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Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translator’s Revolution is unmistakably contemporary—a novel expressing the zeitgeist, if I may. The mode is historical, a fairly popular style for current literary forays into genre, set in the early segments of the too-long nineteenth century, and focused retroactively on the phenomena we live with today: colonial extraction of people and resources, its precipitating wars of resistance and control, and the industrial revolution that birthed modern capitalism. The title, tangled in legal considerations and dangling two subtitles, is reminiscent of the histories and epics of the era; its scale, at 560 pages, is bulging. And its footnotes (a few sprinkled dozens, most about etymology) emphasize its purported pedantry. This is a literary novel, written in a style R.F. Kuang herself calls “maximalist” because of its long descriptive paragraphs, five-act structure, intricate magic systems, and most importantly, the expanse it provides for indulgence and excess.

Nowhere is its indulgence more apparent than in its choice of genre—“dark academia”—which, as far as critical consensus goes, is both an aesthetic [1] and a literary genre, a veritable feast for the reader to experience class aspiration: its ritual, its performance, its pretensions, the rigours of its scholarship, and its particular taste of pulpy drama.

Here, Babel’s historical content gives way to express immediacy, for where else can one situate the “enigmatic creature, idealistic and worldly,” [2] of the Victorian bourgeoisie—in the twenty-first century, years after its gradual demise—but in the ivory tower of the academy. Where else will we find laurels to gild the industrious child once we are past the Gilded Age, if not in the novel form? And where else can one challenge its spires, its industry and endowments, and its terrible fatalistic appeal, but in its own, dark, gothic underbelly? Babel is a novel about a Chinese immigrant in a (lightly) fictionalized Oxford, trained to be a translator for the empire’s conquests and industrialization’s efficiencies, coming to terms with his place in its legacy. “That’s not a unique aspect of Victorian history,” says Kuang, “it’s just being a BIPOC student at a predominantly white institution.”

What, truly, is more contemporaneous than such nostalgic reckoning?

***

The novel revolves around four characters—Robin, Victoire, Rami, and Letty—found family composed of Oxford’s simultaneously disenfranchised and elite; with the exception of Letty, an aristocratic white woman, they’re all displaced immigrants, each of them whisked away from their respective countries by white scholars eager to submit them in service to Britain’s growing empire. They’re interred at the Oxford center for translation called Babel, a fictional tower with its own magical wards, extensive language libraries, and laboratories for magicking silver, the empire’s most valuable resource. Silver, in Kuang’s telling, is where magic intervenes in a seemingly straightforward historical account; each block of pure silver is inscribed with a linguistic “match-pair” and this effect produces directed amounts of energy that can be used to keep dishes hot, rails smooth, bridges steady, guns accurate, and so on, powering the industries of modernization. The four of them are translation students and potential silver workers. They’re given bursaries, rooms, and the promise of a future within Oxford, where each of them is particularly valuable for the access they either have to hitherto undiscovered or non-Romance languages. They’re “native informants,” as far as the etiology goes, both a source and object of information.

The novel follows the typical hero’s journey: the protagonist, Robin Swift (also known by a Chinese name we are never made privy to), is a character from the periphery, brought in on a ship fleeing the plague in Canton by his white father, a professor at Babel. Robin acts as a foil to Harry Potter and other “chosen child” magical narratives where birthright and bloodline determine access to power; he survives only by negotiating the contradictions of his birth. On the one hand, he has to prove to his father that he does not possess an essential “Oriental character,” but, on the other, he must also produce mastery over Chinese land and language, and truly Orientalize them in the Englishman’s image. The plot progresses through negotiations and betrayals: scenes of Robin lying to a desperate Chinese sailor to prove his own mastery over and loyalty to English; Robin learning to read London as a city ripped out of Dickens’s pages, extolling its multiplicity; Robin consuming the pleasures and fortunes of being at Oxford with a friendly cohort before being threatened by white students; Robin, suddenly, looking upon himself when he meets his older half-brother who ran away from Babel; Robin, torn between a shadowy student organization against the empire and the joy of scholarship; Robin, finally, confronting China, having returned only as an Englishman.

For Kuang, these divided selves are not new. In many ways, Babel continues where The Poppy War trilogy ended—from the history of the Chinese empire and Mao, we arrive at the Opium Wars and their agents. But where its protagonist, Rin, stretched the poles of her own tangled identities so far as megalomania, Robin Swift moves only between confusion and grief-stricken righteousness. Nevertheless, through Robin, we arrive at classic postcolonial theory, a portrait of double-consciousness, a category suited to the novel not because of its historical character but for its ability to focus on historic events and phenomenon. Drawing from literary and cultural theory is central to this novel, but this is not just representative of Babel but of the literary novel of ideas. In Babel, much of it is simplified into narrative worldbuilding, such as the necessity of language (and translation, by extension) in the project of colonization and the effects of colonization on identity formation.

