Kevin Plattret
Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators' Revolution, by R.F. Kuang

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

R.F. Kuang

Babel is no fairy tale. It is a story about privilege and injustice, power and persecution. A story partly made of history. It revolves around self-sacrifice, hope and courage, and speaks of violence as a means of instigating profound change. It is also a story about friendship.

There is a lot I loved in this book. It took me back to school where I learnt Latin, to high-school where I studied French and English, to university where I studied English more in depth, through hours of translation class every week. It made me nostalgic of my years as a student. Somehow, it made me nostalgic of Oxford University – although I never studied there – with its idyllic setting, secluded from the rest of the world in a way, the de facto home of academia.

Education is undeniably a catalyst for growth, and here the author glorifies it by painting a world where mastering foreign languages is a most valued, powerful skill – virtually a weapon. Quite a compelling story, especially when related by a highly-qualified linguist. I liked the historical setting of Victorian England, I liked the fantasy dimension, which some decried as lacking in terms of world-building, but which I thought gave an intriguing and pleasant twist to the plot.

R.F. Kuang takes us to the heart of the matter, at a time when colonialism, sexism and social classes impacted and undermined the lives of many, even more so than today. The practice of silver- working leading to deep societal changes akin to the ones brought by industrialisation, robotisation and possibly the impending artificial intelligence revolution, deepening inequalities at large. We navigate it through the eyes of four student friends, coming from diverse cultures and backgrounds, each granted a lot of privilege yet each victim of discrimination, of one form or another. I found their personalities to be elaborate, their respective condition well captured in their character, their youth exacerbating the spirit of rebellion, highlighting the glaring injustice, giving rise to even more empathy if possible.

Two thirds into it, I simply couldn't put the book down. The story kept building up relentlessly to an insufferable climax. When the dust finally settles, the ramifications of the final events are left to the reader's imagination. I found myself pondering the nobility of sacrifice, the fragility of hope, and the courage that they both demand.