Monday, January 5, 2015
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
by Rudyard Kipling
Vintage Books, 2010 (originally published in 1901)
Full disclosure: my favourite audiobook of all time is the reading Jack Nicholson did of Kipling's story The Elephant's Child, with music by Bobby McFerrin. Ever since that transcendent experience as a child, I've been rather predisposed to like Kipling, warts and all. (All that spanking = not cool, Rudyard.) When a friend mentioned I should read this and then provided a copy, I took a long time to get around to it - but I'm glad I finally did.
Kim is the tale of young Kimball O'Hara, an orphaned white boy living and thriving on the streets of Lahore. His life changes forever when he is about ten years old and attaches himself to a naive but wise elderly lama from Tibet, who is searching for the river created by the Buddha's arrow so he can immerse himself in it and become enlightened. Kim also attracts the attention of the British spy network in India, earning himself a place of respect through his escapades running messages.
I really, really liked this book. It's a fascinating and vivid window into a time and place that really does not exist anymore. It's also a bit of a primer on how colonial racist attitudes were so commonplace and ingrained that someone like Kipling, an intelligent, compassionate man with a deep respect and love for the culture he's depicting, could still say things that are glaringly patronizing, ugly, racist, or pseudoscientific, and his audience would be right there with him. It makes me wonder, sometimes, what prejudices and errors will be exposed when someone looks at our contemporary literature one hundred years from now. Maybe (one hopes?) the idea of a person's physical sex determining their behaviour and outlook on life will seem as ridiculous and wrong-headed?
As an example of the sort of thing I mean, Kipling relies, sometimes quite heavily, on Kim's "white blood" to form his character. This is a child who has grown up on the streets of Lahore with children of many races and religions, has next to no experience of white culture or people, and yet does things that Kipling ascribes to his being white despite the fact that Kim himself doesn't realize he's white. Being white is almost a kind of short-hand for Kim being brave and clever, superior in these qualities to the "natives" around him. This despite the fact that Kim is surrounded by brave and clever people who are not white; I guess those characters had to earn their badges, rather than being born with those traits. And sadly Kipling also occasionally falls into using other characters' races for short-hand for their less desirable qualities - being deceitful, belligerent, or cowardly, for example. Ouch.
Clearly, for Kipling to write that so blatantly and unironically, he understood that being white included certain personality and biological traits other than skin colour. This was a common view supported by scientists of the time, and frankly still is in certain dark corners. The idea of biological determination is insidious and hard to shake. These days, many of the characteristics that Kipling ascribes to racial biology would be ascribed (and described, in building a character in a reader's imagination) to nurture, environment, and societal structures.
But all of that considered and aside - this book is a joy to read. Kipling's language is perhaps not quite as inventive in Kim as it is in some of the Just So Stories, but it can be, and it is always beautiful. The plot is, for a spy adventure, rather slow; but I drank up the descriptions. The colours, the smells, the tastes, the voices and beliefs, the multitude of people and the delight Kim (and Kipling) takes in the diversity. This world is messy and beautiful. And it doesn't exist anymore, except in books, and this is a good one to immerse yourself in whether you're interested in this time and place in history or not.
The characters are as bright and vivid as the rest of the book. Kim is a fantastic lens to experience his world through. And though, as above, the plot is a bit slow, it is not boring if you adjust your expectations to its pace. Very glad I read this, and recommended for the armchair time-and-space traveller, among others.