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Book Review: Babel

Babel is the last book I read in 2022, and I can’t tell you if it destroyed my end of year, or made it amazing. This is the state of mind that I’m at: I’m writing this review at 4 AM because I can’t sleep after having finished the book. Yes. It’s that…intense.

Reading RF Kuang

I have read her Poppy War trilogy before, which was a mixed experience for me. I love the way Kuang writes, her prose sucks you in and leaves you naked in the midst of her scenes. The Poppy War blew my mind. The Dragon Republic had some good twists which gutted me, but The Burning God (the conclusion of the series) just didn’t work for me. Naturally, I went into Babel with some hesitancy after that experience. However, just a couple chapters in and I could already tell how much Kuang grew as an author. I knew then that I would resonate with the rest of the book.

Premise

In two words, the premise is FUCKING BRILLIANT. I literally have those two words annotated throughout the book. Babel is set in an alternate reality where the world is industrialized by silver magic. This silver magic is controlled by The Royal Institute of Translation (otherwise called Babel) in Oxford, England. The silver magic gains power by invoking meaning lost between words when translated into another language.

Being a bilingual, I can attest to how much meaning and nuance is given up in translation between languages, and the idea to capture that and make that a source of power is…well, fucking brilliant.

Plot

I just recently read The Secret History so yes, I’m on a dark academia streak which will be continuing into 2023. I noticed some similarities which is that with dark academia, you kind of already know what will happen. The main character comes from a sad childhood, goes to an elite school where they will find belonging and temporary utopia. Then this haven will be picked apart and destroyed chapter by chapter until we reach the tragic ending. That’s pretty much the plot in Babel too, with the exception that Kuang gets really down and dirty into colonialism and racism.

Now, having studied in the US as an international student, I can tell you every word she says there is true. Every scene she wrote, my colored friends and I have experienced to some extent. And even having experienced that, I still think of my college years as some of the best years of my life. So Robin’s dilemma was no made-up, contrived situation – it is precisely what colored students go through, including Kuang herself.

Characters

What can I say? I love every character the author wants me to love: Robin, Ramy (my dear, dear Ramy), Victoire (QUEEN – I don’t think it’s a coincidence that her name is VICTOIRE), Professor Chakravarti. I hate all the characters the author wants me to hate: Letitia, Professor Lovell, Professor Playfair (who never once played fair, another smart play on names).

Some reviewers say that Kuang really caricaturized the villains, but in my opinion that’s not the case. I think she actually created the villains based on real people she must have come across, because again, let me tell you, I have known Letitias. I have met Lovells and Playfairs. Luckily, I have also met Victoires and Chakravartis. Even luckier still, the Ramys I know have now returned to their homelands and are happy (though I don’t keep as well in touch with them as I should…). So no, they aren’t caricatures. They’re real.

The Necessity of Violence

The full title of this book is Babel, or The Necessity of Violence. The first thing written on the back of the book is: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal. Throughout the book, Kuang has successfully convinced me of both: the necessity of violence to shake a cruel system (colonialism, and its aftereffects), and that every translation is indeed a betrayal of the original meaning. Beyond these statements, however, are some absolutely heartfelt, hopeful, and beautiful thoughts, only revealed in the very last pages. Kuang gives them to Ramy and Victoire to voice. I won’t share them here because it will ruin the effect of the whole book for you (if you haven’t read it), but please, trust me and read Babel for yourself. It’s a masterpiece.