I’d always thought Rudyard Kipling was a poet, but here we are. You’re never too old to learn! He was born in Bombay in 1865, and worked as a journalist in Lahore, until he began writing stories and poems about India. He wound up winning a Nobel Prize for his literature, so it would seem he was pretty damn good at it. He’s probably better known for The Jungle Book and Wee Willie Winkie, but I decided to read Kim, first published in 1901.
The blurb on the back of this edition is hectic, and I had no idea what to make of it:
“Kim, a young Irish orphan, is brought up in the native quarter of Lahore. While he is accompanying a Tibetan lama on his search for the River of Immortality, Kim is picked up by the British and groomed for the Secret Service. His first assignment is to capture the papers of a Russian spy in the Himalayas…”Kim, Pan Classics edition (1978)
That makes it sound like some kind of mash-up of The Alchemist and The Thirty-Nine Steps, right? Actually, that’s probably not far off…
So, Kim‘s story takes place against the backdrop of “The Great Game” (which I thought meant chess, but apparently not). That’s what we now call the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia, around the time of the Second and Third Afghan Wars (late 1800s, basically). Kipling loved India, his homeland, and right off the bat he gives you gorgeous portraits of the people, and the landscape, with particular focus on the bazaars and life on the road.
Kim is a young orphaned boy, his Irish father and mother having died in abject poverty. He etches out a living for himself running around the streets of Lahore, begging and doing small errands for the local horse traders and other sketchy types. He befriends an old Tibetan lama, who is on a quest to free himself from the “Wheel of Things” (yeah, alright mate) and find the “River of the Arrow” (bloody hippies). Kim thinks that doesn’t sound too bad, and he doesn’t have much else going on, so he ships out with the old guy, becoming his disciple and helping him along the road. He also takes on a secret mission from the local bigwig, to carry a message to the head of the British intelligence in Umballa, but that seems pretty incidental to the road-trip… for now.
Kim carries all of his father’s papers with him, which turns out to be a bad move. A regimental chaplain recognises him as the son of one of their soldiers, and ships him off to boarding school in Lucknow. The lama is pretty bummed to be separated from his only disciple, but agrees to pay for the boy’s education and figures they’ll hook back up again later. Not only does Kim stay in touch with the lama, he also keeps his finger in with all his Secret Service connections, and trains himself in espionage on the sly. Hey, a boy’s got to have a hobby!
The military decides that three years of schooling will suffice, and Kim is appointed to a government position, with a bit of a holiday to get himself ready. He uses that time to catch up with his old mate the lama, and they trek to the Himalayas. Here’s where his worlds collide: the lama unwittingly pisses off the Russian intelligence agents, and Kim uses the opportunity to pick up a bunch of important papers and staff to pass back to the British as he’s rescuing his pal.
And cue an existential crisis: the lama starts wailing about how he has “gone astray”, because he can hardly expect to find this “River of the Arrow” in the mountains, so he orders his travelling companions to take them back. This suits Kim just fine, because it allows him to drop the Russian documents back to his British bosses.
Now, the lama gets his happy ending: he finds his river, achieves Enlightenment, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s up to the reader to decide Kim‘s fate. Either he chooses to stick with his old mate and live the life of an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist, or he sets off again to do more spying. Kipling was very deliberately vague on which way it goes. All Kim had to say to the lama in the closing passage is: “I am not a Sahib. I am thy chela.” (Meaning “I am not a master. I am your servant.”) So, that’s about as clear as mud…
If I’m being honest, a lot of this plot went over my head as I was reading. I really only started to connect the dots when I was reading summaries online later. It’s like A Passage To India all over again. I just didn’t get enough of this story to offer any brilliant insights – sorry!
Kim is considered by many to be Kipling’s magnum opus, but that is (of course) hotly debated in some circles. A lot of the controversy seems to center around whether it should be considered children’s literature (I say no: if it went over my head, I don’t know what hope an eight-year-old has). It’s definitely an adventure story, a bildungsroman, and – drawing heavily upon Kipling’s own experiences growing up in India (including the clash of East and West) – it all takes place against this backdrop of politics and military conflict. You could probably spend years studying this book academically, because there’s a lot to look at.
