Babel: Or The Necessity of Violence, An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators Revolution is a pernicious novel showcasing the ability of literature to make evil appear good. Evaluating Babel requires considering the purpose of literature; how can a novel be technically excellent, yet fail to achieve literature’s high calling? This review contains substantial spoilers, including the ending. Reader beware.
Babel follows Robin Swift and his friends through their Oxford studies and into early careers as silver workers. Babel’s 19th-century world runs on silver, a metaphorical stand-in for oil, electricity, and industrialized technology in general. Silver, with words etched on each side of a bar in different languages, holds and manipulates mystical energy produced by the differences in meaning between the terms. Translators who dream in foreign languages can use these bars to power the world. Oxford, with its Royal Institute of Translation, is the power behind the British Empire; Britain has conquered the world through the “silver industrial revolution.” British hegemony is maintained by bringing in foreigners to be translators and gaining an endless supply of silver.
The novel moves through various phases of Robin’s life: the tragic death of his mother, his father (who does not recognize patrimony) taking him to England, studies in Oxford, joining a secret society, and finally becoming a true revolutionary. R.F. Kuang joins a long list of authors who capture both the joie de vivre and thrill of discovery of undergraduate life. She frames the early chapters with Robin and his friend Ramy exploring Oxford, picnicking, and discovering the joys of community and the life of the mind. “Classes would not begin until the third of October, which left three full days in which Robin and Ramy were free to explore the city. These were three of the happiest days of Robin’s life. He had no readings or classes, no recitations or compositions to prepare. For the first time in his life he was in full control of his own purse and schedule, and he went mad with freedom.” This love for Oxford returns in the conclusion: Robin “went back to his first morning in Oxford: climbing a sunny hill with Ramy, picnic basket in hand. Elderflower cordial. Warm brioche, sharp cures, a chocolate tart for dessert. The air that day smelled like a promise, all of Oxford shone like an illumination, and he was falling in love.”
But the halcyon days of Oxford life are stained by the twin evils of racism and exploitation. Oxford is filled with just-under-the-surface bigotry, and the Chinese Robin, Indian Ramy, and Haitian Victoire are always second-class citizens in their experience. As the novel progresses, these three discover that their stipends and studies are funded by an exploitative international system combining the worst of predatory capitalism and imperialist mercantilism. Oxford has no interest in sending them back to their homelands as translators; instead, they are expected to join the British imperial system and use their silver-working skills to extend British power. Their rejection of these expectations sets up the climax of the novel.
Robin radicalizes, launching a revolution and spouting settler-colonialist rhetoric; only violence will cause the empire to change its practices, he insists. Thus Robin justifies the accidental death of dozens of civilians: “This is how colonialism works. It convinces us that the fallout from resistance is entirely our fault, that the immoral choice is resistance itself rather than the circumstances that demanded it.” Accepting moral responsibility for the death of noncombatants, Robin contends, plays into the colonialist system.
The true revolutionary must be willing to use violence to provoke change. When his compatriots hesitate, Robin thinks, “This was a failure of nerve. A refusal to push things to the limit. Violence was the only thing that brought the colonizer to the table; violence was the only option. The gun was right there on the table, waiting for them to pick it up. Why were they so afraid to even look at it?” The novel concludes when Robin destroys the civilized world by leading his fellow revolutionaries to topple the tower of Babel (and themselves), bringing the international order founded on silver-working to a grinding halt.
Babel was published in August of 2023, just before Hamas’s attack on Israel (October 7) and the subsequent rise of riots across Western universities supporting violent terrorism as a rational response to “settler colonialism.” In one sense, this novel explains the unexpected student support for Hamas: if the ideas in Babel are the fruit of academic theory and instruction, then Kuang’s novel works like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy did for explaining Trump’s 2016 election. Vance had been crafting his story for years; it was an accident of publishing that his book came out just as pundits were asking how they had gotten the American electorate so wrong. Babel, too, is just such an accident. How can so many well-educated students chant, “Free, free Palestine!” and fail to distinguish between civilian and military? Babel provides an answer.
If Babel were a poor read, I would have discarded it weeks ago. It is not: the characters, setting, pacing, and world-building are superb. Kuang writes with a level of detailed knowledge that makes her settings vivid and imaginable; her style is excellent. She writes with a love for the intellectual life and a sensitivity to undeniably dark moments of Western civilization, like the Opium Wars and the slave trade. The quality of her writing forces the reader to consider the purpose of literature. If technical execution of a series of literary tools is sufficient, then Babel is a strong novel. The literary tradition, however, maintains that humane letters has a higher burden. The tools of the literati exist to transmit norms from one generation to the next. It is on this register that Babel fails utterly as a novel.
Horace wrote that literature should “delight and instruct.” Aristotle thought that literary work was mimetic, mirroring reality to help the audience perceive it in all its depth. Sidney argued that literature was superior to history and philosophy because of its ability to provide living pictures of moral possibilities. In this traditional vein (to which we could add Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser, Austen, Dickens, Tennyson, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkien, and a host of others), the goal of excellent literature is to fill the moral imagination with images of moral reality. This is not to say that all literature works on a simplistic level like Aesop’s Fables or Pilgrim’s Progress; Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment both fit this vision. By dramatizing unsettling realities, they help readers perceive moral truths.
This traditional view is largely rejected in academic literary study today in favor of applications of various critical theories. Such theories follow the academic work of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche, who all suggested that our perception of reality hides the dark truths of sex, power, and economic relations. The literary task becomes the unmasking of this “reality” to reveal the dark underbelly of a “world”—whether economic, psychological, or moral—worthy only of destruction. In the case of Babel, the man who destroys his world is a hero.
The stories we tell shape how we live together in society, family, and culture; narratives shape our conceptions of abstractions like justice and heroism, good and evil. In Enemies of the Permanent Things, Russell Kirk describes the task of literature as normative:
Great literature possesses its own general norms; but, still more important, literature is a chief means for passing on to posterity the normative knowledge of a culture—and a means of censuring the abnormity of every age. Through the body of humane letters, we are provided with models for emulation and precepts for guidance. We learn from literature, far more than from personal experience, the character of the saint, the hero, and the philosopher. We learn from literature those insights into the human condition which make life worth living.
Babel is technically well written, but it fails to uphold basic norms: that life is good, civilization is better than anarchy, and morality is real. When Babel upholds “abnormity” as good, it uses the tools of literary craft to undermine the norms of human existence. It is thus a pernicious novel.
Babel also illustrates the kind of story that the modern academy is equipping people to write. Kuang holds degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, and is pursuing a doctorate at Yale. She is applying her training to write stories that further disenchant the world and to justify terrorist destruction of civilization. Though she is a beneficiary of the academy, her writing undermines the foundations of the academy.
“Which way, Western man?” or so the meme goes. Do we have the spiritual resources to ground ourselves in the Tradition and to see it as our source of moral values, rule of law, free trade, and peaceful coexistence? Or will we surrender to the revolutionary and see the work of millennia collapse into rubble? Babel is ultimately a warning that writers of the new generation are steeped in false ideology—a truly false consciousness—and they are highly skilled in telling pernicious stories. We need to recover the purposes of humane letters and apply the literary arts to the preservation of civilizational norms. The barbarians are well within the gates, and they now have highly impressive academic degrees.