Babel (R. F. Kuang)

 ”Which seems right to you? Do we try our hardest, as translators, to render ourselves invisible? Or do we remind our reader that what they are reading was not written in their native language?”
 ”That’s an impossible question,” said Victoire. “Either you situate the text in its time and place, or you bring it to where you are, here and now. You’re always giving something up.”
 ”Is faithful translation impossible, then?” Professor Playfair challenged. “Can we never communicate with integrity across time, across space?”
 ”I suppose not,” Victoire said reluctantly.
 ”But what is the opposite of fidelity?” asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. “Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?
 He closed this profound statement as he always did, by looking at each of them in turn. And as Robin’s eyes met Professor Playfair’s, he felt a deep, vinegary squirm of guilt in his gut.

10 thoughts on “Babel (R. F. Kuang)

  1. shinichi Post author

    Babel: Or the Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution

    by R.F. Kuang

    Traduttore, traditore: An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.

    1828. Robin Swift, orphaned by cholera in Canton, is brought to London by the mysterious Professor Lovell. There, he trains for years in Latin, Ancient Greek, and Chinese, all in preparation for the day he’ll enroll in Oxford University’s prestigious Royal Institute of Translation—also known as Babel.

    Babel is the world’s center for translation and, more importantly, magic. Silver working—the art of manifesting the meaning lost in translation using enchanted silver bars—has made the British unparalleled in power, as its knowledge serves the Empire’s quest for colonization.

    For Robin, Oxford is a utopia dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. But knowledge obeys power, and as a Chinese boy raised in Britain, Robin realizes serving Babel means betraying his motherland. As his studies progress, Robin finds himself caught between Babel and the shadowy Hermes Society, an organization dedicated to stopping imperial expansion. When Britain pursues an unjust war with China over silver and opium, Robin must decide…

    Can powerful institutions be changed from within, or does revolution always require violence?

  2. shinichi Post author

    He went back to his first morning in Oxford: climbing a sunny hill with Ramy, picnic basket in hand. Elderflower cordial. Warm brioche, sharp cheese, 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.

    ‘It’s so odd,’ Robin said. Back then they’d already passed the point of honesty; they spoke to one another unfiltered, unafraid of the consequences. ‘It’s like I’ve known you forever.’

    ‘Me too,’ Ramy said.

    ‘And that makes no sense,’ said Robin, drunk already, though there was no alcohol in the cordial.

    ‘Because I’ve known you for less than a day, and yet…’

    ‘I think,’ said Ramy, ‘it’s because when I speak, you listen.’

    ‘Because you’re fascinating.’

    Because you’re a good translator.’ Ramy leaned back on his elbows. ‘That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.

    The ceiling was starting to crumble; first streams of pebbles, then whole chunks of marble, exposing planks, breaking beams. The shelves collapsed. Sunlight streaked the room where before there had been no windows. Robin looked up and saw Babel, falling in and upon him, and beyond that, the sky before dawn.

    He shut his eyes.

  3. shinichi Post author

    So you see, translators do not so much deliver a message as they rewrite the original. And herein lies the difficulty – rewriting is still writing, and writing always reflects the author’s ideology and biases. After all, the Latin translatio means “to carry across”. Translation involves a spatial dimension – a literal transportation of texts across conquered territory, words delivered like spices from an alien land. Words mean something quite different when they journey from the palaces of Rome to the tearooms of today’s Britain.

  4. shinichi Post author

    After all, we’re here to make the unknown known, to make the other familiar. We’re here to make magic with words.

  5. shinichi Post author

    R. F. Kuang


    Rebecca F. Kuang (born May 29, 1996) is an American fantasy and contemporary fiction writer. Her first novel, The Poppy War, was released in 2018, followed by the sequels The Dragon Republic in 2019 and The Burning God in 2020. Kuang released a stand-alone novel, Babel, or the Necessity of Violence, in 2022. Kuang has won the Compton Crook Award, the Crawford Award, and the 2020 Astounding Award for Best New Writer, along with being a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, World Fantasy, The Kitschies, and British Fantasy awards for her first novel. Yellowface is her first work of fiction outside of the fantasy genre.

  6. shinichi Post author


    Award-winning author, translator, and academic R.F. Kuang’s newest novel, Babel, dives into the depths of deception wrought by colonialism, empire, and language.

    By John A. Riley / 20 July 2022

    Novelist, translator and academic R.F. Kuang’s fiction has won and been nominated for numerous awards, including winning the Crawford Award and the Compton Crook Award and being nominated for Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. In addition, she is a Marshall Scholar, holds an MPhil in Chinese Studies from Cambridge and an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies from Oxford, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale.

    Her Poppy War trilogy (consisting of 2018’s The Poppy War, 2019’s The Dragon Republic, and 2020’s The Burning God) has been translated into more than a dozen languages and combines elements of the Sino-Japanese war and Mao Zedong’s rise to power with fantasy and grimdark elements. Kuang’s latest novel Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution, publishes this August. It is a dark academia fantasy set in the 1830s and is the subject of our interview.

    In Babel, Robin is saved from the Asiatic cholera epidemic in Canton and taken to England by the seemingly benevolent Professor Lovell. Once there, he is prepared for a life in academia at Oxford University’s prestigious institute of translation, the Babel of the novel’s title. Here he encounters like-minded friends, rivals, and other intrigues. He is also immersed in the world of translation and magic: enchanted silver bars engraved in different languages, are the source of the empire’s power. Robin becomes disillusioned, realizing that Babel is linked with imperialist forces preparing to use Robin and his friends as pawns in their war against China.

    The below conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

    How did the idea for Babel germinate?

    Like most of my ideas, it germinated slowly over time. It just happened to be at a point in my life when I felt like all the factors had aligned, and it crystallized in my head. I love campus novels, they’re my favorite genre of fiction. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is one of my favorite books. Much of my work concerns students and their relationships with teachers and the academy. The first half of The Poppy War is set at a military academy. They leave that setting pretty quickly, but those were some of the scenes that I enjoyed writing the most.

