The Fantasy Story as a Merciless Laboratory of History: On R. F. Kuang’s “Babel, or The Necessity of Violence”

December 3, 2022   •   By Kurt Guldentops, Sungshin Kim

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

R. F. Kuang

R. F. KUANG’s latest novel Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (Harper Voyager, 2022) gives readers not just a thrilling work of fantasy, but also an adventure of the mind. Set in an altered 1830s Britain, the novel speaks to the historical imagination. The fantastic is used to demythologize the imperial past, with a magic system inspired by postcolonial thought. Even more ambitious is the novel’s literary play, which subverts the campus novel. These elements are blended together by Kuang’s writerly alchemy into a captivating whole.

Babel is mostly told from the perspective of Robin Swift, a Chinese-born boy brought to England by the eerie Professor Lovell after Robin’s mother dies in a cholera epidemic. The fact that Robin needs to pick his own name — adopting his last name from the author of Gulliver’s Travels — sets the stage for questions of identity and belonging. The professor, however, already has a destiny in mind for the boy: to study at Oxford University’s Royal Institute of Translation (nicknamed Babel, suitably housed in a tower) where he is himself working on the Chinese language. In preparation for Babel, Lovell subjects Robin to an excruciating regime of language study, with training in Latin and Greek as well as Chinese.

People and events glanced obliquely in the background tend to be historically accurate, creating an effect similar to the historical novel. Like other contemporary novelists, Kuang also conveys the feel of the period through pastiche, mimicking the 19th-century bildungsroman, with poignant scenes gaining greater resonance as the story unfolds. The true power of this approach, though, lies in its breach, where Kuang deliberately betrays an expectation that goes with the bildungsroman. Racism, it becomes clear, will block Robin from truly joining society. A scene in the stagecoach taking Robin to Oxford catapults the reader from the world of Dickens into a situation echoing Frantz Fanon’s well-known account of his confrontation with racism on a train. Something similarly subversive is happening in the novel’s footnotes. With their vivid historical details, the footnotes initially seem to evoke the scholarly setting Robin enters, until their terse reports of colonial violence tilt into a critical subtext, unveiling the imperial foundations on which Babel was built.

As much as the historical background is accurately depicted, the novel also works as a fantasy story by inserting Babel into 19th-century Oxford. Instead of a portal into a magical realm, the Institute of Translation turns out to be this world’s “hidden abode of production,” as Marx put it. Babel’s magic consists of the speculative technology of silverworking. The silver flowing to the imperial center provides the raw material, but unlocking its power relies on linguistic and philological knowledge. In the world Robin inhabits, silver can capture and channel the subtle differences in meaning that are lost when a word is translated from one language to another. Inscribed with a suitable “translation pair,” silver bars will transmit what is lost in translation as a magic force. While we are only novices when it comes to this magic, it appears the author has hidden an example of such language games in her subtitle, which calls Babel “an arcane history.” In English, arcane is often understood as “obscure,” “only known by a few.” Going back to its Latin root, arcana, one finds it meant, more precisely, “secret” — so we’re dealing in fact with a secret history. If the novel’s magic worked for real, the pair arcana/arcane inscribed on a silver bar might capture what is lost in the subtle shift from secret to obscure and help keep things under wraps.

Babel’s silver bars are mostly used to strengthen existing processes: for instance, making ships faster or guns more deadly. Silver bars can even heal the sick, although quite a lot of them seem to be wasted on making the gardens of the rich more flowery. As one character puts it, silverworking is the foundation of an advanced society. Just as we are not always aware of the processes making our modern life possible, silverwork is omnipresent in the world of Babel. Kuang weaves this magic into familiar history. Babel’s activities give rise to the “silver industrial revolution” that is creating new wealth as well as new poverty. Yet languages are a diminishing resource in the world of Babel, since they become more similar through contact, driving people like Professor Lovell to explore more distant ones. Only for this reason are nonwhite students like Robin tolerated at the Institute of Translation, while they are excluded from the other Oxford colleges.

The flow of global silver to Babel relies, however, on drug peddling, which brings us to the empire’s dirty secret. Like in real history, the British balance of trade has become dependent on opium, grown in British India and smuggled into China. By seeking to end the drug trade, the Chinese are challenging the framework that underpins Britain’s dominant position in the world. Together with Robin, the reader witnesses British traders preparing for the Opium War with China, in which Babel’s silverwork will power the British warships and armies. Robin comes to find out that scholars are “the blades of empire.” Through silverworking, Kuang channels the crucial insight of postcolonial scholarship: the Western study of the non-West and its languages has often been part of imperial projects. The imaginary microcosm of Babel, where non-Western students like Robin have been brought to the heart of empire, supercharges this postcolonial critique into the more universal problem of complicity with a system of exploitation.

