Babel

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

Beautifully narrated. I was drawn in immediately. And the novel itself is so lovely. As a student of history and someone who works in the language industry (which is still incidentally dominated by Britain), I found it to be brilliantly conceived, well researched and expertly told. It’s the best novel I’ve read since A Gentleman in Moscow. If you like Amor Towles, Anthony Doerr and Donna Tartt you’ll appreciate the ambition and skill behind this historical fiction. As someone who doesn’t typically prefer fantasy writing, I found that the fantastical elements did not distract in any way from the novel’s historical relevance and integrity. It’s a love letter to language that highlights the role language played (and still plays) in geopolitics, conquest and resistance. Just brilliant.

I infer from the preface that the author has recently had the experience of being an Asian-American sojourning in Oxford. It’s clear the experience left its mark on her and on this story. The novel is excellent, though difficult for me to review without tossing in coy spoilers on how it ends. I’ll restrain myself and say simply that as a student of the relevant history, I found the ending completely appropriate.

For centuries China had a global trade surplus–both in our timeline and in that of this alternate history, which closely parallels our own. This was probably the case even when the volume of global trade was constrained by the capacity of the silk road, but in the Early Modern Era, beginning with Portuguese sea trade in the Pacific, it began to grow exponentially. In an era when all transactions were still conducted in precious metals, the economic consequences of this surplus were difficult to understand, let alone predict. Philip II of Spain, his coffers bursting with the loot of the New World, had trouble grasping the difficulty he encountered outfitting his famous naval expedition of 1588. Without realizing it, he had discovered inflation. Money can seem so concrete when payments are made in weight-increments of silver or gold. In fact it is anything but. Money is abstract, and like those of many abstractions its ebbs and flows can seem like magic. Perhaps they ARE magic.

Spain’s treasury did not remain full for long. All of that silver circulated throughout expanding markets, and in coming centuries a succession of very smart people with a range of different motives came to understand and exploit some of the underlying magical principles governing its circulation. One of these people, mentioned perhaps only once or twice in passing in Kuang’s novel since he belonged to an earlier era, was the greatest physicist of his day and perhaps the greatest alchemist of all time, Isaac Newton. For the last three decades of his life Newton was Master of the Royal Mint, and in that capacity he worked magic by manipulating the conversion–or translation–between silver and gold to his own nation’s advantage. He helped jump-start Britain’s imperial and colonial expansion. This economic alchemy or magic was very real in our own timeline, and though it is not discussed in this book (though it plays an important role in Neal Stephenson’s “Baroque Cycle”), it may be assumed to have set the stage for its events, which take place in the third and fourth decades of the nineteenth century.

Newton’s efforts notwithstanding, the Chinese global trade surplus meant that the West’s silver, including that of Britain, continued to drain into China at an alarming rate, funding the importation of silks, tea, porcelain, lacquerware, and other such goods. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain’s lords and magnates were wise to the problem. Their solution–again, in our own timeline as in that of this book–was to foist the opium trade on China, first by offering a lucrative product in sufficient quantity to produce a class of addicts willing and able to pay vast sums to obtain it it, and then, when authorities attempted to suppress the trade, at gunpoint. Thus did they engineer the First Opium War.

This much is simply widely accepted history. What Kuang does with this history could be described either as a fantasy subgenre of alternate history fiction, or as an allegory for colonial oppression. If I describe it as both, and hold both descriptions in my head simultaneously, I am ready to perform the kind of mental manipulation Kuang’s Oxford scholars are trained in. 這也是翻譯–this too is translation. Allegorically, within the Tower of Babel of Kuang’s Oxford, the manipulation is inscribed in silver, becoming or expressing a kind of magic.

Babel

I confess I’m enamored of this magic, in part because I, too, am a translator, working in several languages over the past four decades. No doubt Kuang’s Oxfordians would dismiss much of my skill as that of a mere “natural polyglot,” but I had to work hard for it, too. As a real-life translator, I will let you in on a secret: translation IS magic, and it only becomes more potent as people progressively forget that we exist at all, mediating their reading and their conversation. The greatest magic trick of the translator is to make themselves disappear. We all know that knowledge is power. Are we so confident we can always spot the most knowledgable?

In this review I’ve worn my own background and interests on my sleeve, and consequently what I’ve written is pretty dry. Kuang’s novel is anything but. My review doesn’t even touch on the characters and their wholly believable personal and historical struggles, all of which are absolutely engrossing. I am reminded of Arkady Martine’s award-winning “A Memory of Empire” and its sequel, “A Desolation Called Peace,” with which this book incidentally shares a very apt epigraph from Tacitus. I am not a huge fan of the audio production. The primary narrator does a good job with character voices, but there is a secondary narrator (perhaps for passages appearing as footnotes in the print edition?). The sound editing is uneven, and the Mandarin voicing of Chinese phrases and passages inconsistent, making some of them difficult to understand. At a guess, neither narrator is a native speaker. However, this will bother only those listeners with knowledge of Chinese.



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