    It’s partly because I’m in academia, and I’ve spent most of my life in a school setting that it’s the environment that I feel most comfortable writing about. I love thinking about interpersonal connections between young students who don’t understand the world yet but are ready to go out into it. Then there’s the disconnect between people in the ivory tower, the very real issues they’re studying and thinking about, and what that looks like on the ground.

    It just so happened that when I wrapped up the trilogy, I was studying for my master’s at Oxford. Oxford is a magical place. It’s also a place with a rich yet troubling history, only a shred of which the university has acknowledged. So, I started thinking about what it means to be a student of color at a place like Oxford and to experience constantly the contradictions of wanting so badly to fit into this place, where everyone’s wearing these robes, drinking champagne, and having interesting conversations by candlelight in these gorgeous halls framed by portraits of old men – many of whom did terrible things.

    To want that life, on one hand, to understand the history that made it possible, and to want to act on that history, on the other hand, was the contradiction that became the heart of my story. Once I had that locked down, it was pretty easy to put together the magic system, develop a central cast of characters, and pinpoint it all in a particular moment.

    Tell us a bit more about the troubling aspects of Oxford’s history.

    Well, this isn’t just Oxford’s troubling history. It’s just symptomatic of the troubling history of Great Britain and the British Empire. Similarly, it’s not just Oxford that is built on blood, coercion, and slave money. It’s all elite universities in the Western world. Cambridge recently appointed a researcher to look into the role that slavery played in its past. This was as recent as 2019, which is shocking to me. During my time as an undergraduate at Georgetown University, there were a lot of protests. The Jesuit priests who founded and ran Georgetown sold slaves to fund its building and maintenance.

    I used a book called Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder. It’s a history of the relationship between slave owners and the founding of America’s first universities: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and universities in Virginia. It’s not just that slavery funded these colleges, these colleges were built to maintain slave societies. Everything taught in these colleges, extending to how they approached languages, was done in the service of maintaining a slave economy and exerting control over Native Americans. You really can’t disentangle the history of elite universities from the history of settler colonialism and empire.

    You begin Babel with preparatory material about the geography of Oxford and detail what is historically accurate in the story and what you changed. Then there’s this sudden cut to Canton in the first chapter. Were you doing something pointed with that transition?

    When we think about the Victorians, we think of them as parochial, living in their cute little English cottages, and having their afternoon tea. The reality is that colonial England was extremely global, extremely cosmopolitan. You couldn’t get through an afternoon tea without using goods that were coercively extracted from other parts of the world.

    There’s an interesting essay by Edward Said called “Jane Austen and Empire”, where he looks at Austen’s novels and pays special attention to the “exotic” locations that her characters always mention visiting. It’s implied that they’re traveling to the West Indies because they own slave plantations there. That’s a detail in Austen – and other writers of the era – that readers often skim over.

    Babel is a global novel in terms of the languages it touches and the set pieces. The narrative flips back and forth between Canton, London, and Oxford quite a lot. I wanted to expand the scope a little of the 19th-century story to include the colonies in which the characters are acting and to emphasize the fact that the Victorians weren’t just staying in England, innocently living their lives there. They were going all over the world, interacting with other peoples and doing very violent things. Your average Victorian was aware of this; they knew exactly where their spices, teas, and fabrics were coming from.

    Some remarkable passages in Babel detail Robin’s growing awareness of language: he’s learning cockney rhyming slang, and his mind is preoccupied with all these etymologies. But he’s also forgetting Cantonese. His identity is changing, but it’s in the context of language.

    I’m glad you enjoyed those scenes. I’ve always been bilingual. I’m not sure if I learned Chinese or English first. But I was much more fluent in Chinese for the first few years of my life. We moved to the US when I was small, and at that time, I spoke English with quite a heavy Chinese accent. English quickly became my dominant language, and I forgot most of the Chinese I knew.

    Robin’s experiences: being startled by how easy it is to forget a language if you’re not constantly using it, and how easy it is to stop dreaming in a language, are things I’m intimately familiar with. When Robin is sounding out English, learning to read it, learning etymologies, learning funny phrases – those things mirror my experiences. Growing up, I mispronounced so many things because I learned most of my English by reading it. It wasn’t until the sixth grade that I stopped pronouncing the ‘s’ in debris. There are all these other turns of phrases and metaphors and similes that I still mispronounce and mix up because my English is cobbled together from reading a lot.

    Robin gets to know London by learning its language. For him, language and place are tied together. It’s one and the same. I think this process comes from my experience of moving to the UK after college and learning to speak British English for the first time. I was stunned when I realized that when British people ask, “are you alright?” they’re not demonstrating concern. It just means it’s the equivalent of “how are you doing?” You’re not supposed to answer truthfully. It was nice to have this kind of narrative excuse to explain all of my confusion about language.

    I’m sure many people will be curious about Babel’s magic system and basing it on translation and match pairs. Where did that come from?

    I love it when magic systems function well to integrate with the critique of the rest of the novel. I’ve learned so much about translation as a tool of power. The fact that translation is never neutral, but it’s always biased and always ideologically motivated, means that a magic system that takes advantage of the fact that translation can never be perfect, made perfect sense for this novel.

    Since I’m a translator myself – I’m constantly working back and forth, primarily between English and Chinese, and I’m also studying other languages – I’m always noting small distinctions in how certain cognitive tasks are defined and how different grammar structures lead us to think differently. I’m always thinking about what’s lost in translation between one language to another. It seemed very natural to develop a magic system in Babel that manifests what is lost in translation as an actual physical effect on the world.

    It was also a chance for me to show off my etymological nerdiness, and to show off some facts about random words to people who might not know them. But more broadly, translation in Babel functions as a metaphor for simple differences between people, countries, and cultures. Robin and Ramy often have conversations about how everybody is constantly translating themselves to the world; even people who are only operating within English, you’re still trying to express everything that’s going on in the primordial mess of your brain to people around you. Translation is easier for some people because it also depends on who is paying attention to us: who is willing to listen, and if they are willing to listen with an open mind and heart.

