Written by Naomi Wallace
“Your presence overpowers the soberness of reason”, wrote legendary poet William Wordsworth in an affectionate address to the city of Oxford in May 1820. It is a powerful sentiment that encapsulates the romantic mysticism that surrounds the University of Oxford, and has been echoed by writers and artists alike for centuries. Award-winning fantasy author R. F. Kuang’s novel Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence, brings this crashing to the ground. Published in August 2022, the novel, with its collegiate setting and intellectual focus, is likely to attract fans of The Secret History but is far more than a story of tortured elites or a murder mystery. Set at Oxford University in the 1830s, Babel is an epic work of historical fiction and fantasy that brings the horrors of the British Empire to the forefront of the narrative and exposes the barbaric exploitation that upheld both institutions like Oxford, and Britain itself.
The story follows Robin Swift, born in Canton and brought to England by an Oxford professor (who is also his biological father), through his time at Babel, the prestigious translation institute at Oxford University. In the first half of the book we, like Robin and his cohort, are tantalisingly swept into the world of Babel, the rigorous yet romanticised academic lifestyle of the students, and the friendships forged in the process. That is, until Robin becomes embroiled with the underground Hermes society, who open his eyes to the colonial links between the institute and the British Empire, leaving him torn between the security and opportunity promised by Babel and his moral convictions. Increasingly throughout the novel, the corruption and colonial violence that underpinned nineteenth-century Britain is exposed, and the characters’ awareness of this becomes a great source of tension.
At the heart of Babel is silverwork, a concept of Kuang’s invention, by which silver bars are imbued with powerful qualities through a complex process of translation and distortion between the meanings and connotations of words across languages. Silver bars are used ubiquitously across the country, in the running of transport, machinery, architecture, and almost any other area one could imagine. It sounds complicated, because it is supposed to; it is a practice of which only the most talented Babel scholars are capable, yet one upon which the running of British society hinges almost entirely. They rely on resources and free trade with the Empire to facilitate silverwork, and it soon becomes evident that there is no limit to the pernicious violence and exploitation that Babel will commit in order to obtain these resources. Silverwork may not be real, but the actions of British institutions towards other nations in regard to it are reflective of the real landscape of British colonialism in the nineteenth century. This magical element of the novel never detracts from the real history at hand – it only serves to elevate it; Kuang so successfully blurs the genres of historical fiction and fantasy that one forgets that silverwork is, in fact, an invented idea.
Rage is the tone that runs through the latter half of the novel, building within the characters as an accumulation of loss, betrayal, and injustice. Kuang is not afraid to allow her characters to feel and express their pure, unadulterated anger towards the Empire and those around them by whom it is supported and uplifted. Robin’s rage exponentially grows until it explodes in the novel’s crescendo ending, one that somehow changes everything – but simultaneously nothing at all. Very little catharsis is offered by the novel’s conclusion, and when I closed the book, I was left instead feeling empty and resentful towards all that had happened. This is the message Kuang was evidently echoing; there is no true victory in Empire, no satisfying and happy endings; as Frantz Fanon put it, colonialism “is naked violence and only gives in when confronted with greater violence”, thus is the tragedy that befits the end of the novel.
Though Babel is set in Oxford, it raises wider concerns about the complicity of universities in the empire. Other institutions are mentioned sporadically; Edinburgh itself is said to have a silverwork department. Whilst this is fictional, colonial histories of British universities are tangible and real; it was only in September 2020 that the University of Edinburgh renamed a building previously named after David Hume, Enlightenment philosopher who believed that races other than white were naturally inferior. Colonial legacies run through the foundations of British Universities and Oxford University is not an isolated example of this.
Babel is a tale of grisly historical truths fuelled by the vibrant and intellectual imagination of R. F. Kuang. It is a fantasy novel that feels like anything but, thanks to its vivid, compelling portrait of nineteenth-century Britain and the atrocities of the Empire. It is a thrilling narrative and masterful critique of the colonial histories of British higher education institutions, as well as the British Empire as a whole. Anyone who has ever believed the myth that the British Empire was a force of good, or something warranting pride, should read this book and see otherwise.
Featured image credit: High Street, Oxford (1810). Oil on canvas. J. M. W. Turner. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Public domain.