Babel, Or the Necessity of Violence:
An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution
by Rebecca F Kuang.
Harper Voyager, 2022.
And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.Genesis 11:4
The geographical centre of England. Dreaming spires. Ivory towers. But violence? Revolution? But then this is also subtitled “an arcane history” in the chronology of the University of Oxford, so we may take the violence and the revolt with a pinch of salt: such things as are described can never happen, we may assume. Or can they?
Babel is epic, in all senses of the word. It’s a story, sure enough, from the Greek ἔπος, epos, a speech, a song, demonstrating its love of language and literature; it’s composed to be on a grand scale, ranging to and fro from Guangzhou to Oxford and covering many years; it’s also epic in the modern sense of awesome, impressing through its ambition and sheer imaginative creativity; and it’s also epic in that it’s over five hundred pages long, which for some may be too much and for others deliciously intense.
In focusing on a quartet of language students in the 1830s it encourages us – successfully, I think – to invest in their personal and collective histories. But it also invites us to contemplate ethics, colonialism, racism, loyalty, and privilege; and above all we are asked to consider the necessity of violence in attempting to break the obduracy of those who rule while disregarding the needs of all in society.Continue reading “Confound their language”