    Robin talks about that more open version of translation late in Babel. But much of the paratextual material – like the book’s back cover _ leads with that Latin phrase about translation and betrayal.

    Traduttore, traditore: an act of translation is always an act of betrayal. It’s such a nice pun in romance languages. I agree with the basic sentiment that any translation involves warping the original a little bit and reshaping it for unintended eyes. I don’t think that translation always has to be an act of violence, or it’s something that always functions to bring people apart. Translation has brought us closer together and made things possible. I mean, just consider the movement of stories between language to language and country to country. Translation can be beautiful if you’re paying attention and making sure you’re deliberate and compassionate about the contexts in which you’re translating.

    One thing that comes across in all your work is a strong sense of character growth and development. Where Rin, the protagonist of The Poppy War books, and Robin begin, is completely different from where they end up. Are the two characters similar?

    I think they’re quite different. This is intentional. After I finished The Poppy War trilogy, I was very careful about what type of project I chose to do next, because whatever it was, it would be the next stage of my career. I didn’t want to do anything that resembled The Poppy War too much, because people would always compare them. If you’re not careful, you’ll find echoes of old characters recurring on the page, and possibly the same structural elements too.

    I wanted to change things up, not just in the setting and theme but in the main character. Rin and Robin are opposites in many ways: Rin is impulsive, rash, and angry, and she just explodes on the page. Every interaction with her was so entertaining to write about. Robin, in comparison, is very introspective. He’s gone through almost as much as Rin, but he rarely verbalizes it. He isn’t anywhere close to this degree of self-understanding or self-expression until everything bubbles up and then explodes in a crucial scene onto the page. I had to do a lot of psychoanalytical research to nail the progression of Robin’s interior journey. In the first few drafts that my editors saw, they couldn’t quite understand where Robin was coming from, because he has a very self-contradictory character.

    What psychoanalytic research did you do?

    One example is the book Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans by David L. Eng and Shinhee Han. It’s inspired by Freud and Lacan but studies certain common mental health problems among Asian American subjects. Robin isn’t Asian American, but he experiences themes of displacement and identity and not knowing what you are and where you belong. Reading some of those case studies and understanding the language with which those authors were describing their subjects helped in describing what Robin was going through. The dominant thing is that Robin has a very split subjectivity, which is why he’s constantly back and forth. When people read Babel, they’ll see that this all comes to a head in a critical chapter.

    Another part of Babel that seemed to have psychoanalytic, perhaps even Oedipal overtones, is the relationship between Robin and his mentor Professor Lovell. The Professor saves Robin from a cholera epidemic, takes him to the UK, and arranges for Robin to study at Oxford’s Babel Institute. But this intense, paternalistic relationship also has a sinister side.

    Oedipal isn’t the right word for it. I think the relationship reflects a story structure much older than Oedipus, which is just the father-son story. There’s also a very easy reading of this relationship as a metaphor for the broader paternalistic relationship between the colonial center and the colonies. It was fun to think about this deep, complicated relationship between two men for the first time because The Poppy War trilogy was from the perspective of a female main character, who also has issues with authority and father figures.

    Fighting against colonialism in Babel is The Hermes Society, which is kind of like a shadow to the official university, and which, in one memorable phrase, “live on the margins of bureaucracy.” What was the inspiration for this secret society?

    I just love secret societies! I’ve always wanted to write about them – not just secret societies, but student groups. I’m in that generation that is deeply affected by the release of the Les Miserables (Tom Hooper, 2012) film adaptation. I wanted to do something like that: a tight-knit group of student revolutionaries trying their best to fight against empire. The Hermes society mustn’t be especially good at what it does. Its members are decentralized and unorganized. They come through a lot of the time, but this isn’t a trained army or a proper bureaucracy at the end of the day. It’s a hodgepodge of students and ex-students who have come together and are trying to find any angle they can to chip away at the massive institution that is Empire and the academic institution. They’re young, they’re inexperienced, and they’re just doing their best – but they’re in no way a trained elite.

    Babel is peppered with footnotes, some that deal with etymology, some that give background information on the fictional characters, and others that give further details on real historical events. Were these partly inspired by the story’s academic setting?

    Certainly, a large part of it is that it’s an academic way to inject more facts for the reader. But I also appreciate the narrative freedom that footnotes give you because it lets you add another point of view: a character removed from the immediate events of the plot, situated differently in time. The voice of the footnotes has the advantage of hindsight and can contextualize historical events to the reader and make comments on colonialism, racism, and slavery in a way that the characters in the text proper aren’t even aware of. There’s a voice functioning on two levels, which I found a really interesting and fun technical challenge.

    What are you working on now?

    I have two projects in the works. The first is a literary fiction novel called Yellowface that’s coming out in the summer of 2023. It deals with a white author who steals an unpublished manuscript from an Asian American novelist. The next project, which has not yet been announced, is a fantasy novel. The only thing I can say about it so far is that it’s Dante meets Lewis Carroll, and it’s been really fun to work on. I will go back to drafting it after this conversation is wrapped up.

  7. shinichi Post author

    Language arent’ just made of words. They’re mode of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.

  8. shinichi Post author

    Chapter One

    Que siempre la lengua fue compañera del imperio; y de tal manera lo siguió, que junta mente començaron, crecieron y florecieron, y después junta fue la caida de entrambos.
    Language was always the companion of empire, and as such, together they begin, grow, and flourish. And later, together, they fall.
    ANTONIO DE NEBRIJA, Gramática de la lengua castellana

    By the time Professor Richard Lovell found his way through Canton’s narrow alleys to the faded address in his diary, the boy was the only one in the house left alive.

    The air was rank, the floors slippery. A jug of water sat full, untouched by the bed. At first the boy had been too scared of retching to drink; now he was too weak to lift the jug. He was still conscious, though he’d sunk into a drowsy, half-dreaming haze. Soon, he knew, he’d fall into a deep sleep and fail to wake up. That was what had happened to his grandparents a week ago, then his aunts a day after, and then Miss Betty, the Englishwoman, a day after that.