The novel’s historical account is neither realist (as it is for War and Peace, or Flaubert) but neither is it fantastic (as is the history of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, for example). Babel instead follows from a host of recent anti-colonial SFF narratives that aim to produce an arc of character development by showing the protagonist’s dilemma of being caught between the colonizers and the resistance. Prominent examples include the Traitor Baru Cormorant series by Seth Dickinson, The Unbroken by C.L Clark, and The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley; these actors ultimately choose the resistance, even while making terrible choices along the way. The actors move through peripatetic awareness, to the hope of reform from within these systems, to a final sensational, vicarious, cathartic motif of the destruction of colonial power. However, these character arcs of growth closely resemble the bildungsroman, and history appears to be piloted along by the protagonist, so that ideologically disparate anti-colonial struggles essentially get boiled down into revenge plots, which, at their best, are tragic.

Magic, in these novels, intervenes to make history bearable. It works as aesthetic strategy for the actors, producing simple yet intricate modes of reclaiming agency, where power is made into an explicit metaphor. Silver, as the bulwark of Babel’s modern industrial revolution, stretches magic’s metaphor thin. The resource, albeit one among many, is entirely centralized at Oxford’s translation center despite London’s unwitting reliance on the metal—a fact that most of the characters themselves experience as empire’s own “arrogance” or with a sense of bafflement and incredulity. Babel attempts to politicize silver, but we hardly get a glimpse of the process of its mining and extraction. Silver changes the history of steam, but this does not impact the march of global history. Oxford and its resistance are merely an interregnum; silver is its ahistorical center.

In Babel, the potency of silver within the functioning of the empire concentrates power at the center, making London, its private companies and its Parliament, almost monolithic in their ability to perpetuate the empire. This dichotomy between a monolithic power and an indigent resistance is not intentional; Kuang tries to represent a polyphony of actors, be it factory workers, suffragettes, abolitionists, church leaders, opium addicts, and Chinese aristocrats, each with their own ideologies and agendas, but much of it is too discursive or digressive when set against the characters' emotional investments, reflecting a tendency not to attend to the periphery but to produce universality through it. It is telling, then, that the novel ends with a rebel compiling interviews of those participating in the Oxford resistance, metatextually attending to the novel’s own making, and still, we see none of these multitudinous oral narratives. In certain ways, for its attempt to encompass a world-historical moment, one can even say that the novel is too short.

*

Translation is the method of Babel’s magic. The linguistic match-pairs only work as the words are not exacting translations; the semantic gap between the intended and the heard becomes the magic that powers the imperial industry. The force of that enjambment converts Robin by the end of the novel: “every act of translation is an act of betrayal,” he states. It is at the point of epistemic impossibility and epistemic violence that the academy appears to make knowledge production valuable. Here, with such intricacy, the novel reveals its cards: this is a world ordered by language and at the mercy of multilinguists—and what could such a world look like, other than our own world moulded by programming and binary code? Immaterial knowledge, reduced and rendered into data, is coded and programmed into its material metal body. This becomes more apparent by the climax of the novel when the illusion is broken and we learn that most machinery is not powered by independent bars of silver. Instead, silver forms a dense network of match-pairs connected to each other through powerful “silver rods” housed at Oxford, much like data servers on a server farm. The story Babel tells belongs, through its technological imagining, to our century: we are told, not the narrative of resource accumulation and colonial extraction, but the story of translators as software engineers—the most powerful class of students and workers today. Oxford’s tight grip over translators and silver is nothing more than a grab for power, a technocratic dream of monopolies, an attempt to engineer the conditions for its own relevance.

The reader must intrude here to ask questions of genre, especially in terms of how genre expresses and negotiates with the present. Dark academia, situated in exclusive elite institutions of higher learning, as Anna Quiring says, reveals a desire to “deexceptionalize scholastic environments,” and in some ways, even a desire to renew aesthetic artefacts of the past in a world whose future is precarious. Babel’s dark academy is situated in the past and takes great pleasure in the nineteenth century of Britain, its offerings of food and other cultural experiences, so much so that its form itself takes on an air of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and has an accumulative sentence structure—with each sentence, over and over and in variations, beginning with “he said,” followed by “he was” and then “he did”—producing a sense of cozy plentitude. No pleasure is as great as the pleasure of the text, and Kuang emphasizes how important it was, following Vita Nostra, to write a novel in which scholars actually study. There are as many books and classes as there are libraries. Robin and his cohort are cajoled, drawn, intrigued, confused, lulled, tortured by the texts and their teachers, obsessed with rhetorical turns, grammar, and narrative. Kuang showcases, as well, her own knowledge of language and literature, and to some degree, her own scholastic affairs with the academy. [3]

But there remains a dangerous underbelly. The institution’s slipping relevance, and the terrible things academies do to maintain it, is perhaps the strongest lesson of dark academia, a genre known to undo its own novel of manners by turning into a thriller of manners. Translation, the conceit of Babel, is heavy-handed, but it does work as an exposé on the Eurocentric institution responsible for engendering racist and exploitative systems, creating situations where students are caught between their own precarity and the cultural, ecological, and social destruction of other communities. Babel’s dark academia is darker than many others, unflinchingly underscoring its terrible ills and its terrible persuasions.

