Right towards the end of Babel, when it felt like all hope was lost, is a memory.
It’s a memory of one perfect day; the kind where you could feel the passing of time so acutely because of how much you want it to stop. It was the day before Robin, our main character, started his first term in Oxford, before the blinds of wilful ignorance were lifted, when he could see all the possibilities laid out before him, endless and infinite.
In his darkest hour of grief and despair, he thought of that day not because he mourned the loss of an imagined future that was probably never his to begin with. No, for Robin what stood out the most was those few precious minutes, almost towards the end, when the sun was just about to set over the city of dreaming spires, when he dared to show himself to someone and felt heard and understood.
I think it’s one of life’s rare and underrated pleasures: to be able to trust that what is given is also what is received, to be so effortlessly understood that you almost don’t need the words.
A laugh is one of the of the most intimate things you can share with another person. There’s so much history and shared understanding inside an inside joke: you have to truly know another person in order to feel confident that they’ll take what you say and interpret it the right way, that they’ll find something hilarious instead of offensive or lame, or that even if its lame, the strength of your bond is such that they’ll laugh anyway (they’ll laugh at you instead of the joke, but whatever).
This is the beating heart of Babel. It’s not the politics or the necessity of violence or R.F. Kuang’s keen understanding of the human capacity for inflicting hurt and pain on a very large scale, in the name of greed and power.
The beating heart of Babel is R.F. Kuang’s understanding of the human need for connection.
Language is the primary tool used to underscore this point. Translation is the thread that weaves this story together. But beyond the ability to interpret words or phrases into another tongue, translation here is used as a metaphor for the ability to reach that place where words have meaning.
And translation without understanding is really just an approximation of meaning.