    His mother had perished that morning. He lay beside her body, watching as the blues and purples deepened across her skin. The last thing she’d said to him was his name, two syllables mouthed without breath. Her face had then gone slack and uneven. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth. The boy tried to close her filmy eyes, but her lids kept sliding back open.

    No one answered when Professor Lovell knocked. No one exclaimed in surprise when he kicked through the front door – locked, because plague thieves were stripping the houses in the neighbourhood bare, and though there was little of value in their home, the boy and his mother had wanted a few hours of peace before the sickness took them too. The boy heard all the commotion from upstairs, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

    By then he only wanted to die.

    Professor Lovell made his way up the stairs, crossed the room, and stood over the boy for a long moment. He did not notice, or chose not to notice, the dead woman on the bed. The boy lay still in his shadow, wondering if this tall, pale figure in black had come to reap his soul.

    ‘How do you feel?’ Professor Lovell asked.

    The boy’s breathing was too laboured to answer.

    Professor Lovell knelt beside the bed. He drew a slim silver bar out of his front pocket and placed it over the boy’s bare chest. The boy flinched; the metal stung like ice.

    ‘Triacle,’ Professor Lovell said first in French. Then, in English, ‘Treacle.’

    The bar glowed a pale white. There came an eerie sound from nowhere; a ringing, a singing. The boy whined and curled onto his side, his tongue prodding confusedly around his mouth.

    ‘Bear with it,’ murmured Professor Lovell. ‘Swallow what you taste.’

    Seconds trickled by. The boy’s breathing steadied. He opened his eyes. He saw Professor Lovell more clearly now, could make out the slate-grey eyes and curved nose – yinggoubí, they called it, a hawk’s-beak nose – that could only belong on a foreigner’s face.

    ‘How do you feel now?’ asked Professor Lovell.

    The boy took another deep breath. Then he said, in surprisingly good English, ‘It’s sweet. It tastes so sweet…’

    ‘Good. That means it worked.’ Professor Lovell slipped the bar back into his pocket. ‘Is there anyone else alive here?’

    ‘No,’ whispered the boy. ‘Just me.’

    ‘Is there anything you can’t leave behind?’

    The boy was silent for a moment. A fly landed on his mother’s cheek and crawled across her nose. He wanted to brush it off, but he didn’t have the strength to lift his hand.

    ‘I can’t take a body,’ said Professor Lovell. ‘Not where we’re going.’

    The boy stared at his mother for a long moment.

    ‘My books,’ he said at last. ‘Under the bed.’

    Professor Lovell bent beneath the bed and pulled out four thick volumes. Books written in English, spines battered from use, some pages worn so thin that the print was barely still legible. The professor flipped through them, smiling despite himself, and placed them in his bag. Then he slid his arms under the boy’s thin frame and lifted him out of the house.

    In 1829, the plague that later became known as Asiatic Cholera made its way from Calcutta across the Bay of Bengal to the Far East – first to Siam, then Manila, then finally the shores of China on merchant ships whose dehydrated, sunken-eyed sailors dumped their waste into the Pearl River, contaminating the waters where thousands drank, laundered, swam, and bathed. It hit Canton like a tidal wave, rapidly working its way from the docks to the inland residential areas. The boy’s neighbourhood had succumbed within weeks, whole families perishing helplessly in their homes. When Professor Lovell carried the boy out of Canton’s alleys, everyone else on his street was already dead.

  9. shinichi Post author

    Chapter Thirty-Three

    The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better God only knows.

    PLATO, Apology, trans. Benjamin Jowett

    ‘The whole tower?’ asked Professor Craft.

    She was the first to speak. The rest of them stared at Robin and Victoire in varying states of disbelief, and even Professor Craft seemed like she was still wrapping her mind around the idea as she spoke its implications out loud. ‘That’s decades – centuries – of research, that’s everything, buried – lost – oh, but who knows how many…’ She trailed off.

    ‘And the ramifications for England will be much worse,’ said Robin. ‘This country runs on silver. Silver pumps through its blood; England can’t live without it.’

    ‘They’d build it all back—’

    ‘Eventually, yes,’ said Robin. ‘But not before the rest of the world has time to muster a defence.’

    ‘And China?’

    ‘They won’t go to war. They won’t be able to. Silver powers the gunships, you see. Silver feeds the Navy. For months after this, perhaps years, they’ll no longer be the strongest nation in the world. And what happens next is anyone’s guess.’

    The future would be fluid. It was just as Griffin had predicted. One individual choice, made at just the right time. This was how they defied momentum. This was how they altered the tracks of history.

    And in the end, the answer had been so obvious – to simply refuse to participate. To remove their labour – and the fruits of their labour – permanently from the offering.

    ‘That can’t be it,’ said Juliana. Her voice trailed up at the end; it was a question, not a declaration. ‘There’s got to be – there must be some other way—’

    ‘They’re storming us at dawn,’ said Robin. ‘They’ll shoot a few of us to make an example, and then hold the rest of us at gunpoint until we start repairing the damage. They’ll put us in chains, and they’ll put us to work.’

    ‘But the barricades—’

    ‘The barricades will fall,’ whispered Victoire. ‘They’re just walls, Juliana. Walls can be destroyed.’

    Silence first; then resignation, then acceptance. They already lived in the impossible; what more was the fall of the most eternal thing they’d ever known?

    ‘Then I suppose we’ll have to get out fast,’ said Ibrahim. ‘Right after the chain reaction starts.’

    But you can’t get out fast, Robin almost said before he stopped himself. The rejoinder was obvious. They couldn’t get out fast, because they couldn’t get out at all. A single incantation would not do. If they were not thorough, the tower might collapse partway, but its remains would be salvageable, easily repurposed. The only things they would have inflicted would be expense and frustration. They would have suffered for nothing.

    No; for this plan to work – to strike a blow against empire from which it could not recover – they had to stay, and say the words again and again, and activate as many nodes of destruction as they could.

    But how did he tell a room full of people that they needed to die?

    ‘I…’ he started, but the words stuck in his throat.

    He didn’t have to explain. They’d all figured it out; they were all reaching the same conclusion, one after the other, and the change in their eyes was heartbreaking.

