Babel – A Review
Welcome to another book review!
I made the bold statement on my Instagram, that this book (Babel) is one of the best books I have read in the last five years. And I only say that because the themes covered in this book go beyond any other fantasy, fiction and non-fiction that I have ever read. It does it in such a blatant way without hiding, coding or mystifying it. I mean Kuang, really said, this is how we contribute and uphold imperialism and white supremacy and that we are the only ones who can do something about it!
I am 100% sure that my review will NOT do the genius of this book justice but I will try my best. Before I start my review, I want you to hold the question below in mind;
What role do people in diaspora play in promoting imperialism and white supremacy?
*Thanks to the publisher for sending an ARC of this book to me.
Title: Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution.
Author: R.F. Kuang
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publication date: 1st September (UK), 23rd August (USA)
I decided to divide this review into two parts; the first part will be a general review of the plot and characters; the second part will dive in a bit more into the themes presented and my general feelings about the book – The second part is in the next post!
Beginning in 1828, we meet Robin Swift sitting by his dead mother, he himself about to succumb to the Asiatic Cholera which is about to wipe out the whole of Canton, China. He is saved by Professor Lovell who uses a silver bar. Upon signing an agreement, Lovell takes Robin to London where he learns Latin, Greek and Chinese in preparation for the day he enrols in the Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation (Babel).
London, in this speculative fantastical universe is a mechanical warhorse, with silver-works holding and running the entire city; which is why it is called the ‘Silver City’- it is leading the world in imports, industry and technology. But Kuang is quick to remind us of the polarity of the city; housing the richest rich and the poorest poor!
We get to see what Lovell actually thinks of people, according to him Chinese people are “by nature, foolish, weak-minded, and disinclined to hard work” and his group of friends think that “obsession with abolition is a product of the British needing to at least feel culturally superior now that they’ve lost America” and they would be right, if only they saw the irony in calling African Kings tyrants when they are the ones stealing, raping and dehumanizing Africans. In summary, Lovell is a piece of sh*t. [Read the book for more breakdowns of his foolishness].
The years soon fly by with Robin learning all the languages and enrolling at Babel. I could almost feel Robin’s relief at being admitted to Babel, considering how suffocating living at Lovell’s place was for him. He meets his cohort (Ramy, Victoire and Letty) who become his only friends in Babel; majorly because they had very little time to socialise and when they did attend social events they felt like cattle propped up for sale (well except Letty; but I will get into that later).
With each class, semester and examination; they grow closer and they learn a lot about languages, the power of translation and the role Babel plays in upholding (and in some cases creating and fuelling) British imperial expansion. But before the realities of it become a conscious thought for Robin, he enjoys Babel (as there are other people like him who make up the studentship of Babel; children and students who have be yanked away from their country because of their knowledge of their language, to serve the Empire – the irony of it is not lost on me).
That is until he meets Griffin Lovell (yes, Griffin is Professor Lovell’s son and so is Robin). Griffin basically invites Robin to be a part of the Hermes society; a society that is against the empire, sabotaging the silver-working that forms the pillar of the empire’s expansion and what it stands for.
Robin is conflicted and that is expected, but soon he starts to help them out. But the question is how long can he secretly help them from within Babel and how much does his contributions actually stop the expansion of the empire?!
Ramy (Ramiz Rafi Mirza) is from Calcutta and can speak multiple languages including but not limited to Arabic, Persian and Urdu. He is Robin’s roommate and the both of them share a special bond. Ramy is fun, loving and in most situations he does not give a flying f**k! I love him a lot. Unlike Robin, his skin colour makes him an immediate target of derision and racism.
Victoire (Victoire Desgraves) born in Haiti but raised in Paris, she is a survival tactic on wheels, she had it a lot worse being Black and a woman (double homicide), she was fun, strong and so kind-hearted. I don’t think I need to spell out the fact that even though slavery had been abolished in Britain by the time she started at Babel, she was till subjected to racism and dehumanization.
Letty (Letitia Price), honestly I don’t know where to start with her (This is my personal opinion but Letty really brought on the white woman Karen energy – You read the book and tell me I am wrong!), as a girl who has not been appreciated by her father, she had to fight her way to Babel. Similar like Victoire, she had to hide her femininity to fit into Babel; being overlooked and yes, the misogyny was on high alert at Babel. She was fun, hardworking and loving.
I, personally think that Letty was a good example of how white women fuel the patriarchy! I mean her whole life she has been subdued and rarely had a voice of her own, you would think that she would understand her friends better. Instead, it fuelled in her a need to be like the men in her life to prove that she was better than her brother, in so doing handing over the tools for the destruction of minority groups (Read the book and tell me I am wrong).
Overall this book had such a great cast of characters and I am not talking just about morality but diversity (not just skin colour and gender) but of thought. Kuang does such a great job presenting this diversity that with each character you continue to question and reassess their contribution to the current state of the Empire. Even the most racist and the most dehumanising character could not be excused as just that because you come to realise that dismissal does not equate to their non-existence. And that existence contributes to the propagation of the Empire.
PART TWO: in the next post
Infinity out of 5 stars!!!!!!
Thanks for reading.
Do check out my over reviews YOU MADE A FOOL OF DEATH WITH YOUR BEAUTY || A REVIEW