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Picturing a World

I wanted to like it

R. F. Kuang's Babel has scope and ambition. Its plot moves with many melodramatic surprises. I wanted to like it. Too soon, however, it became apparent that it was driven primarily by anger at the all-too-obvious injustices of colonialism. To be fair, such concerns suit the taste of readers who value politics over other aspects of art. I don't.

Nor do I ordinarily write about books I dislike. Having given this one a provisional yes, however, I feel I obliged to let you know that, for me, it turned to no. An e-mail exchange I had with a friend while I was reading it sums up my experience of the book:
Friend: I'd heard of Babel and thought about trying it, but was worried it might be too polemical for me. Subtle enough to enjoy?
KK: Not even remotely subtle. The characters are vivid in a two-dimensional way. I'm waiting to see whether the Evil Guardian ever becomes more interesting than a Lemony Snicket villain and whether the central character's first betrayal of another person ever weighs on his conscience or has a bearing on the plot. I will say the story hurtles along and for a while I get pulled into its world, but then something dumb interferes with verisimilitude, e.g., students in translation arriving at a Victorian Oxford college with no exposure to French and German, only to Latin, Greek, and their one non-European language (the Evil Guardian even tells our hero to forget Cantonese; all he needs is Mandarin).
I still love the cover art—as well as Corot's pensive, disappointed reader.


Image via Art Institute of Chicago

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