    ‘I’m going through with it,’ he said. ‘I’m not asking all of you to come with me – Abel can get you out if you won’t – but all I mean is… I just – I can’t do it by myself.’

    Victoire looked away, arms crossed.

    ‘We won’t need everyone,’ he continued, desperate to fill the silence with words because, perhaps the more he spoke it, the less awful it sounded. ‘I suppose a diversity of languages would be good, to amplify the effect – and of course, we’ll want people standing in all corners of the tower, because…’ His throat pulsed. ‘But we don’t need everyone.’

    ‘I’ll stay,’ said Professor Craft.

    ‘I… thank you, Professor.’

    She gave him a wobbly smile. ‘I suppose I wasn’t going to get tenure on the other side of this anyhow.’

    He saw them all making the same calculation then: the finality of death against the persecution, prison, and possible execution they would face on the outside. Surviving Babel did not necessarily mean survival. And he could see them asking themselves if they could come to terms, now, with their own deaths; if that would, in the end, be easier.

    ‘You’re not afraid,’ Meghana told him, asked him.

    ‘No,’ said Robin. But that was all he could say. He didn’t understand his heart himself. He felt resolved, but perhaps that was only the adrenaline; perhaps his fear and hesitation were only pushed temporarily behind a flimsy wall, which would shatter upon closer examination. ‘No, I’m not, I… just – I’m ready. But we won’t need everyone.’

    ‘Possibly the younger students…’ Professor Craft cleared her throat. ‘The ones who don’t know any silver-working, I mean. There’s no reason—’

    ‘I want to stay.’ Ibrahim cast Juliana an anxious glance. ‘I don’t… I don’t want to run.’

    Juliana, pale as paper, said nothing.

    ‘There is a way out?’ Yusuf asked Robin.

    ‘There is. Abel’s men can ferry you out of the city, they’ve promised; they’re waiting for us. But you’ll have to go as soon as you can. And then you’ll have to run. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to stop running.’

    ‘There are no terms of amnesty?’ Meghana asked.

    ‘There are if you work for them,’ said Robin. ‘If you help them restore things back to how they were. Letty made that offer, she wanted you to know. But you’ll always be under their thumb. They’ll never let you go. She intimated as much – they’ll own you, and they’ll make you feel grateful for it.’

    At this, Juliana reached out and took Ibrahim’s hand. He squeezed her fingers. Both their knuckles turned white, and the sight of this was so intimate that Robin blinked and glanced away.

    ‘But we can still run,’ said Yusuf.

    ‘You can still run,’ said Robin. ‘You wouldn’t be safe anywhere in this country—’

    ‘But we could go home.’

    Victoire’s voice was so soft that they could barely hear her. ‘We can go home.’

    Yusuf nodded, considered this a moment, and then moved to stand beside her.

    And it was that simple, the determination of who fled and who died. Robin, Professor Craft, Meghana, Ibrahim, and Juliana on one side. Yusuf and Victoire on the other. No one pleaded or begged, and no one changed their minds.

    ‘So.’ Ibrahim looked very small. ‘When—’

    ‘Dawn,’ said Robin. ‘They’re coming at dawn.’

    ‘Then we’d better stack the bars,’ said Professor Craft. ‘And we’d better place them properly, if we only get one go.’

    ‘What’s the word?’ Abel Goodfellow demanded. ‘They’re inching right up to us.’

    ‘Send your men home,’ Robin said.


    ‘As quick as you can. Get out of the barricades and go on the run. There’s not much time. The Guards – they don’t care about casualties anymore.’

    Abel registered this, then nodded. ‘Who’s coming with us?’

    ‘Just two. Yusuf. Victoire. They’re saying their goodbyes, they’ll be ready soon.’ Robin pulled a wrapped parcel from inside his jacket. ‘There’s also this.’

    Abel must have read something in his face, heard something in his voice, because his eyes narrowed. ‘And what are the rest of you up to in there?’

    ‘I shouldn’t tell you.’

    Abel raised the parcel. ‘Is this a suicide note?’

    ‘It’s a written record,’ said Robin. ‘Of everything that’s happened in this tower. What we stood for. There’s a second copy, but in case it gets lost – I know you’ll find some way to get this out there. Print it all over England. Tell them what we did. Make them remember us.’ Abel looked like he wanted to argue, but Robin shook his head. ‘Please, my mind’s made up, and there’s not much time. I can’t explain this, and I think it’s best if you don’t ask.’

    Abel watched him for a moment, then seemed to think better of what it was he was about to say. ‘You’ll end this?’

    ‘We’re going to try.’ Robin’s chest felt very tight. He was so exhausted; he wanted to curl up on the ground and go to sleep. He wanted this to be over. ‘But I can’t tell you more tonight. I just need you to go.’

    Abel thrust out his arm. ‘Then this, I suppose, is goodbye.’

    ‘Goodbye.’ Robin grasped his palm and shook it. ‘Oh – and the blankets, I forgot—’

    ‘Think nothing of it.’ Abel wrapped his other hand over Robin’s. His grip was so warm, solid. Robin felt a catch in his throat; he was grateful that Abel was making this easy, that he hadn’t forced him to justify himself. He had to go swiftly, resolute to the very end.

    ‘Good luck, Robin Swift.’ Abel squeezed his hand. ‘God be with you.’

    They spent the hours before dawn arranging hundreds of silver bars into pyramids at vulnerable points around the tower – around the base supports, beneath the windows, along the walls and bookshelves, and in veritable pyramids around the Grammaticas. They could not predict the scope, the scale, of the destruction, but they would prepare for it as well as they could, would make it near impossible to salvage any material from the remains.

    Victoire and Yusuf left an hour after midnight. Their farewells were brief, constrained. It was an impossible parting; there was too much and yet nothing to say, and there was a sense that everyone was holding back for fear of opening the floodgates. If they said too little, they would regret it forever. If they said too much, they’d never bring themselves to part.

    ‘Safe travels,’ Robin whispered, embracing Victoire.

    She choked out a laugh. ‘Yes. Thank you.’

