By Simon Demetriou
Everybody knows that the abolition of slavery didn’t stop humans being treated as commodities. In Babel, RF Kuang uses a fantastical version of mid-nineteenth-century Britain to explore the ways in which colonialism and capitalism enslave individuals and nations, often under the hypocritical masks of civilisation or progress.
Babel is a tower, naturally. But while the Biblical echoes are deafening, in the novel Babel is an eight-storey building that houses the fictional Royal Institute of Translation, the largest and most lavish of Oxford University’s faculties. On the face of it, Babel is a beacon of hope. It is the only faculty that accepts foreign and female students. It doesn’t just accept them, it actively cultivates them. Herein lies one of the problems. The foreign students, among them the novel’s protagonist Robin Swift, are transplanted from their homes and fed a diet of Latin and Greek to shape them into the translation machines Babel needs.
The novel begins with Robin’s family dying of cholera before Robin is whisked away by his mysterious, white, British benefactor Professor Lovell to begin his formal education in preparation for entering Babel. Consequently, Robin cannot help but wonder why the professor did nothing to save Robin’s mother. The answer is sadly obvious: he didn’t do anything because he didn’t care. He didn’t care because only Robin was of value to him. The similar stories surrounding Robin’s cohort at Babel – his Indian roommate, Ramy; Victoire, who was moved to Paris from Haiti; and Letty, the English rose whose powerful father resented her for her sex and superiority to her dead elder brother – set up the questioning of value that forms the thematic crux of Kuang’s novel.
These marginalised children are valued because the world of Babel is one where translators hold the secret to silver-working. Silver is not just a precious metal, but the base upon which translators enact the magic that powers the industrial world and British imperialism. By engraving pairs of translated words onto silver bars, Babel scholars catch gaps in meaning which are made into realities by the silver’s magic properties. However, when it becomes clear that the silver industrial revolution is used to subjugate countries like those of Robin’s, Victoire’s and Ramy’s birth, the friends must decide whether their comfortable Oxonian lives are worth the misery of so many others.
In resolving this problem, Kuang produces a novel of incredible scope and action. Her mastery of the historical material, her scholarly joy in etymologising, and her confidence of style and plotting more than make up for the occasional preachiness. So much so, that Babel’s nearly 600 pages never drag, and left this reader eager to read Kuang’s acclaimed back catalogue too.