Publisher: Modern Library Classics (Random House)
Pages: 308 (including notes) + introductions (Paperback)
Filled with lyrical, exotic prose and nostalgia for Rudyard Kipling’s native India, Kim is widely acknowledged as the author’s greatest novel and a key element in his winning the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is the tale of an orphaned sahib and the burdensome fate that awaits him when he is unwittingly dragged into the Great Game of Imperialism. During his many adventures, he befriends a sage old Tibetan lama who transforms his life. As Pankaj Mishra asserts in his introduction, “To read the novel now is to notice the melancholy wisdom that accompanies the native boy’s journey through a broad and open road to the narrow duties of the white man’s world: how the deeper Buddhist idea of the illusion of the self, of time and space, makes bearable for him the anguish of abandoning his childhood.”
Despite the 5 star rating, this is not a book without flaws; there is no really solid plot to it, the ending just sort of happens – not really resolving anything, but not leaving it hanging in quite a satisfactory way either, and the central conflict of ideals you expect to happen never really materialises. In a lesser author’s hands these could be crippling issues but Kipling (whatever you may think of his political views) is a wonderful writer and this is, quite rightly, regarded as his masterpiece. The prose is simply beautiful, vividly evoking an unfamiliar and very foreign (to this reader at least) setting. The story really takes a backseat in Kim in favour of a loving, and very detailed, portrait of Colonial India and its peoples.
This isn’t a book for everyone, it could probably quite rightly be dismissed as ‘exoticism’ by some, but for me – someone who has always been fascinated by India but has never yet had a chance to visit, it hit the mark. In fact I have to admit to a bias: even going in I knew that there was very little way I wasn’t going to love this book. Whilst I find Kipling’s views on Imperialism (most clearly voiced in his poem The White Man’s Burden) completely repulsive and in no way endorse them, I love his writing. I was brought up on The Just So Stories – read out loud by my dad in funny voices – and I read and adored The Jungle Books when I was nine. Kipling also has an irrational but emotional pull for being my Grandad’s favourite author. A former officer in the Indian army, If you’ve ever seen Disney’s version of the Jungle Book my Grandad is Colonel Hathi and I loved him to bits. Bonding over a shared love of ‘Rikki-Tikki-Tavi’ (a short story in the first Jungle Book) is one of my last and fondest memories of him before he died. It always upset him that Kipling was dismissed by modern readers as a ‘racist and imperialist’ so I was always going to give Kim a go. I am not going to say Kipling isn’t racist (he clearly was) but his writing is beautiful and Kim is a wonderful demonstration of how much more complex Kipling’s opinions on India and race actually were.
Kim uses the language of race, but barely ever in a derogatory way – and often when it is it comes from the mouths of characters rather than the narration. The title character is a sahib (white) boy of Irish heritage, but orphaned young and essentially raised as a native. He intermingles with all the different castes and classes of Indian society, Muslim’s, Hindu’s, Sikhs and he understands and learns from each of them. That Kipling uses the language of race to describe whole groups of people; ‘Sikhs are proud warriors’, ‘Irish are tricksters’, ‘everyone knows blank are blank’ etc. seems more a product of its time – and an attempt to explain India to a western audience unfamiliar to it, rather than deliberately belittling or malicious. Kipling, an Anglo-Indian himself – born and raised in India, the son of a museum curator (who actually makes a sympathetic appearance in the first chapter) – clearly has a lot of respect for the native people – even though he was a strong supporter of British Imperial rule there.
Nowhere is this respect for Asiatic peoples, religion’s and ideologies more obvious than in his depiction of the Tibetan Lama who befriends Kim, taking on an almost paternal role by the end of the novel. He is the moral voice of the story. While Colonel Creighton inducts Kim into the British Secret Service as a weapon in ‘The Great Game‘ against Russia, and his spies instruct Kim on espionage and how to disguise himself, the Lama teaches Kim humility, love and respect. He also strives to promote a peaceful, spiritual way of life. That these two ideologies never really conflict properly with each other is one of the big let downs of the book – Kim never has to choose definitively between the excitement of The Great Game and his own spiritual path, between his white heritage and his Indian upbringing, but seems to muddle along on both, though the ending hints a little that a decision may have to be made soon.
That Kim does not seem remotely interested in ‘The Great Game’ except as just that – a game – was something I found fascinating. Whilst he joins the British side he does not really seem too interested in the politics behind it all, he simply likes and admires all the british spies he has met – especially Mahbub Ali, the Muslim horse dealer who gives him his first mission as a boy – and wants to be like them and have a big sum of money placed on his own head. That’s about as far as his motivation goes. The story is more about Kim’s spiritual and physical journey through India and his growth from a cheeky streetbrat to a mature young adult, the lessons he learns, and his changing relationship with the Lama, than it is about the political situation. The, frankly quite ill-defined ‘spy story’ serves rather as a backdrop and something to push the story onwards than the main point.
Personally, I loved it, flaws and all. I didn’t need it to be a treatise on British colonialism – I already know Kipling’s views there. I wanted a decent story, compelling characters, and lots of beautiful descriptions on India. Since I found the relationship between Kim and the Lama to be the more interesting plot it delivered on all three. The writing is gorgeous, though it took a bit of getting used to the old-fashioned style in which Kipling has his character’s speak – a lot of ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s made it seem oddly formal at times, I can only imagine it was done to reflect or demonstrate the sort of stylistic differences between English (which doesn’t have a hierarchy of formal/informal pronouns) and the Indian vernacular most of the characters speak in, which does. It definitely adds to the ‘exotic’ feel of the book too; the way the characters speak reinforces the setting as ‘nothing like England’ and you could never be lulled into thinking that these are just English characters plonked down in a foreign setting. And what a setting, I don’t know India well, I wish I did but the descriptions of every aspect of it were just stunning. I did feel at times, however, that I really needed to have a map of India beside me to fully appreciate it all. Kipling doesn’t patronise his readers by explaining all the unfamiliar details and, despite having to constantly flick to the end-notes (thank god my edition came with endnotes), I actually really liked this – these details aren’t unfamiliar to his characters, why would they stop to explain exactly where whatever village they’re staying in is? If I don’t know all the cultural and geographic details included that’s my own fault and something I should remedy myself by looking it up, not something an author should pause the story to explain.
So for me a definite 5 star read and a deserved classic. However most definitely not a book for everyone and one I would hesitate to recommend without first knowing pretty damn well what sort of books the person I was talking to enjoys.