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  • Adam Tye

Babel Review: Lost in Translation

Here in this house, we don't judge a book by its cover.

Except of course we do, all the time, and it's this vice that makes Babel so utterly magnetic. The gothic monochrome cityscape; the strike of glistening silver that tears through the centre of Oxford; and of course, the page edges, black as coal. "An Arcane History" the gothic cover pronounces, and with this gorgeous, arresting packaging, Babel marks itself as a book of rare ambition and style. The first of these qualities is commendable and fascinating - the other is a prison, and it's the tussle between the two that marks Babel as a uniquely frustrating work of fantasy literature.

The world of Babel is our own, nudged ever so slightly off balance: an alternative history of Victorian England, where magic has wormed its way into the halls of power and is commanding the attention of the British Empire. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell comparisons are not unwelcome here, right down to the use of footnotes to expand upon the core text. But where Clarke's novel felt more like a love song to its genre, Kuang's work is a letterbomb: a desperately angry brick thrown against the colonialist underpinnings of imperialism.

Kuang - a scholar, herself - chooses translation as both a source of in-world magic, and her thematic route in to this quagmire. In this world, magic is drawn from match pairs: a word in two separate languages, each one conveying a slightly different meaning from the other and both inscribed onto a piece of silver. When the words are spoken aloud, magic is created in that semantic gap. Great effort is put into explaining this premise further within the book, but the magic itself is rarely a core element on which the plot turns; instead it functions as a resource that the British Empire is doggedly hunting. Indeed, a lot of attention is paid to how the magic produced by the silver is often used for convenience’s sake - smoother carriages, better curtains - and available solely to the wealthy upper-class of Britain.

Peruse the goodreads review section and you'll find a lot of ire drawn against the flighty nature of the magical world building in Babel, particularly with regard to how little impact the magic of translation has had upon the populace at large. In my own experience, I was never truly moved by these complaints. The magic at work in Babel serves such a clear metaphorical purpose that the in-universe consequences seemed secondary. This will not hold true for everyone, and there’s a definite tension to be found within the way that Babel presents itself, with many of the in-universe lectures drawing attention to the magical system, and thus inviting further questions on behalf of the audience. But I think to focus purely on these gaps is to do a disservice to the evocative idea that Kuang is pursuing. Here, language is presented as a symbol of the differences between cultures, whilst translation is the way we move between those differences and discover something new (in this case, the benefits of a new system of magic). Where the book finds its teeth is in how the Empire plunders those cultural differences for its own prosperity and superiority.

On the face of it, big ideas delivered primarily through lectures should sound the death knell for any novel's entertainment value, but it is to Babel's enormous credit that it remains a compelling read throughout. Having not read The Poppy Wars I can only speculate as to how much this Dickensian tome matches the author's previous work, but my initial takeaway is that Babel is intentionally written to take advantage of a more minimalist style of writing: a straight-talking economy of prose that benefits the narrative tremendously for its clarity...though perhaps less so for its vivacity.

This brings us back to the notion of ‘covers’, or perhaps more accurately, aesthetics’. It doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that how Babel presents itself is clearly very important to Kuang’s artistic vision. From the use of epigraphs in each chapter to harken back to Victorian literature, to the demarcation of the novel into five shakespearean acts (complete with interludes), there's a very conscious effort on display to use style as a dramatic device.

For the record: I've never been one to hold judgement on authors who adopt another writing 'voice' as your own. However, I do think this becomes an issue once the adopted voice constricts the story you are telling, and in this sense I think Babel is less successful. For as clear and compelling as the text often is, there are long stretches that feel curiously leaden - devoid of flourish or feeling, where another less formal take on the material would flourish. Story turns often arrive out of nowhere and without flair, whilst the minute-to-minute dialogue feels curiously stiff.

There’s an argument to be made that, for all Babel postures at being a spiritual successor to Strange & Norrell, it never manages to commit insofar as the prose itself is concerned. Clarke’s novel was anything but economic in its presentation, famously indulging in a more performative nineteenth-century style of writing often compared to Jane Austen. I’m hard pressed to say what Babel is emulating, because it definitely isn’t Austen, and considering Kuang’s own description of it as a “big ponderous Dickensian bildungsroman”, it doesn’t seem to evoke much of Dickens’ extravagant passage construction either.

It would be one thing to consider this as a disconnect between form and function, but it’s much more pressing and confounding to note the lack of theatricality on display - a vanishing confidence that lays bare the didacticism that so many other reviewers have been quick to point out.

Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that didacticism - the abandonment of subtext in order to express messages directly to the viewer - is perhaps the most commonly discussed part of Babel. It runs inescapably through the novel’s veins, from the philosophising mouths of the characters, to the thudding footnotes which abandon Strange & Norrell's whimsy for mini-lectures of varying interest. It’s obvious by now that Babel is not short of ambition, but it is to the books discredit that it elucidates the vast majority of its opinions and ideas within the opening 100 pages. Only the "violence" hinted at by the book's full title remains - but we'll get to that shortly.

Truthfully, I think didacticism gets a bit of a bad rep in much the same way that exposition does. Tutorials and reviews online often mark exposition as a failure of writing, yet there is not a single piece of work that does not exposit at some point and to some extent - it's just about doing it in the most appropriate way. Christopher Nolan’s Inception is comprised of 80% exposition (citation needed), and yet is totally thrilling, revelling in its ideas all the way to the credits. The same can be said for the way a story uses didacticism - there can be a great catharsis in a work that proclaims its own identity.

There is catharsis to be found in Babel, too. Whilst the authorial voice on display is clear and calm, Kuang sets about dismantling myths of abolition with such thoroughness that the anger behind the pen becomes palpable. It’s fun to feel like a Molotov cocktail is being thrown into the annals of history, and the book’s rumination on the necessity of sacrifice to change a country’s mind will linger with me for a long time.

But these are still just ideas, waiting patiently for Babel to dramatically connect them to its characters. Unfortunately, the great disappointment of Babel is in the flatness of its core cast: a motley crew of students built out of philosophies and scones, flanked by an unending rogues gallery of cartoon racists. There are flashes of complexity to be found - particularly in the anguished (yet passive) protagonist, Robin - but these are rarely convincing, or handled with much deftness. Instead, this is character growth as an equation: x has happened to y, therefore they will do z. What’s most fascinating here is that there is no easy fix for this problem; no other writing decision that could have changed the end result. Just the simple, dawning realisation that these characters are too stiff, and that in each attempt to excavate their personalities, I imposed a vision over the text: an image of the author, desperately wishing that they were back writing the story’s lectures, where the book's aesthetic and ideas become as one.

In the year that I have owned Babel, I have turned it over in my hands many times and marvelled. I have traced my fingers over the dusty black page edges and across the tower stencilled on the back cover, wondering what gothic horrors a building such as that could draw out of a writer. Inside, on the front page of my copy, is R.F. Kuang's signature, which remains a welcomed physical reminder of the person behind this work - a person of rare talent, intellect and empathy. These things represent Babel as a piece of aesthetic art - a work of care and attention that promises a great deal of ambition. I can only be so disappointed that the contents cannot match that exquisite cover.

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