Thursday, December 15, 2005

Review of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

I finished reading the novel Kim, by Rudyard Kipling (published in 1901).

The titular Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish sergeant in the [British] Indian Army. (In British India, a soldier was either British Army or Indian Army. The latter was still, of course, part of the British Army. But there was in fact a gulf between the two military institutions. Anyway.)

Kim is brought up as an Indian street urchin, and is ignorant of his parentage. Fluent in Hindi and Pushtu (a.k.a. Pushto, Pashto, etc), he is quick-witted and street-wise. As mischievous a scamp as he is, he nevertheless falls under the spell of a naive but wise Tibetan lama searching for the River of Buddha's Arrow. Seeing that Kim is heading in the right direction, a vendor (who is actually a spy) gives Kim a package to deliver, and soon Kim is a full-fledged player in the Great Game — England’s espionage network that safeguards British India. Eventually, he learns of his ancestry, and is taken to a British school, but he does not forget India's traditions, or his lama.

This is a terrific novel: witty, suspenseful, rich in descriptions of forgotten or disappearing people and customs, and above all as complex and layered as India herself. As some critics have charged, there is a smack of the white man’s superior airs (Kipling's "white man's burden") in the novel — it is Kim's "white blood" that makes him immune to the suggestions of India's magic and his English education that allows him to resist hypnotism— but considering the author's life and epoch, there is nothing, in my mind, denigrating to India in the novel.

Kipling loves India, and Kim is India. Able to mimic a Sahib, a Hindi, a Muslim, a beggar, a chela and more, he represents all of India: its "good, gentle" people who revere the wise and the virtuous. The ending of the book is perfect: there is closure, but it leaves all of India, from its dusty plains to the bitter cold of the "Hills" (the Himalayas), open to Kim’s skills and knowledge.

I found this to be a truly great book, much more than an adventure story, road trip, or coming of age story. It is all these and more. It should be required reading in every world literature class.

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