Book Club

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence

For book club in April we read Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang. This is a historical fantasy novel that explores how the power of language can be used to uphold an empire, or be responsible for its violent and deserved demise. It is opinionated and does not shy away from making its pitch against colonialism and racism.

So first, what I appreciated most about the novel: the research on etymology, and the intricacies of translation is thorough. There are insights across pictoral alphabets, and the poetry implicit in such languages, which I truly felt expanded my appreciation for Chinese characters in particular. Also, having gone to Oxford for a high school summer program, I LOVED the scenes through the city, set in such a different time from when I was there, but which still resonated. It is an institution that has and always will be iconic, and brought up wonderful memories for me.

I also just loved frame of this novel that translation can be harnessed as a tool for empire building, which is of course true of history, but something that was not fundamental in my American education (neither directly nor as a part of my history lessons: this seems like a terrible oversight since there is so much culture in language, and understanding those differences is a fundamental way for us to understand motivation throughout history). Therefore delving into a novel about one of the most transformational phases of our world (global trade and its associated social dynamics), was really interesting. I have read many Western novels focused on this time of exploration and discovery where the life’s blood of news, novels, and fantasy were the mysteries of new empires and nations, but also where rigid hierarchies of humanity were constantly being enforced. I embraced the notion of a book told from the lens of children exploited as goods themselves as a challenge to the supposed glory of those who in so many other novels are painted as heroes.

The challenge of this novel is not in the premise, nor the research, it is in the fundamentals of the narrative arc. What draws me to a novel is the development of the characters, and the insight into the world and maybe myself that a novel can elicit. The stitching of true historical events into a new narrative should be wonderful, but while the author uses many true events, she assumes a rather myopic motivation for them, I believe to turn up her commentary on racism and colonialism as truly evil. While I agree there were evil outcomes of this time, as a novel the singular lens ends up bypassing real conflict and turmoil of character development and therefore generates a far less interesting story. I don’t advocate for this time in history AT ALL, AND I think there was nuance in the choices and motivations, which ultimately is what made it both a fascinating and horrific time in our history. I personally find novels that delve into that ambiguity much more interesting than one which tries to lay it out in such “good” and “evil” camps.

So the backdrop and history paint demonic imperialists empowered and insistent on exploiting everyone based on their priviledged perspective that they have a right to such dominance, but that doesn’t mean the main characters (who are the victims of this world view) could not be interesting. Sadly they too are not as fully fleshed out as I would have hoped. The main character, Robin, grows up with an abusive guardian and yet he somehow emerges grateful and determined. Maybe such grit could survive his mistreatment (epic memoires have been written on this basis), but even as he enters college there is not significant social and emotional growth–he remains a child-like character insistent on impressing his abusive guardian.

He does build one beautiful and enduring friendship that borders on obsession, but all his other interactions (with the two other women in his cohort and even his half brother) are stilted. He constantly seems like a scared child afraid to engage in any meaningful way with no real motivation except to learn and connect with Rami, his best friend. Then suddently there is an abrupt break in his behavior: he fights back, which somewhat hard to believe given his previous mild-mannered behaviors, and grotesquely dispatches of another human with very little thought. That someone could break I believe, but then I would assume self-protection would generate some semblance of justification. Instead he becomes crippled once again and let’s others take control of his life somehow returning to a mild-mannered (now wracked with guilt) version of himself.

I genuinely wanted to see more development of these characters: they SHOULD have been the heart of this tale, and I really loved the brief back story we got on Victoire at the end, but these were the exceptions and not the general rule of the novel. My favorite part of Robin’s story was his friendship with Rami, but the inconsistency of development of the characters limited their relatability and is the shortcoming of the tale.

In some ways, I think the author did this to try to make her very specific point: that in the face of real racism and colonialism even the most mild mannered and “favored” in the system can turn to violence. While I think this is an interesting perspective, I don’t believe it is an inevitable one, and maybe that is where I struggled the most. Mahatma Gandhi proved rather poetically how untrue this premise could be, and ultimately I would argue his approach led to far more lasting change.

I loved that this book brought me back to history, rereading the events that led to the Opium Wars, and the social and policital forces at play. My favorite part of reading is the inspiration to learn and grow. Upon that research, I sadly found myself less excited about the novel than I was while reading it mostly because there was so much that led to the Opium Wars, and she glosses over all of that with the introduction of magic silver bars. I think by focusing on the need for violence she lost the complexity and nuance of a world where everyone thought they were doing what was right for their people. To me the important lesson is not that violence could be necessary, but rather that through tribalism and dehumanization even the most seemingly noble of people can engage in subjugation and deplorable acts. The lesson for us as society is to appreciate one another for our differences, connect with one another, learn and expand our world view; ultimately then we can avoid the shame and horror of these kinds of events.

Again, I enjoyed the book and have no regrets that I read it. The quotations, historical context, etymology, nuance in translation, depictions of Oxford–I was fully engaged from the first chapter. I just think this could have been SO much better with a bit more nuance and character development. Sociopathy is not common, but in the name of protecting our people, humanity can justify depravity, and that lesson is something that we can never afford to forget.