Reviewed by Roger Marheine
August 16, 2023
Babel or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang. (New York: Harper Collins. 2022. 542 pp.)
“I heard a traveller from an antique land….” (Percy Shelley, “Ozymandias” (quoted in Kuang 147) (1)
“She learned in fact that revolution is always unimaginable. It shatters the world you know. The future is unwritten, brimming with potential” (Kuang 540)
R. F. Kuang’s genre, “speculative fiction,” follows most closely with fantasy, science fiction, and dystopian writing, but most importantly in Babel, resistance literature. Late in the book, she quotes Frantz Fanon: “Colonialism is not a machine capable of thinking, a body endowed with reason. It is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence” (quoted in Kuang 441). (2)
Rebecca Kuang’s resume impresses us with its erudition and scope. Born in China but raised in the United States, now at the age of 29, she has written five books, received numerous awards, all the while completing graduate work at both Oxford and Cambridge. Kuang’s first three books comprised a trilogy of fantasy—The Poppy War (2018), The Dragon Republic (2019), The Burning God (2020). Her latest, Yellowface (2023) has just been published. In Babel, Kuang deconstructs political economy within a dynamic historicism.
Babel’s setting rests mostly in 1830s Oxford University, but clearly Kuang wants us to reflect upon today—otherwise, why bother with historical fiction? In interviews, Kuang has called her book “ a dark text of academia,” which downplays the scope of the work. Babel is not about professors with their petty squabbles and intellectual myopia. While there’s plenty of Oxfordian minutiae and American readers may find the extraordinary detail of Oxford a bit much, Kuang’s erudition, complete with faux footnotes by an anonymous narrator, renders this a work of extraordinary historical substance. (3)
R.F. Kuang’s fictional tour de force, with its provocative title, exhibits a compelling examination of race, class, and imperialism as manifested in the machinations of 1830s Oxford University, an institution that played a vital role in sustaining the British empire. There is much to admire in Kuang’s effort, one that champions a daring historical materialism, by mounting a critique of a major university’s institutional complicity with slavery, genocide, and conquest.
Characters of Resistance: “travelers from antique lands”
Kuang’s plot traces a group of young scholars from “antique lands” who arrive at a revolutionary consciousness during their time at Oxford University. Her characters, who are intellectually exceptional, labor as linguistic polyglots drawn from British imperialist controlled countries (e.g. China, India, the West Indies). They function as an Oxfordian colonial work force, effectively academic pawns who are coaxed/pressured into playing their role as expert translators all in the service of empire. They have been brought (taken, kidnapped, cajoled) to work at Oxford and are encouraged to forget the suffering of their countries of origin.
Despite being encouraged to embrace their good fortune, they live a contradiction. Their loyalties to their families and oppressed homeland populations will win out. As travelers from antique lands, they bring a global perspective to empire and share their accounts with each other.
The first half of the text focuses on the ironically named Robin Swift, called “Birdie” because of his timidity and naivete. The most despicable character, Oxford Professor Richard Lovell, has fathered him and his half-brother, Griffin, with two different Chinese women whom he has since abandoned.
As a young student, Robin meets his half-brother, Griffin, a leader of Hermes—a secret revolutionary, organization, that commits robberies and assassinations and is dedicated to the overthrow of the British Empire. Hermes, the god of ancient Greek mythology, was a messenger, guide, protector, and at times a divine trickster who could move easily from the living to the underworld. Griffin’s mysterious, clandestine group operates by stealth (and thus the “arcane” in the book’s title). It is firmly anti-imperialist and by implication anti-capitalist. In many respects, Kuang’s tracing of students’ coming to consciousness through a series of arguments and debates is her strongest material. As a young scholar herself, Kuang presents those student interchanges with a convincing verisimilitude.
In one exchange, Ramy, an Indian student, clarifies the sources of the opium trade in China: “The two most popular brands…are called Pana and Malwa. Both regions of India. From my home straight to yours, Birdie. Isn’t that funny?” ‘Ramy glanced sideways at him.’ “The British are turning my homeland into a narco-military state to pump drugs into your yours. That’s how the empire connects us” (Kuang 305).
Then Robin (Birdie) offers an analysis that could come from a page out of Marx: “Robin saw a great spider’s web in his mind then. Cotton from India to Britain, opium from India to China, silver becoming tea and porcelain in China, and everything flowing back to Britain. It sounded so abstract—just categories of use, exchange, and value (italics added)…until it wasn’t; until you realized the web you lived in and the exploitations your life-style demanded, until you saw looming above it all the spectre of colonial labor and colonial pain” (Kuang 305).
