Thursday, January 30, 2014

Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

"Thou hast loosed an Act upon the world, and as a stone thrown into a pool so spread the consequences thou canst not tell how far." -- from Kim, p. 220

It didn't occur to me to read Kim, serialized between 1900 and 1901, until a friend mentioned she'd read it recently, and that it was full of spy stuff. I never knew that! Nor did I realize that Kim himself wasn't an Indian boy, but an Irish orphan living by his wits on the streets of Lahore, a concept that allows Rudyard Kipling to have it various different ways.

Having always associated Kipling with the Raj -- for which I have no sympathy -- I was relieved that I wouldn't need to dread any "white man's burden" creeping into the depiction of a native character, and from the start I liked that the chameleon-like Kim, nicknamed the "Friend to all the world," is willing and able to associate with whatever different races and social classes he comes across.

 The plot of Kim is very meandery, as the character wanders about and meets people. He becomes the disciple of a wandering Tibetan holy man on a pilgrimage (mostly because he wants to travel, and to help  protect the old guy, whom he likes, rather than from any spiritual motivation). Along the way, he delivers a coded message to a British spy, which introduces him to the "Great Game," when Britain and Russia vied for power in Afghanistan and other areas of Central Asia, largely through subterfuge. Having read some books about Indian religions written in the 19th century, I was amused that studiers of ethnography are seen in the book as a front for spies. (p. 183, for one example)  

Once he's identified as a white boy, Kim is forced into an English school, where he trains for the Secret Service, but never gives up his loyalty to the lama, who he still considers his "master."

The novel's focus seems to be in a yo-yo between the epic and the everyday. The story is largely about complex international intrigues hidden behind mundane activities, taking place partly among Indians and partly among the British, and as such, "the Game is so large that one sees but a little at a time." (p. 178). In addition, the story ranges all over India, with characters from varied ethnic and religious groups, with so much variety that it certainly seems like a purposeful narrative strategy. Perhaps as an attempt to express some massive experience of India at a particular historic juncture -- but filtered through the life of one small person, who revels in the pleasures of ordinary life, and who becomes involved in bigger things, without really understanding them. Despite the largeness of everything, the most important thing in the book is Kim, looking for his next meal.

When he becomes self-reflective at the end -- "I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?" (p. 294) -- the question of identity comes to the fore. Kipling has monkey-wrenched his picture of life in India by creating a character who's neither an Indian or a white man, or who's both at once, and who defines himself as an individual, with individual loyalties.

If he's an Indian street urchin or a Sahib makes a huge difference to the rest of the world: he'll be treated differently, and will have access to different aspects of life. But the difference between those two identities can't be essential and meaningful if nobody can even tell which one he is.  If Kim lives in Indian society one minute, thinking in Hindi, and is suddenly identified as white, and whisked off to white society, it doesn't change anything about who he was, or who he is, although it might change who he will become ... which is the concern of the story.

The character definitely has a Huck Finn quality to him, saying of his integration into English ways: "This clothing grows no easier to wear." (p. 127) He also has an odd similarity to Kipling's Mowgli, from The Jungle Book, in that they're both about children raised apart from the world they would normally have been born into -- alienating them from their "hereditary" place.

Are these very different depictions of a similar nature vs. nurture argument? Kipling was born in India, taken back to England as a child, and then returned to India as a teenager, and one wonders how he felt his own identity as an Anglo-Indian. If he felt a part of both worlds as a young man, he might have created the character of Kim as an expression of that viewpoint. On the other hand, if he felt like he belonged to neither world, then his motive might have been a kind of wish-fulfillment, since Kim mostly feels he belongs wherever he is -- but least of all in the repressive English school, although he learns to take advantage of it to get what he needs for the future -- not a bad strategy.

So hey, kids: even though it sucks, put in your time, and learn -- not for THEM, but for yourself.

If I didn't always really follow the plot (especially the military stuff), I'm not sure it was  either my fault or Kipling's. I'm disappointed in Wildside Press, who've done better, for the "editing" in this edition: sentences break off at random points, punctuation is all over the place, and there's a world of difference between "the talk" and "the talc." (p. 34) When I felt like I was missing something, I might have actually been missing something.

Also, the Hindi transliterations sometimes confused me, as when they referred to "buts." I was pretty far along before I realized: ohhh! Bhoots! (which are ghosts or spirits). I did recognize old friends like "chor" (thief) and "chup" (be quiet!), however, which made me feel vair smart. Similarly, the town referred to in the novel as Umballa is more generally transliterated as Ambala, so if you want to find out more about the British were up to there, that's helpful to know. I suspect I'm also more familiar with the Sikhs, Jains, Pashtuns and Afridi, among other who are mentioned without much, if any, explanation, so some readers might be wondering even more than I did what was going on.

It might not all be Wildside's fault, though: politics do tend to make my eyes glaze over, so I do have Peter Hopkirk's book The Great Game on my to-read list (hopefully in preparation for a re-read of Robert E. Howard's excellent El Borak stories). I aspire to revisit Kim at some point, in an edition with proper footnoting.

Kipling, Rudyard. Kim. Doylestown, PA: Wildside Press.

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