‘Babel’ a Fascinating Course in Linguistics and Labor

Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, so the fact that the powers that be in Babel name the tallest building in fictional Oxford that’s dedicated to linguistic magic after that infamous biblical tower is a real Chekov’s gun for the ending. But the journey between cover and “the end” is so long and complex that even the nearly 550 pages of R. F. Kuang’s newest novel is barely enough to cover it.

Robin Swift is pulled from the brink of death from cholera by silver magic wielded by Dr. Lovell, who whisks Robin from his native Canton to England in preparation for his entrance into the prestigious Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. More commonly known as Babel, which is also the name of the tower the institute is housed in, Robin will study languages and linguistics so he can one day work silver magic of his own. Silver magic runs the British Empire, from strengthening mail delivery carriages to stabilizing bridges to helping warships sail faster and shoot farther and more accurately.

But as a first-year student at Babel, Robin doesn’t think much about any of that. For the first time since cholera came to Canton, he’s finding a home and a family in the form of the others in his cohort: Remy, Victoire, and Lettie. All of them know they’re lucky to be at Babel, and none of them fit with the cream of the British crop because of their ethnicity and/or gender. As long as they work hard and keep their heads down, though, their brilliance might compensate for those deficiencies of birth. But soon after arriving at Oxford, Robin sees a man who looks very much like him—a half brother and Dr. Lovell’s past, failed, protégé. The man, Griffin, convinces Robin to help the Hermes Society sneak silver out of Babel for use in the resistance. Babel may be Robin’s home, but the British Empire is waging war on his homeland. He has to choose which side he’s on, and the stakes are far higher than even Babel’s tower.

The cover of RF Kuang's Babel, featuring a black-and-white illustration of a large, domed tower rising out of nineteenth-century London. A flock of birds circles around it.
But the tower is pretty high. And what goes on inside it is pretty cool.

Babel is a big book, but it doesn’t move slow. There are meditative moments, and the narrative at times slips into omniscience or summaries outside of the usual third-person-limited of most of the story. But Kuang’s pacing is spot on, and every time the writing starts to seem languid, she turns up the heat. That kind of immediacy is a constant reminder that the kind of Harry Potter-ish “fun and stress at an elite academy of magic” vibe is only true for a certain kind of person, the kind of person who doesn’t have to think about other countries or other kinds of people. The kind of person Robin cannot be.

Racism and sexism are never far away from the narrative, making it impossible for the reader to forget that Robin and his squad don’t belong, from a certain point of view—and that that certain point of view is the only point of view, as far as the people in power are concerned. The destructive and domineering effect of colonialism at home and abroad also stays close, almost painfully so during a voyage in the latter half of the book. There aren’t many shades of gray given to those on the side of colonialism, but Kuang does grant her characters a fair struggle with ignorance, and illustrates how attractive such ignorance is. The latter is necessarily sharp; the lies told by the perpetrators are a kind of violence, she tells us, but in a tacit way, so is the accepting of those lies, the lack of challenging those lies, the eventual reliance on those lies.

Although Babel takes place in the first half of the nineteenth century, the message about colonialism and a supposed superiority of one country or race is one for today. So is the eventual turn toward solidarity among the outcasts and the working class. As a minor spoiler, a strike plays prominently in the latter part of the book. I read this in early December 2022, when Harper Collins employees were striking for, truly, paltry raises and basic workers’ rights. Babel is published by an imprint of Harper Collins, and Kuang herself helped organize an event supporting the strike. (This review was held also in support of the strike and scheduled immediately following the news an agreement had been reached.) This was at the end of a year with highly publicized strikes at Starbucks and Amazon warehouses, and in white-collar industries including universities and the New York Times. In that sense, Babel reads like a call to action from another time and place, as described by someone living very much in the here and now.

Although there’s a sense of triumph in Robin’s resistance against the empire, it’s also a road paved with tragedy that would have been preventable were it not for the rampant bigotry of one kind or another. The end itself may cause some debate, but to me, it did feel inevitable. Every step blasted out of stone, forced upon the characters, whose choices are limited to what they can do within the confines they are given. The ending is a direct result of the incident before that, which comes due to the incident before that. Robin didn’t start the cascade of dominos, and his choices and his conscience won’t allow him to stop them, either. And in the end, it all falls down, because it must fall down, because that is what towers built on the backs of others do.

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