Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

(Book Review)

Before I get into the meat of this review, a few words about the reasons it ended up on my reading list to begin with.

1). I had recently finished reading the biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton by Edward Rice. In that book, Rice claims that Kipling based one of the characters in "Kim" off of Richard Burton. (I think, although I've left my copy back in Japan, that it was the character of Colonel Creighton.)

2). Also in reading Richard Burton's biography, I learned for the first time about the "Great Game" (W). This was something that had been left out of my scholastic education, but was the 19th century rivalry between Britain and Russia for influence and control of Afghanistan, played out by secret agents from both sides trying to obtain information and influence Afghanistan war lords.
The idea of a 19th Century version of cold war spy games is intriguing enough on its own (for those of us who are bitten by the history bug.) But the fact that our own army is currently stuck in the Afghanistan quagmire makes this historical period all the more relevant.

It turns out that the plot of "Kim" actually revolves around the "Great Game", and tells the story of a young boy sucked into the world of 19th century espionage in central Asia.

3). Third, and finally, Rudyard Kipling was one of those authors that I had enjoyed in childhood, and had always meant to someday return to.
When I was about 11 or 12, I read Kipling's "Jungle Books" series, and loved them. I also enjoyed Kipling's "Just So" stories.
And, if it's fair to count movies loosely based off of Kipling's works, "Gunga-Din" (W) was another childhood favorite of mine.

"Gunga-Din", filmed in 1939, had become politically incorrect long before I saw it. But when you're a kid watching movies on TV in the basement, no one tells you these things, and it shaped my childhood image of India as a gallant British soldiers bravely advancing the cause of civilization against the savage native Thuggees.

...Which brings me to the dark side of Kipling's legacy: the whole "White Man's Burden" thing--something I was blissfully ignorant of as a child, but something that is in inescapable in any adult review of Kipling's literature.

I'll try and dodge this controversy as much as I can by saying upfront I'm no expert.

A few years ago I was reading through a book of George Orwell's essays, and read his views on Kipling. The entire essay is on-line (link here) but if you can't be bothered to read the whole thing I'll summarize Orwell's thoughts:
"I know it's popular in leftist circles these days to call Kipling a fascist these days, but it's not true. He maybe an imperialist, a racist, a sadist, and a bad poet, but he's not a fascist."

And this kind of thing was the image of Kipling I've had as an adult.

Therefore I was pleasantly surprised in reading this book to find that it had a lot more sensitivity to India than I expected given Kipling's reputation. There are overtones of subtle racism throughout the book, but overall one gets the sense from Kipling that he loved India and he loved the people.

Which isn't surprising, considering he spent much of his life there, and was able to speak in Hindi before he could speak in English.

The plot of the book is really 3 fold. It's partly a road trip story, as Kim and a Tibetan lama search for a mystical river. It's partly a spy story, as Kim is trained in the Great Game, and must learn to outwit French and Russian spies.
And it's partly a coming of age story, as Kim grows from a child into a young man during the course of the book.

But all 3 of these plots are rather thin. Most of the beauty of this book is just in it's description of 19th Century India. And that is the real value of it.

As Orwell says, in the essay linked to above, "Tawdry and shallow though it is, Kipling's is the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India."

And in the vivid characters, marketplaces, crowded trains, and landscape descriptions that Kipling includes in this book, you can really visualize it. It's a fascinating portrayal of 19th Century colonized India.

Which brings me to an important caveat: this book is heavy on descriptions, and light on story. Since I was expecting a rollicking spy story, this was something that jolted me a bit when I first started the book.
Once I realized what kind of book I was in for, however, and re-adjustment my expectations accordingly, I found it a fascinating read.

Second caveat: this isn't always an easy book to read. It's usually classified as children's literature but, apparently there's some debate about this.

As mentioned above, I read Kipling's "Jungle Books" and "Just So Stories" as a child. I remember approaching them with a bit of hesitation (as you always do as a child when preparing to tackle a Victorian era classic) and then being pleasantly surprised at how easy they were to read.

Kim was a bit more of a struggle. I'll quote another blogger who puts it better than I could:

I find this a curious book. First, as I mentioned previously, I sometimes find it hard to follow. Sometimes there will be a conversation, and I'll think "Woah...is it the whiskey or do I just have no idea what these people are trying to say to one another". Then I'll realize I haven't even had any whiskey. And then, a page or two later, everything is clear again. Not sure if this is due to Kipling's style, or whether it's just ADD kicking in. Regardless. it's disconcerting. Then there's the problem of a lot of vernacular in the book. There are a bunch of different types of people, English (white), Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and each of them seems to have their own nickname...pahari, faquir, sahib, pathan, etc. While exotic and colorful, it's also hard to follow. An annotated version of this book would be an excellent help. There's also the issue of politics...just who is spying on who in "The Great Game"? We all know Britain ruled India in the 1800s, but who were they spying on? We get some clues...rebellious kings, Russians, but the historical background is unknown to me.

(By the way, the above quote comes from "Blogging the Canon", a blog I stumbled upon while doing research for this review, and which I found to be very interesting. Check it out if you have time.)

To me, in the end the rewards of the book were worth the struggle. But this is something every reader will have to decide for themselves.

*One final note: apparently the great Edward Said has written extensively on "Kim", and the subtle themes of Imperialism in the book. Unfortunately I haven't been able to track down a complete copy of his essay online, so I can't really recommend it. But I'm sure given Said's expertise in this area that he would tackle some of the thorny issues in Kipling's legacy much better than I could.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Crime and punishment in America

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