    They clung to each other for a long time, long enough that at last, once everyone had left to give them privacy, they were the only two standing in the lobby. Finally she stepped back, glanced round, eyes darting back and forth as if she was unsure whether to speak.

    ‘You don’t think this will work,’ said Robin.

    ‘I didn’t say that.’

    ‘You’re thinking it.’

    ‘I’m just terrified that we’ll make this grand statement.’ She lifted her hands, let them fall. ‘And they’ll see it only as a temporary setback, something to recover from. That they’ll never understand what we meant.’

    ‘For what it’s worth, I don’t think they were ever going to listen.’

    ‘No, I don’t think they were.’ She was crying again. ‘Oh, Robin, I don’t know what to—’

    ‘Just go,’ he said. ‘And write to Ramy’s parents, will you? I just – they ought to know.’

    She nodded, gave him one last, tight squeeze, and then darted out the door to the green where Yusuf and Abel’s men were waiting. One last wave – Victoire’s stricken expression under the moonlight – and then they were gone.

    Then there was nothing to do but wait for the end.

    How did one make peace with one’s own death? According to the accounts of the Crito, the Phaedo, and the Apology, Socrates went to his death without distress, with such preternatural calm that he refused multiple entreaties to escape. In fact, he’d been so cheerfully blasé, so convinced that dying was the just thing to do, that he beat his friends over their heads with his reasoning, in that insufferably righteous way of his, even as they burst into tears. Robin had been so struck, upon his first foray into the Greek texts, by Socrates’s utter indifference to his end.

    And surely it was better, easier to die with such good cheer; no doubts, no fears, one’s heart at rest. He could, in theory, believe it. Often, he had thought of death as a reprieve. He had not stopped dreaming of it since the day Letty shot Ramy. He entertained himself with ideas of heaven as paradise, of green hills and brilliant skies where he and Ramy could sit and talk and watch an eternal sunset. But such fantasies did not comfort him so much as the idea that all death meant was nothingness, that everything would just stop: the pain, the anguish, the awful, suffocating grief. If nothing else, surely, death meant peace.

    Still, facing the moment, he was terrified.

    They wound up sitting on the floor in the lobby, taking comfort in the silence of the group, listening to each other breathe. Professor Craft tried, haltingly, to comfort them, surveying her memory for ancient words on this most human of dilemmas. She spoke to them of Seneca’s Troades, of Lucan’s Vulteius, of the martyrdom of Cato and Socrates. She quoted to them Cicero, Horace, and Pliny the Elder. Death is nature’s greatest good. Death is a better state. Death frees the immortal soul. Death is transcendence. Death is an act of bravery, a glorious act of defiance.

    Seneca the Younger, describing Cato: una manu latam libertati viam faciet.*

    Virgil, describing Dido: Sic, sic iuvat ire sub umbras.*

    None of it really sank in; none of it moved them, for theorizing about death never could. Words and thoughts always ran up against the immovable limit of the imminent, permanent ending. Still, her voice, steady and unflinching, was a comfort; they let it wash over their ears, lulling them in these final hours.

    Juliana glanced out of the window. ‘They’re moving across the green.’

    ‘It’s not dawn,’ said Robin.

    ‘They’re moving,’ she said simply.

    ‘Well then,’ said Professor Craft, ‘We’d better get on with it.’

    They stood.

    They would not face their ends together. Each man and woman to their station – to the pyramids of silver distributed on different floors and different wings across the building, positioned thus to reduce the chances that any part of the tower might remain intact. When the walls tumbled down upon them, they would be alone, and this was why, as the moment drew near, it felt so impossible to part.

    Tears streamed down Ibrahim’s face.

    ‘I don’t want to die,’ he whispered. ‘There must be some other – I don’t want to die.’

    They all felt the same, a desperate hope for some chance of escape. In these last moments, the seconds weren’t enough. In theory this decision they’d made was something beautiful. In theory they would be martyrs, heroes, the ones who’d pushed history off its path. But none of that was a comfort. In the moment, all that mattered was that death was painful and frightening and permanent, and none of them wanted to die.

    But even as they trembled, not one of them broke. It was only a wish, after all. And the Army was on its way.

    ‘Let’s not tarry,’ said Professor Craft, and they ascended the stairs to their respective floors.

    Robin remained in the centre of the lobby beneath the broken chandelier, surrounded by eight pyramids of silver bars as tall as he stood. He took a deep breath, watching the second hand tick across the clock above the door.

    Oxford’s bell towers had long gone mute. As the minute drew near, the only indication of the time was the synchronized ticking of the grandfather clocks, all positioned in the same place on every floor. They’d chosen six o’clock on the dot; an arbitrary time, but they needed a final moment, an immovable fact on which to fix their will.

    One minute to six.

    He loosed a shaky breath. His thoughts flew about, casting desperately for anything to think about that was not this. He landed not on coherent memories but on hyperspecific details – the salty weight of the air at sea, the length of Victoire’s eyelashes, the hitch in Ramy’s voice just before he burst out into full-bellied laughter. He clung to them, lingered there as long as he could, refused to let his mind go anywhere else.

    Twenty seconds.

    The warm grittiness of a scone at Vaults. Mrs Piper’s sweet, floury hugs. Buttery lemon biscuits melting into nectar on his tongue.


    The bitter taste of ale, and the biting sting of Griffin’s laughter. The sour stink of opium. Dinner at the Old Library; fragrant curry and the burnt bottoms of oversalted potatoes. Laughter, loud and desperate and hysterical.


    Ramy, smiling. Ramy, reaching.

    Robin placed his hand on the nearest pyramid, closed his eyes, and breathed, ‘Fanyì. Translate.’

    The sharp ring echoed through the room, a siren’s screech, reverberating through his bones. A death rattle, resounding all the way up and down the tower, for everyone had carried out their duty; no one had balked.

    Robin exhaled, trembling. No space for hesitation. No time for fear. He moved his hand to the bars in the next pile and whispered again. ‘Fanyì. Translate.’ Again. ‘Fanyì. Translate.’ And again. ‘Fanyì. Translate.’