At the satirical level, Kuang pulls no punches in her scathing critique of Oxford professors who are either overt imperial agents of war (e.g. Robin’s father, Professor Lovell), willing dupes of imperial platitudes especially as they practice their daily craft within the very privileged confines of Oxfordian splendor, or specialists blissfully unaware of empire’s greater crimes as they live in academic cocoons and grasp only their own silo of knowledge. One of Oxford’s professors, Jerome Playfair, represents Kuang’s satirical comment on the British gentleman’s code of conduct, as they ruthlessly assert their global dominance.
Kuang exposes academic collaboration with capitalism and demonstrates scholarly complicity with genocide and slavery. Her text reflects back upon the critique of the university as complicit with war and empire, that was so effectively championed by American and French students of the 1960s and 1970s.
Kuang’s Primary Symbols of Empire: Babel, Silver, and Language
Kuang offers up a triad of imperialist symbols.
First, the fictional Babel tower sits in central Oxford as an enormous physical structure, housing eight departments, and represents an homage to wealth, power, and privilege: “Of all the marvels of Oxford, [it was] a tower out of time, and vision from a dream….An illumination from a medieval manuscript, a door to a fairyland”(72). To its participants, it radiates as sacred ground but is also a vast productive enterprise. It is both superstructure and economic base. Babel controls the social narrative as endorsement of dominant capitalist culture, and it produces new value via its scholarship.
Second, Kuang’s conceptual use of silver renders a rich multiplicity of meanings. In addition to tracing its direct association with money and the means of exchange, Kuang historically deconstructs silver’s fetishized prominence in colonial history. She traces the history of Spanish imperial extraction through the super exploitation of slave labor by the Spanish conquistadors, particularly in the infamous Potosi mines in 16th century Bolivia.
Griffin, Kuang’s revolutionary student, clarifies the history of imperialist rivalry, which has striking parallels with Lenin’s argument that imperialist rivalry leads to war. Griffin notes that Spain once had the silver, then France took imperial power, which ended with Britain’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. But by the 1830s, claims Griffin, Britain was losing its silver to China. In a creative passage, Kuang takes poetic license, as we 21st century readers are invited to interpret a broader meaning–Britain is a symbol for the United States and its growing rivalry with modern China.
Kuang’s Griffin asserts the almost inevitable war that imperial rivalry ensures. He explains to Robin by prophesizing the coming storm: “The British Empire will crumble as a consequence of its own greed….The cycles of history will do the rest, and [we] have only to help…it along….The wealth of Britain depends on coercive extraction. And…only two options remain: either her mechanisms of coercion become vastly more brutal, or she collapses. The former’s more likely but it might bring about the latter” (Kuang 176). Hegemonic control of silver (capital) on a global scale sustains the empire. Subsequently, empires practice mechanisms of coercion ever more brutal to maintain hegemony.
Third, Kuang, a linguist herself, probes the power of language, translation, and symbolic meanings. Her discussions often delve into esoteric etymological conjecture, expose historical misinterpretations, and cite obscure academic debates. At times the esoteric density may seem more of a side bar, than a critical thematic issue or plot device. Kuang implicitly reminds us of the lofty academic tome, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the definitive work in the English language, authored originally during Victorian Britain’s rise to a world power. Kuang is quite aware that the English language’s status as lingua franca is due to British imperialism’s hegemony.
The Oxford Revolution and Kuang’s “Epilogue”—Victoire and what is to be done
Kuang’s fiercely combative student group rises up and occupies Babel itself. Some professors rally to their cause. Abel, a working class character, unites with them and organizes a contingent of laborers to join the revolt; they set up street barricades and enter the fray. Robin must kill his father, Professor Lovell, who is personally hideous but more importantly an imperial ideologue. There’s not a whiff of Freudian Oedipal psychology at play here; rather the killing is a necessary negation of the imperialist. Ultimately, the revolt fails and the resistance is crushed.
In the “Epilogue,” Victoire (victory), the Haitian born character and last surviving student revolutionary, utters the most blistering commentary. Victoire (perhaps the veiled voice of Kuang herself) identifies two obstacles to revolution.
The first entails the “cold indifference, born of a bone-deep investment in an economic system that privileges some and crushes others” (541). Apathy of the privileged too often engenders accommodation with social injustice. These complicit ones refuse to hear the call of history and make their separate peace with empire and capital.
The second obstacle is more subtle and more intellectually astute. Victoire’s revolutionary friend, Anthony, “called victory an inevitability,” and he claims, “the material contradictions of England would tear it apart, and their movement would succeed because the revels of Empire were simply unstainable” (541). Anthony’s statement reflects mechanical materialism, that the system’s collapse is a foregone conclusion. In contrast, Victoire, inspired by the Haitian slave rebellion of the 1790s, argues,“Victory is not assured. Victory may be in the portents, but it must be urged by violence….Victory is wrought by ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice…[it] is a game of contingencies where everything goes right because they have made it go right” (italics added). Kuang implicitly at least articulates the need for a party, an organized leadership that must come from the ranks of the empire’s oppressed.