Robin’s situation is not only developed in the register of fantasy but also on the terrain of literary fiction, since Babel equally works as a campus novel. The novel’s subtitle can be read as a reference to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The fantasy device of silverworking is not a technological aesthetic, like steampunk, but a matter of language study and the art of translation, which Robin starts to enjoy at Oxford. It is among his cohort of fellow language students that Robin discovers the taste of friendship for the first time. There is Ramy, born into a Muslim family in British India, who was brought to Britain in a similar manner as Robin was. And then there are two girls: Victoire, originally from Haiti, and Letty, the daughter of an admiral who went to Oxford against the will of her father. The Oxford they share becomes something of a home for Robin. Their friendship grows out of the competitiveness and joys of joint learning. They also share the experience of vulnerability as outsiders in this white, male world. Attentive to discrimination and exploitation, Babel is a critical commentary on the traditional campus novel. Robin’s realization that his and his friends’ linguistic skills make them mere capital, cogs in the production of wealth, is reminiscent of the contemporary university’s use of casualized labor. By putting highly educated yet marginalized people at the heart of the 19th-century empire, Kuang is speaking to today’s intellectual proletariat.

It can be a burden for Asian American writers that their works are often solely approached through the lens of race. Even though this book is mostly set in 1830s England, Amazon initially tagged it bizarrely under the category “Asian Myth & Legend.” Still, Kuang has interesting things to say about race in a diasporic context. For nonwhite people, as her novel puts it, the interaction with a dominant society can be its own continuous and vexing work of translation — for which, one might add, there is no silver to capture what is lost. But she also broadens the frame, showing the complex interactions between racism and discrimination due to gender and class. Robin and his friends will be driven apart by the prejudices they face. Although they can banter over details of translation in their exercises, painful conflicts emerge as they each try to navigate a society that looks at them askance. Can one be part of a system and at the same time resist it at some level? Does one beat a system by personally joining it? Through its characters and plot twists, the novel gives us a map of uneven responses.

Melancholy has been a productive category in the study of Asian American literature, focused on the loss of motherland and the impossibility of fully participating in a racialized citizenship. Robin can be read through the lens of melancholy, although the home that he grieves is not only China but also the Oxford he initially enjoyed with his friends. Kuang gives this theme a striking twist as the character is gradually transformed into that typical 19th-century version of the melancholic, the Byronic hero: an educated outcast, driven by his losses to self-destructiveness, but striving for justice.

Such a reading brings us back to the way Babel blends the historical and the speculative. Alternate histories have become respectable and ubiquitous in fiction, with a genealogy that seems to run from Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America to recent television series. Purists will point out that Kuang’s novel is not an alternate history, since it doesn’t employ the form’s standard device: the supposition of a fictional turning point that has shifted the course of history (say, the assassination of FDR). When the Translation Institute is first introduced, the novel tells how silverworking has been used by all earlier empires, going back even to the Romans. One cannot help but be slightly disappointed by this reduction of history to a sequence of empires, lacking a sense of more fundamental historical changes.

Babel doesn’t start from a counterfactual juncture that has changed the course of history. However, that device has lost some of its critical strength anyway, when many stories, as well as scientific theories, readily accept that there might be an enormous number of parallel worlds, so history can play out in ever so many arbitrary ways. From that perspective, Babel’s achievement might be more fundamental, taking us back to the condition that made it possible to imagine an alternate history in the first place. Kuang’s novel reminds us that there is in fact something like an unfolding web of history that poses counterfactual questions all the time to people, putting them in a position to choose, even when it is tempting to ignore these questions or one is driven mad by them. When the question of how to resist a global system finally imposes itself in the denouement of the novel, and characters disagree over strategy (pitting violence against nonviolence), Babel becomes a merciless laboratory of history. In fact, the counterfactual juncture is moved to the end of the novel, where the hope emerges that some breakthrough into a different history has been achieved, and the future might be up for grabs again.

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Kurt Guldentops is interested in science fiction and SF criticism. He lives and writes near Atlanta and can be reached at [email protected]

Sungshin Kim is professor of history at the University of North Georgia, where she teaches the history of modern China and Korea, and serves as director of East Asian studies.