Babel by R. F. Kuang

Phew – if you are going on holiday and only want to take one book with you, this is the one. It is long, 22 hours as an audio book, a great adventure with many themes which are relevant today: democracy, colonialism, power, language and its role in culture, racism, capitalism, strikes, love and friendship, academia (not as lovely as you might think) and greed as well as etymology.

Set in an alternative version of Victorian England, Babel is the Institute of Translation where children from all over the world who speak different languages are brought to study and eventually work. Whilst the setting is fantasy, the story is based on history so it is an unusual combination and one that really allows the big ideas to speak out. I am imagining that Kuang herself is a translator because the depth of knowledge about translation is very strong but also enlightening. England is establishing itself as a global power, collecting silver and making bars which when inscribed with matching pairs of words from different languages enable things to happen; sewage to be pumped, towers to be protected, post carriages to never be driven badly and bridges and buildings to remain standing. They can also heal contagious illnesses and this is how Robin Swift, a chinese child, is ‘found’ and saved (in so many ways according to his father) whilst his mother dies.

Robin is schooled in England, made a proper little English boy in terms of behaviours and then becomes a scholar at Babel where he has a chance encounter with a brother he never knew he had. This opens up another world to Robin of those who do not believe that what Babel does is for the good of people but really just a money-making exercise and those who are making the money will stop at nothing to ensure it continues.

As he matures, he learns to see that in fact he can never be ‘English’ and neither can anyone else who has a different skin colour and this develps into an understanding of what Babel means and what translating everything in to English means – ‘an act of translation is an act of betrayal’. No documents are ever translated from English to another language.

The story is ultimately a tragedy and you have to wonder what Swift’s life was for. The subtitle of the book is The Necessity for Violence and that is what happens through the strike where the scholars are not allowed to work with the silver and the country starts to draw to a halt. As usual, though, it is the poor who carry the weight of this breakdown in work and society, who die and suffer, who lose their jobs through a technological revolution (just think if AI) and for whom in the end there is no change.

This book is a sharp commentary on Empire and academia, showing how Oxford discriminated against outsiders, read those with a different skin colour, and the processes they must go through to stay and work for their countries oppressors.

I loved the etymological and language side of the book and the social relationships between the two – language is power as Robin discovered anew when convincing people to strike with him.

A fantastic book.

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