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Babel is a goldmine of revolutionary politics

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Author R F Kuang has crammed her latest offering Babel with intrigue, linguistics theory and more than a whiff of revolt, says Richard Bradbury
Issue 2831
The front cover of the novel Babel by RF Kuang shows a woodcutting of a tall tower

Babel by RF Kuang

This hugely imaginative and compelling novel begins by announcing that “Babel is about infinite worlds of languages, cultures and histories”. The novel sprawls with ambition.

It contains translation theory, colonial history, the complicity of higher education institutions with capitalism, a revolutionary upsurge and more besides. It does all of this in a framework familiar to anyone who has read the Harry Potter novels or the work of Philip Pullman.

Babel follows the education of four young scholars who are skilled linguists. That three of them come from colonised countries, though, takes this book away from the sometimes too-cosy territory of its predecessors. All of that, and a plot that rushes along carrying the reader with it.

At the heart of the book is a simple premise, which becomes a metaphor for the rise and spread of capitalism and colonialism. Translation theory understands that an exact, literal translation of one word into another language is impossible.

In the novel, the work of Babel, an imaginary building at Oxford University, is to distil the gap between the original word and its translation into silver. That raw material becomes the driving force of the economy, as bars of silver become a source of wealth and power for an elite. 

This is magical. Kuang’s skill makes that magic seem real in ways reminiscent of Pullman at his best. The difference is that she resolutely politicises the magic

In the novel’s parallel history Kuang offers a visceral analysis of what happens beneath the apparent surface of the normalisation of the violence of the system. In the course of the novel the students learn how their apparently innocent work is a necessary part of the oppression and violence that was and is imperialism.

As they learn more about oppression and imperialism, and as their contacts with an underground resistance movement evolve, they begin to develop from observers to activists. The tactics of resistance are tested and progressively abandoned, until the insurrection begins and the students combine with the workers of Oxford.

Because the novel is set in the 1840s, it uses the tactics of the 19th century. Barricades are built, muskets are fired by the insurgents, and at this point the book has the whiff of revolution about it.

And here another other force enters. The scenes where students and workers unite are a moving account of the ways in which a mutual political awareness develops out of struggle.

That’s the other development that makes this such a great read. Despite its historical setting, it is always nodding to the present.

For example, the early scenes between the students and the workers as the former organise protests, and the antagonism between them, reminded me of the Just Stop Oil protesters being abused by some members of the public. The later scenes, as the two groups work together, are a hope for us that we need to make real in our world.

Does the revolution succeed? I’ll just say that the epilogue does a fine job of finally revealing a matter that has ticked away quietly all the way through the novel.

One final element that powers the novel is that its genesis in “that long, lonely, terrible year” when Kuang was an Oxford student. Her unspoken experiences of sexism and racism while there percolate into the novel.

The novel, then, describes the experience of oppressed people in a system of privilege and also tells of the ways it might be taken down.

  • Babel or the necessity of violence: an arcane history of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R F Kuang is out now

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