In this midst, I find silver to be an unwittingly porous narrative device, one that not only gives form to the crimes of the institution, but also represents a direct relationship between the literature department and totalizing economic power. By localizing colonial power in a singular raw material source, and by climactically destroying it, Kuang seems to say that a utilitarian approach to literature and languages deserves destruction (and not just that empires and their institutions betray those whom they seek to protect). More starkly, however, Oxford’s impenetrable and irreplaceable power—through Babel—throws into a contrast the present diminished status of the university of humanities (specifically literature departments), its precarity, lack of funds and political power, and its current existential crisis. The only scholastic field with enough steam to have any funds and any measurable impact on national and foreign economies today is technology, more specifically, informational technology. Dark academia is given voice in and through its relationship to the STEM institution in its present iteration.

Babel implicitly presents this palpable anxiety, and through its conceits of translation as magic that powers machinery, also produces a complex portrait of the scholastic envy of literary studies and literary scholars, juxtaposed as it is next to a world ordered by STEM’s supremacy. Language can be made into a beautiful tool, into magic and technology, but in doing so, it must also become the most powerful weapon of capital and imperialism. What’s darker than desire?

*

All said and done, through and through, more contemporaneous here than in any other facet—whether that of SFF’s canon or that of the academy’s relevance—is the metaphor of patricide, ending with the death of an institution. Babel, which R.F. Kuang calls a descendant of the old father-son narrative, is a novel about patricide. Robin must kill his father, and he does—somewhat accidentally—making the first to fall the white benefactor, his hands caricatured and bloody with neglect and death of Robin’s mother and numerous Chinese citizens. His violent acts are as grand as they are commonplace among the Oxford-educated Englishmen; only some are displayed through parlour games of issued imperatives about the world, its slaves, women, children, and others.

The murder follows formula: like the urtext of dark academia, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Robin kills halfway through the novel. Some intrigue and some broken relationships later, Babel swerves into an action-paced romp, meeting the classic sword-and-sorcery novel towards the last quarter. With the death of Robin’s father begins the revolution against the Oxbridge institution and the very system that fuels the hegemony of white colonial supremacy, which (perhaps a little predictably, a little romantically, and a little tragically) definitely falls.

It is impossible to escape the death of the father in a novel reckoning with Oxford’s colonial past; or, as to use the modern idiom, it is impossible to ignore decolonization, not when Babel is written during a contemporary political moment countenancing it. Decolonization, a catchall term, is a defanged beast—woken one moment through direct action, and American Confederate statues fall; killed the next, and the jargon of decolonial thought is vociferously used by ethno-nationalists to prop up claims of racial purity. Babel approaches decolonization with the grandness of gesture, as if the loudest of falls make for the greatest revolutions, as if the novel’s creatures were made particularly for such drama. As such, its gimmick is its many textual metaphors; everything becomes reduced and assimilated into these linguistic figures, whether colonialism and modern capitalism, which are taken as stories of personal relationships between son and father, or the dynamics of power, all engendered within magic, and more so, history, made metaphor and metamorphosed into a slate with no narrative of its own except that which can be borrowed from our terrible world.

Babel, ultimately, wears its political colours on its sleeve, a garish obstinacy about producing a politics that can neatly and painfully mutilate and expose the world through the celebration of the solipsism of the young and the grandness of gesture. This is dark academia for a world that wants to expose the institution’s evils while retaining its beautiful appeal, to have its cake and eat it too.

Must we really, even in our darkest narratives, turn to metaphor? Must we be so hopeful?

 

Notes

[1] As Gunner Taylor says, where an aesthetic is “something between a fashion sense, philosophy, mood, and found community” (in “Tweed Jackets and Class Consciousness,” Dark Academia, Post 45). [return]

[2] Franco Moretti, The Bourgeois: Between History and Literature, (London: Verso Books, 2013). [return]

[3] A plethora of novels and accounts center the academic experience on the contemporary market; dark academia as a genre should be read in conjunction with the novels and accounts of leaving the academy, or “quit lit,” and alongside the so-called “adjunct lit,” or autofictional “graduate novels” in the American/European literary circuit. Read together, these novels make apparent two details: that narratives centered around the academy are narratives of desire and disillusionment, and more importantly, that access to prestigious/obscure universities and their environs often produces a literary aesthetic almost by default. [return]


Editors: Reviews Department

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department



Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
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