Academics that have given it a gander have spent a lot of time considering Kipling’s depictions of race. The introduction to this edition says: “The once fashionable charge that Kipling was a particularly unpleasant apologist for imperialism, brutal, racist, and jingo, was always a caricature; yet there are parts of his work that give even his admirers pause.” And I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Even though the language seemed more contemporary than I would have otherwise expected, some of the stuff around Kim being a white boy who appeared brown gave me the icks.
I think you need to know what you’re getting in to when you pick up Kim, and you need to be deeply invested in the time period, the setting, the culture, and the politics, in order to fully appreciate the story. For the rest of us, I think you can probably pick up just about everything you need by reading a few summaries online, and scanning some extracts with Kipling’s particularly poetic and beautiful descriptions of India, for which he’s well known. For me, Kim was a pretty book, an interesting book, but probably not one I’ll pick up again.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Kim:
- “The footnotes of the Kindle Edition don’t work properly. Tapping a word gives the footnote of the next word which is very inconvenient.” – T.O.
- “The story is good just not the easiest story to read, maybe I had a bad week. I normally love Rudyard Kiplings work. I wish it was an awesome book with my name as the title. It’s not even a girl called Kim lol” – KimBuc2
- “no written in any language I can fathom.” – 1thru5
- “quick service good price great writing I didn’t get every reference” – bojangleshiker
- “It’s old. It’s “racist”. It is an absolutely wonderful book !” – Karen W
- “I had heart that Kim was one of the best books of all time. Had to wait 2 months for library to acquire it.
Have never been so disappointed in anything. Cults, voodoo, spells, magic, demonic activity, caste system, blasphemy, abuse, violence, superstition, humanism (worship of certain humans), depression,… UGH!!
WHAT A WASTE OF TIME!! DON’T BOTHER READING THIS.” – DeAnne
June 18, 2019 at 10:12 PM
I haven’t read much Kipling, except for a few poems, such as ‘If’. Kim sounds really intense. Having read your review, I think I’ll leave it for some other time when I feel like something really meaty, if ever. I do remember being super surprised to find out that Kipling wrote ‘Wee Willy Winky’ when I was researching a blog list about characters in pyjamas. I love the trivia we pick up along the way.
June 20, 2019 at 11:23 AM
Characters in pyjamas – I love it! I’ll have to go back through your blog archives and find it. By all means give Kim a go if you feel inclined at some point, but I’m sure there are other meaty reads you’d get more out of (if our parallel tastes are anything to go by) 😉👍
June 19, 2019 at 8:40 PM
I remember reading the Jungle book some years ago, prompted by all the film stuff about it that made it appear a jolly tale about boy defeating tiger. I remember being utterly lost at intervals and also amazed at how dark and depressing it all was. Not at all the uplifting tale I imagined. At that point I decided Kipling probably wasn’t for me. Aside from IF I have also not been that entranced by the poems of his I’ve had time to read either. (Although a teacher did once do a very stirring read of East is east… (which probably isn’t its title))
June 20, 2019 at 11:22 AM
If is beautiful, of course, but it’s kind of an anomaly for Kipling, as best I can tell. Definitely not recognisable in the prose of Kim!
February 19, 2020 at 10:32 AM
I suspect that many who read Rudyard Kipling’s “Kim” begin with an inherited notion of the novel, one that can be read & enjoyed on many levels. For starters, a fellow Missourian by the name of Mark Twain, creator of “Huckleberry Finn” & other works claimed that he read & enjoyed the Kipling classic once a year. Beyond that, Kipling felt much more at home in India (living in Lahore in present-day Pakistan for many years) than he did in England or in Vermont, the latter place where he wrote many of his best-regarded works while living with his American wife. The fact is that Kipling was as complex a character as was Kimball O’Hara. Bill
February 19, 2020 at 11:54 AM
Oooh interesting! Thanks for the insight, Bill!