Indeed, of the younger generations today upwards of half claim to be vaguely socialist, whatever that may mean to them. Kuang’s vision reflects that level of consciousness—that horrible atrocities have been and continue to be committed by capitalism, globally, and that something should be done, including something violent. Of course, that can lead to individualism, volunteerism etc. Still, Kuang’s Babel through an erudite historicism, argues for a revolution, led by global people of color and their allies.
Conclusion: Kuang as Hermes (the messenger) and “traveler from an antique land”
Kuang is not overtly Leninist, nor is Marx mentioned by name, but she provides a materialist analysis of capitalism and empire. She highlights the ever so inconvenient historical facts for liberals who search endlessly in vain for a reformed, kinder, gentler, Britain or America.
Kuang identifies one neoliberal tactic that seeks to capture the hearts and minds of some children of the oppressed; that is to elevate their social status with economic security and even promote them into leadership roles. Thus, neo-liberalism attempts to siphon off certain individuals by appealing to blatant individualism (careerism), to encourage forgetfulness of past injustices, and above all to discourage resistance of any kind beyond the innocuous skirmishes of impotent reformism of the British Labor Party or the American Democratic Party.
Kuang’s text recalls the American and French student movements of the 1960s and 1970s—robust, dynamic, and at times violent. Those movements insisted on the university as a collaborator with capital and not merely a place for the free exchange of concepts (a marketplace of ideas). As wonderful as those movements were, they did not link sufficiently with the working masses, as worker-student alliances failed to gain traction. Kuang honestly, and quite eloquently identifies the problem of empire, but in the ultimate scenes of violent conflict, the workers tend to be “other,” and play less of a role. To her credit, she concludes with the character Victoire who presents an insightful revolutionary commentary.
Kuang argues that international (immigrant) students, “the travelers from antique lands” bring a higher level of understanding of empire that penetrates the trappings of Oxfordian privilege. Their message of revolt through the organization, Hermes, both represents an embryonic consciousness of youth today, and a direction (not a blueprint) to go. (4)
Kuang’s text is whip smart, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, and insists on the necessity of violence; it champions internationalism and places students of color in the forefront of the revolt. Babel is a novel of consciousness, and it is most worthy of our close consideration.
- Kuang cites Percy Shelley’s famous poem “Ozymandias,” a mockery of power.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!
Nothing besides remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
- Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (1961) called for “combat literature,” and Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature (1987) cited numerous African and Middle Eastern art works as politically radical or “resistant.” Kuang’s text follows both authors’ call to resistance in literature. “Speculative Fiction,” is the current umbrella category that includes works of science fiction, fantasy, utopian, dystopian, supernatural, and horror. These texts depart from concrete historical reality and in the case of fantasy, tend toward a stylized escapism of little threat to capitalist hegemony. Consider the enormously popular fantasy, Game of Thrones, that portrays human nature as fundamentally predatory and corrupt. In sharp contrast, Kuang’s Babel poses the hypothesis, “what if” privileged students shed their advantages to violently challenge imperialism itself. Finally, Kuang’s text recalls Samuel R. Delany’s early speculative fiction text, Babel-17 (1966), which features a Chinese female protagonist whose linguistic pursuits parallel several of Kuang’s primary translators.
- Kuang cites the most radical English writers of the early nineteenth-century. Thus, English poet Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and “Men of England,” are noted. Kuang’s subtitle, “The Necessity of Violence,” echoes Shelley’s famous tract, “The Necessity of Atheism,” which led to his expulsion from Oxford University. She identifies worker resistance e.g. the luddites and Lancashire Spinners. While Kuang’s naïve protagonist, Robin Swift, is male, the plot entails strong female characters and Kuang references Mary Wollstonecraft’s “A Vindication of the Rights of Women,” the famous response to the French revolutionary tract, “The Rights of Man.”
- Personally, I was very fortunate to begin my teaching career at Pasadena City in the 1980s, during neo-liberalism’s brutal advances. The college, located in suburban Los Angeles, attracted thousands of immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Iran, Lebanon, Vietnam, Cambodia, China etc. As “travellers from antique lands,” they brought their personal stories of hardship and struggle. They were my teachers, much more than I was theirs. I salute them and their great courage, their profound insights, and their wonderfully inspirational substance as human beings.
–Roger Marheine taught English at Pasadena City College and is now retired. His interests include war culture and resistance literature.