Review: Babel is a bustling commentary on the media and social injustice of today
Even though the First Law of Thermodynamics says that energy cannot be created or destroyed it does allow for energy being changed from one form to another. So it’s possible, though pretty fanciful, that some of the billions of kilojoules of energy that went into the founding of a modern, industrial Wales – with its infernal industries permanently reddening the night skies – resonated far into the future, thus able to supercharge this bustling novel.
It tells the story of Sara, a wannabe journalist who answers an advert to work for newspaper proprietor Mr. Glass, leaving behind her own dark secret, namely that she has murdered her cruel father and thrown his body to the bottom of a well.
Sara is a memorable creation, a pioneering and principled hackette, out to record what’s going on around her in the hope that airing some iniquities will help to ultimately get rid of them, or at least expose them.
Babel is not a historical novel, though but, rather the first steampunk novel to be written in Welsh, the novelist cunningly messing up or blurring the chronology of events so that steam trains and, indeed steam-powered carriages move across the land just as giant airships fly across the skies taking passengers as far away as Patagonia.
Although steampunk is its own sub-genre in speculative fiction there haven’t been too many Welsh examples, with honourable exceptions being the work of Barry-based Alastair Reynolds, whose 2010, steampunk-influenced Terminal World was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year.
But in the Welsh language Babel is veritably a ground-breaker, so much so that a neologism was required for the very term “steampunk’ namely “agerstalwm.” Which is a very clever coining, thus very much in keeping with this abundantly inventive novel, with its solid historical basis. The setting seems very much like Merthyr in the days of ironmasters such as the Crawshay family, owners of Cyfarthfa castle. But it’s a skewed version, viewed through a distorting lens.
In the teeming, seething world of Babel there are many weird skullduggeries, not least a process which seems to turn people into automata, resulting in zombie-like legions of children trapped behind metal masks, many of them in thrall to a sinister figure called the Octopus. She is a Fagin like creation who presides over the town’s underworld, encouraging her ghoulish gangs to sell fake merchandise on the street.
So there’s plenty of headline material for any newspaper, especially with disestablishmentarianism in the air as well as electoral hustings in the offing. Indeed, one of the narrative impulses of the book is the growing resistance to paying church tithes or taxes, a sort of predecessor to the revolt against, say, the more secular poll tax.
Despite his name, the proprietor of Llais y Bobl, or the ‘People’s Voice’, Joseff Glass is no transparent character. He is a creation made of shadows, a prototype Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell, having learned very early on how to own politicians as well as newspapers. He invites a prospective parliamentary candidate to visit his press only to show him two versions of the paper’s front page. One supports him and one does not, with its echoes of the two letters the Janus-like Boris Johnson wrote, supporting both Leave and Remain.
And there are others resonances from then carrying over to now. At one point Sara twigs why the Llais takes delivery of all of the London papers, namely to fillet out stories which they then serve up on their own pages. In so many senses Babel acts as a gloss or commentary on the media of today, although its author, who edits Nation.Cymru in his spare time also knows a good deal about paper practises then, as the subject of his PhD was nationalism and the Welsh press in the 19th century.
The novel is shot through with atmospheric passages which evoke the pulse and beat of the new towns built to accommodate the workers who flooded into the valleys of south Wales, as well as the miasmic squalor of lives lived without proper sanitation, in places where cholera was rife and life expectancy minimal. To cope with the tests and travails of life the working people anaesthetise themselves down the public house, or via a range of proprietary medicines each one laced with laudanum.
The dialogue throughout is often rendered in a vivid and plausible Welsh language version of the dialect called Y Wenhwyseg, spoken in south-east Wales and connecting with some of the area’s early inhabitants, the Gwennwys. Their hard consonants can sound like metal tools chipping away at a coal face and this dialect, which underpins today’s Wenglish melds easily in Babel with the many Biblical references which pepper the book, and indeed supply its title.
They serve to remind us of the concomitant growth in nonconformity that matched the often hideous transformations of the early industrial age, with its rabid capitalism and widespread pollution, the sproutings of factory and foundry, coal mine and metalworks. It was also a time that saw the growth of unspeakable slums such as Babel’s Burma, echoing the fetid underbelly of the long-ago Merthyr known as China, a notorious no-go area which had its own “emperor” at one point and lay beyond the reach of the law.
Sara’s befriending of one of the poorest little girls in the town called Begw provides this book with its own Little Nell, a character about whom the reader has to feel protective. Her eventual fate is as emotionally impactful as that death in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, which had thousands and thousands of readers in tears.
The book is cleverly and knowingly constructed along the lines of a Russian doll, with reality contained within fantasy which then peels back to reveal another layer of reality. The book’s end demonstrates the sort of authorial trickery you would get in, say, a novel by Italo Calvino.
So this is a playful, sprawling tale, animated by people railing against social injustice and trying to right political wrongs. It underlines the growing status of its young author as a sort of Daniel Owen for our times, telling tales with an ebullient narrative gift, but always finding something which connects with the contemporary, making his stories properly and meaningfully relevant.
Babel is published by Y Lolfa, costs £9.99 and can be bought here.