people who suffer within the spaces of their academic papers. This elitist removal from having to speak to the consequences of their work and study, to the material conditions of poverty and colonialism. Kuang is able to capture this exploitation with focused criticism and truly encapsulates the meaning of dark academia.
Additionally, the entire way that Kuang speaks about translation is eloquent beyond belief. I dabbled in linguistics as part of my studies, so to have Kuang break down the loss in translation is a fresh and insightful experience. The unavoidable loss that occurs when we translate a word that, in our language, seems to have no equal, and the ways in which this process is one of erasure. All the meanings, the nuance, the story of the word which becomes dust. Intrinsically it can be used as a well meaning effort at disseminating knowledge, or a tool of obfuscation, a surreptitious way to enact erasure. To make what is sacred accessible, consumable, something to be commodified. Considering that this very gray space is where Babel capitalizes on its power is no coincidence on Kuang’s part. It’s built upon the knowledge that when we dictate language, we seize control of the narrative.
As a POC, Babel has resonated deeply within my soul the experiences of insidious racist comments and the overt Orientalism and fascination with my own complicated homeland. For me, reading this book inspired a deep rage born of empathy and a growing desire to watch the systems of racism and colonization burn. To realize that radical change is required in a system which thrives on such drastic and cruel forms of violence and erasure. It manages to address the very present and pervasive Orientalism inspired and created during this time period, and before, while also having the unique power of featuring characters that non POC may be able to observe, acknowledge their own biases, and take a moment to sit with the differences in these lived experiences.
Furthermore, as an Asian American, Robin’s experiences were raw and compelling to read. I’ve felt always that I too was marked by my appearance, bound to be Othered. Yet as an adoptee, I benefited from the privileges of my family and the tangential benefits I reaped. The way that some of Babel viewed Robin as being an exception to the other Chinese struck a chord within me. Similarly to when I was asked by a family friend if I “considered myself to be a person of color”. This balancing act between tentative acceptance because our existence is an exception to the rule. Is a sign of our model status and while it should illustrate their own racism, instead heightens their own flawed logic. It’s a continuous process of being split apart. We are supposed to take pride in being the lucky one – the chosen one – and disregard the ways in which they oppress the rest of our lives and make our differences known.
Throughout Babel, Kuang asks readers about the balance between survival and dignity. Because how does one escape this cycle of violence? A nation united by sacrifice of those it never deemed as worthy of rights and the ways that lives are temporary setbacks. An empire that still thrives today in insidious ways and ripples its effects decades into our lives now and without doubt into the further future of our generations who must navigate stolen languages and empty temples, entire generations of knowledge and traditions lost, and the internalized racism passed down to us. In many ways it can feel hopeless.
Kuang asks us, very clearly and with great gravity, what other methods of rebellion we have and what it will take to move the majority, to force their hand, to change public opinion. Faced with the scale of our oppression, how do we tip the scales in a game that we’ve been forced to play with rules that were never in our favor? Where do our avenues of rebellion lie when they were paved with pain and suffering? However, Kuang and Babel is able to strike a balance between realism and the idea of freedom. To know that survival is a form of rebellion and that resistance means something different to each of us.
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Babel demands you to stop a moment and question what we know. To take a second and wonder where the words we have come from, the violence in our everyday language, and the ways our comforts rest on the backs of conquests. To say that this book made an impression on me is a gross understatement. Know that I will continue to speak about the prolonged and profound experience Babel has had on me. Find Babel on Goodreads, Amazon, Indiebound, Bookshop.org & The Book Depository.