    He felt a shifting beneath his feet. He saw the walls trembling. Books tumbled off the shelves. Above him, something groaned.

    He thought he’d be scared.

    He thought he’d be fixated on the pain; on how it might feel when eight thousand tons of rubble collapsed on him at once; on whether death might be instant, or whether it might come in horribly small increments when his hands and limbs were crushed, when his lungs struggled to expand in an ever-tinier space.

    But what struck him most just then was the beauty. The bars were singing, shaking; trying, he thought, to express some unutterable truth about themselves, which was that translation was impossible, that the realm of pure meaning they captured and manifested would and could not ever be known, that the enterprise of this tower had been impossible from inception.

    For how could there ever be an Adamic language? The thought now made him laugh. There was no innate, perfectly comprehensible language; there was no candidate, not English, not French, that could bully and absorb enough to become one. Language was just difference. A thousand different ways of seeing, of moving through the world. No; a thousand worlds within one. And translation – a necessary endeavour, however futile, to move between them.

    He went back to his first morning in Oxford: climbing a sunny hill with Ramy, picnic basket in hand. Elderflower cordial. Warm brioche, sharp cheese, 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.
    ‘It’s so odd,’ Robin said. Back then they’d already passed the point of honesty; they spoke to one another unfiltered, unafraid of the consequences. ‘It’s like I’ve known you forever.’
    ‘Me too,’ Ramy said.
    ‘And that makes no sense,’ said Robin, drunk already, though there was no alcohol in the cordial. ‘Because I’ve known you for less than a day, and yet…’
    ‘I think,’ said Ramy, ‘it’s because when I speak, you listen.’
    ‘Because you’re fascinating.’
    ‘Because you’re a good translator.’ Ramy leaned back on his elbows. ‘That’s just what translation is, I think. That’s all speaking is. Listening to the other and trying to see past your own biases to glimpse what they’re trying to say. Showing yourself to the world, and hoping someone else understands.’
    The ceiling was starting to crumble; first streams of pebbles, then whole chunks of marble, exposing planks, breaking beams. The shelves collapsed. Sunlight streaked the room where before there had been no windows. Robin looked up and saw Babel, falling in and upon him, and beyond that, the sky before dawn.
    He shut his eyes.
    But he’d waited for death to come before. He remembered this now – he knew death. Not so abruptly, no, not so violently. But the memory of waiting to fade was still locked in his bones; memories of a stale, hot room, of paralysis, of dreaming about the end. He remembered the stillness. The peace. As the windows smashed in, Robin shut his eyes and imagined his mother’s face.
    She smiles. She says his name.

  10. shinichi Post author



    Victoire Desgraves has always been good at surviving.

    The key, she has learned, is refusing to look back. Even as she races north on horseback through the Cotswolds, head bent against the whipping branches, some part of her wants to be in the tower, with her friends, feeling the walls come down around them. If they must die, she wants them to be buried together.

    But survival demands severing the cord. Survival demands she look only to the future. Who knows what will happen now? What happened in Oxford today is unthinkable, its ramifications unimaginable. There is no historical precedent for this. The juncture is shot. History, for once, is fluid.

    But Victoire is familiar with the unthinkable. The liberation of her motherland was unthinkable even as it happened, for no one in France or England, not even the most radical proponents of universal freedom, believed that slaves – creatures they never thought fell under their categories of rational, rights-holding, enlightened men – would demand their own liberation. Two months after news broke of the August 1791 uprising, Jean Pierre Brissot, himself a founding member of the Amis des Noirs, announced to the French Assembly that this news must be false, for as anyone knew, slaves were simply incapable of such rapid, coordinated, defiant action. A year into the revolution, many still believed that soon the unrest would be quelled, that things would go back to normal, for normal meant white dominance over Blacks.

    They were, of course, wrong.

    But who, in living history, ever understands their part in the tapestry? For the better part of her life, Victoire was not even aware she hailed from the world’s first Black republic.

    Here is all she knew, before Hermes:

    She was born in Haiti, Ayiti, in 1820, the same year that King Henry Christophe, fearing a coup, took his own life. His wife and daughters fled to the home of an English benefactor in Suffolk. Victoire’s mother, a maid of the exiled queen, went with them. She referred to this always as their great flight and, once she set foot in Paris, refused ever to think again of Haiti as home.

    Victoire’s understanding of Haitian history is of curses in the night; of a magnificent palace named Sans Souci, home to the first Black king in the New World; of men with guns; of vague political disagreements she does not understand that, somehow, uprooted her life and sent her across the Atlantic. As a child she knew her motherland as a place of violence and barbaric power struggles, for that is how they spoke of it in France, and that was what her exiled mother chose to believe.

    ‘We are lucky,’ whispered her mother, ‘that we survived it.’

    But her mother did not survive France. Victoire never learned how her mother, a free-born woman, was sent from Suffolk to work in the household of a retired Parisian academic, Professor Emile Desjardins. She does not know what promises her mother’s friends made her, whether or not money changed hands. She knows only that in Paris, at the Desjardins estate, they were not allowed to leave – for here, forms of slavery still existed, as they did all over the world; a twilight condition, the rules unwritten but implied. And when her mother fell ill, the Desjardinses did not send for a doctor. They merely closed the door to her sickroom and waited outside until a maid went in, felt for her breath and pulse, and announced she had expired.

    Then they locked Victoire in a cupboard and did not let her out, for fear the illness would catch. But the contagion took the rest of the household regardless, and once again the doctors were powerless to do anything but watch it run its course.

    Victoire survived. Professor Desjardins’s wife survived. His daughters survived. The professor himself died, and with him, Victoire’s only connection to the people who purported to love her mother, and had yet somehow sold her away.

    The house fell into disrepair. Madame Desjardins, a tight-faced blonde woman, kept bad accounts and spent prodigiously. Money was tight. They fired the maid – why keep one, they argued, when they had Victoire? Overnight Victoire became responsible for dozens of tasks: keeping the fire, polishing the silver, dusting the rooms, serving the tea. But these were not tasks she’d been trained to fulfil. She’d been raised to read and compose and interpret, not manage a household, and for this they scolded and beat her.

