Formed into kindred spirits

Excerpt from Babel by R.F. Kuang

Photo by Liv Cashman on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Babel by R.F. Kuang.

Robin’s lodgings were in Number 4, Magpie Lane – a green-painted building halfway down the crooked, narrow alley that connected High Street and Merton Street. Someone else was already standing at the front door, fiddling with the lock. He had to be a new student – satchels and trunks were scattered on the cobblestones around him.

He was, Robin saw as he drew closer, very clearly not native to England. South Asia was more likely. Robin had seen sailors with the same colouring in Canton, all from ships arriving from India. The stranger had smooth dusky skin, a tall and graceful build, and the longest, darkest eyelashes that Robin had ever seen. His eyes flickered up and down Robin’s frame before settling on his face, questioning – determining, Robin Suspected, just how foreign Robin was in return.

‘I’m Robin,’ Robin burst out. ‘Robin Swift.’

‘Ramiz Rafi Mirza,’ the other boy pronounced proudly, extending his hand. He spoke with such proper English diction he sounded nearly like Professor Lovell. ‘Or just Ramy, if you like. And you – you’re here for the Translation Institute, aren’t you?’

‘I am,’ said Robin, then added, on a hunch, ‘I’m from Canton.’

Ramy’s face relaxed. ‘Calcutta.’

‘Did you just get in?’

‘To Oxford, yes. To England, no – I came in through Liverpool on a ship four years ago and I’ve been holed up in a big, boring estate in Yorkshire until now. My guardian wanted me to acclimatize to English society before I matriculated.’

‘Mine too,’ Robin said eagerly. ‘What did you think?’

‘Awful weather.’ One side of Ramy’s mouth quirked up. ‘And the only thing I can eat here is fish.’

They beamed at each other.

Robin felt a strange, bursting feeling in his chest then. He’d never met someone else in his situation, or anything like it, and he strongly suspected that should he keep probing, he would uncover a dozen more similarities. He had a thousand questions, but he didn’t know where to start. Was Ramy also orphaned? Who was his sponsor? What was Calcutta like? Had he been back since? What brought him to Oxford? He was suddenly anxious – he felt his tongue stiffen, unable to choose a word – and there was also the matter of the keys, and their scattered trunks, which made the alley look as if a hurricane had emptied a ship’s hold onto the street—

‘Should we—’ Robin managed, just as Ramy asked, ‘Shall we open that door?’

They both laughed. Ramy smiled. ‘Let’s drag these inside.’ He nudged a trunk with his toe. ‘Then I’ve got a box of very nice sweets which I think we should open, yes?’

Their quarters were across the hall from one another – rooms six and seven. Each unit consisted of a large bedroom and a sitting room equipped with a low table, empty bookshelves, and a couch. The couch and table both seemed too formal, so they sat cross-legged on the floor of Ramy’s room, blinking like shy children as they regarded each other, unsure what to do with their hands.

Ramy pulled a colourfully wrapped parcel from one of his trunks and set it on the floor between them. ‘Sending-off gift from Sir Horace Wilson, my guardian. He gave me a bottle of port, too, but I threw that away. What would you like?’ Ramy ripped the parcel open. ‘There’s toffee, caramel, peanut brittle, chocolates, and all kinds of candied fruits…’

‘Oh, goodness – I’ll have some toffee, thank you.’ Robin hadn’t spoken to another person near his age in as long as he could remember. He was only now realizing how badly he wanted a friend, but he didn’t know how to make one, and the prospect of trying but failing suddenly terrified him. What if Ramy found him dull? Annoying? Oversolicitous?

He took a bite of toffee, swallowed, and placed his hands in his lap.

‘So,’ he said. ‘Tell me about Calcutta?’

Robin grinned.

In the years to come, Robin would return so many times to this night. He was forever astonished by its mysterious alchemy, by how easily two badly socialized, restrictively raised strangers had transformed into kindred spirits in the span of minutes. Ramy seemed just as flushed and excited as Robin felt. They talked and talked. No topics seemed taboo; everything they brought up was either a point of instant agreement – scones are better without sultanas, thank you – or a cause for fascinating debate – no, London’s lovely, actually; you country mice are just prejudiced because you’re jealous. Only don’t swim in the Thames.

At some point they began reciting poems to each other – lovely chains of Urdu couplets Ramy told him were called ghazals, and Tang poetry which Robin frankly didn’t love but which sounded impressive. And he so badly wanted to impress Ramy. He was so witty, so well-read and funny. He had sharp, scathing opinions on everything – British cuisine, British manners, and the Oxbridge rivalry (’Oxford is larger than Cambridge, but Cambridge is prettier, and anyhow I think they only established Cambridge as overflow for the mediocre talent.’) He’d travelled half the world; he’d been to Lucknow, Madras, Lisbon, Paris, and Madrid. He described his native India as a paradise: ‘The mangoes, Birdie’ (he’d already started calling Robin ‘Birdie’), ‘they’re ridiculously juicy, you can’t buy anything similar on this sorry little island. It’s been years since I’ve had one. I’d give anything to see a proper Bengal mango.’

‘I’ve read Arabian Nights,’ Robin offered, drunk on excitement and trying to seem worldly as well.

‘Calcutta’s not in the Arab world, Birdie.’

‘I know.’ Robin blushed. ‘I just meant—’

But Ramy had already moved on. ‘You didn’t tell me you read Arabic!’

‘I don’t, I read it in translation.’

Ramy sighed. ‘Whose?’

Robin tried hard to remember. ‘Jonathan Scott’s?’

‘That’s a terrible translation.’ Ramy waved his arm. ‘Throw it away. For one thing, it’s not even a direct translation – it went into French first, and then English – and for another, it’s not remotely like the original. What’s more, Galland – Antoine Galland, the French translator – did his very best to Frenchify the dialogue and to erase all cultural details he thought would confuse the reader. He translates Haroun Alraschid’s concubines as dames ses favourites. Favourite ladies. How do you get “favourite ladies” from “concubines”? And he entirely cuts out some of the more erotic passages, and injects cultural explanations whenever he feels like it – tell me, how would you like to read an epic with a doddering Frenchman breathing down your neck at all the raunchy bits?’

He could have cried then. He’d been so desperately lonely, and had only now realized it, and now he wasn’t, and this felt so good he didn’t know what to do with himself.

When at last they grew too sleepy to finish their sentences, the sweets were half-gone and Ramy’s floor was littered with wrappers. Yawning, they waved each other good night. Robin tripped back to his own quarters, swung the door shut, then turned around to face his empty rooms. This was his home for the next four years – the bed under the low, sloping ceiling where he would wake every morning, the leaking tap over the sink where he would wash his face, and the desk in the corner that he would hunch over every evening, scribbling by candlelight until wax dripped onto the floorboards.

For the first time since he’d arrived at Oxford, it struck him that he was to make a life here. He imagined it stretched out before him: the gradual accumulation of books and trinkets in those spare bookshelves; the wear and tear of those crisp new linen shirts still packed in his trunks, the change of seasons seen and heard through the wind-rattled window above his bed that wouldn’t quite shut. And Ramy, right across the hall.

This wouldn’t be so bad.

The bed was unmade, but he was too tired now to fiddle with the sheets or search for covers, so he curled up on his side and pulled his coat over him. In a very short while he was fast asleep and smiling.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Babel – Summary

Here is the book summary:

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. The tower and its students are 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 the arcane craft 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?

Copyright © 2022 by R.F. Kuang.

More details can be found here on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

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