    She found no comfort from Madame Desjardins’s two little daughters, who took great delight in announcing to houseguests that Victoire was an orphan they’d rescued from Africa. ‘From Zanzibar,’ they would sing in unison. ‘Zaaanzibar!’

    But it was not so bad.

    It was not so bad, they told her, compared with her native Haiti, which was overrun with crime, which was being driven to poverty and anarchy by an incompetent and illegitimate regime. You are lucky, they said, to be here with us, where things are safe, and civilized.

    This she believed. She had no way of knowing anything else.

    She might have run away, but Professor and Madame Desjardins had kept her so sheltered, so isolated from the world outside that she had no idea she had the legal right to be free. Victoire had grown up in the great contradiction of France, whose citizens in 1789 had issued a declaration of the rights of man but had not abolished slavery, and had preserved the right to property including chattel.

    Liberation was a string of coincidences, of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and luck. Victoire went through Professor Desjardins’s letters, looking for a deed, some proof that he did own her and her mother. She never found it. But she did learn about a place named the Royal Institute of Translation, a place he’d trained at in his youth, a place he’d written to about her, in fact. He’d told them about the brilliant little girl in his household, about her prodigious memory and talent for Greek and Latin. He’d intended to show her around Europe on tour. Perhaps they might be interested in an interview?

    And so she created the conditions of her own freedom. When Professor Desjardins’s friends at Oxford finally wrote back, expressing that they would be very happy to have the talented Miss Desgraves at the Institute, and that they would pay the way, it felt like such an escape.

    But the true liberation of Victoire Desgraves did not happen until she met Anthony Ribben. It was not until her induction to the Hermes Society that she learned to call herself Haitian at all. She learned to take pride in her Kreyòl, patchy, half-remembered, barely distinguishable from her French. (Madame Desjardins used to slap her whenever she spoke in Kreyòl. ‘Shut up,’ she would say, ‘I told you, you must speak French, the Frenchman’s French.’) She also learned that to much of the rest of the world, the Haitian Revolution was not a failed experiment but a beacon of hope.

    She learned revolution is, in fact, always unimaginable. It shatters the world you know. The future is unwritten, brimming with potential. The colonizers have no idea what is coming, and that makes them panic. It terrifies them.

    Good. It should.

    She’s not sure where she’s headed now. She has some envelopes in her coat pocket: parting words of advice from Anthony and the code names of several contacts. Friends in Mauritius, in the Seychelles, and in Paris. Perhaps one day she’ll head back to France, but she’s not quite ready yet. She knows there’s a base in Ireland, though at the moment she’d quite like just to be off the continent. Perhaps one day she’ll go home and see, with her own eyes, the historical impossibility of free Haiti. Right now she’s boarding a ship to America, where people like her are still not free, because it was the first vessel that she could book passage on, and because she needed to get out of England as quickly as she could.

    She has the letter from Griffin that Robin never opened. Meanwhile she’s read it so many times she’s memorized it. She knows three names – Martlet, Oriel, and Rook. She can see in her mind’s eye the final sentence, scrawled before the signatures like an afterthought: We’re not the only ones.

    She doesn’t know who these three are. She doesn’t know what this sentence means. She’ll find out, one day, and the truth will dazzle and horrify her. But for now they are only lovely syllables that signify all sorts of possibilities, and possibilities – hope – are the only things she can cling to now.

    She has silver lining her pockets, silver in the inseams of her dress, so much silver on her person that she feels stiff and heavy when she moves. Her eyes are swollen from tears, her throat sore with stifled sobs. She has the faces of her dead friends engraved in her memory. She keeps imagining their last moments: their terror, their pain as the walls came crumbling down around them.

    She does not, will not let herself think of her friends as they were, alive and happy. Not Ramy, torn down in his prime; not Robin, who brought down a tower upon himself because he couldn’t think of a way to keep on living. Not even Letty, who remains alive; who, if she knows Victoire lives too, will hunt her to the ends of the earth.

    Letty, she knows, cannot allow her to roam free. Even the idea of Victoire is a threat. It threatens the core of her very being. It is proof that she is, and always was, wrong.

    She won’t let herself grieve that friendship, as true and terrible and abusive as it was. There will come a time for grief. There will come many nights on the voyage when the sadness is so great it threatens to tear her apart; when she regrets her decision to live; when she curses Robin for placing this burden on her, because he was right: he was not being brave, he was not choosing sacrifice. Death is seductive. Victoire resists.

    She cannot weep now. She must keep moving. She must run, as fast as she can, without knowing what is on the other side.

    She has no illusions about what she will encounter. She knows she will face immeasurable cruelty. She knows her greatest obstacle will be cold indifference, born of a bone-deep investment in an economic system that privileges some and crushes others.

    But she might find allies. She might find a way forward.

    Anthony called victory an inevitability. Anthony believed the material contradictions of England would tear it apart, that their movement would succeed because the revels of the Empire were simply unsustainable. This, he argued, was why they had a chance.

    Victoire knows better.

    Victory is not assured. Victory may be in the portents, but it must be urged there by violence, by suffering, by martyrs, by blood. Victory is wrought by ingenuity, persistence, and sacrifice. Victory is a game of inches, of historical contingencies where everything goes right because they have made it go right.

    She cannot know what shape that struggle will take. There are so many battles to be fought, so many fights on so many fronts – in India, in China, in the Americas – all linked together by the same drive to exploit that which is not white and English. She knows only that she will be in it at every unpredictable turn, will fight until her dying breath.

    ‘Mande mwen yon ti kou ankò ma di ou,’ she’d told Anthony once, when he’d first asked her what she thought of Hermes, if she thought they might succeed.

    He’d tried his best to parse Kreyòl with what he knew of French, then he’d given up. ‘What’s that mean?’

    ‘I don’t know,’ said Victoire. ‘At least, we say it when we don’t know the answer, or don’t care to share the answer.’

    ‘And what’s it literally mean?’

    She’d winked at him. ‘Ask me a little later, and I’ll tell you.’


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