Filled with lyrical, exotic prose and nostalgia for Rudyard Kipling's native India, "Kim" is widely acknowledged as the author's greatest novel and a key element in his winning the 1907 Nobel Prize in Literature. It is the tale of an orphaned sahib and the burdensome fate that awaits him when he is unwittingly dragged into the Great Game of Imperialism. During his many adventures, he befriends a sage old Tibetan lama who transforms his life. As Pankaj Mishra asserts in his Introduction, "To read the novel now is to notice the melancholy wisdom that accompanies the native boy's journey through a broad and open road to the narrow duties of the white man's world: how the deeper Buddhist idea of the illusion of the self, of time and space, makes bearable for him the anguish of abandoning his childhood."
Is it a great spy story? I don't think so - although I heard Dame Stella Rimington, who may be presumed to know a thing or two about spying in India, talking it up as such on the BBC the other day. Whilst Kim's training with Lurgan Sahib is plausible, Kim's big success against the French and Russian agents is a direct consequence of their incompetence - if they'd taken any sensible precautions against counter-espionage at all, Kim and his friends would never have been able to foil their dastardly plans. Some of the tradecraft Kim is taught seems a bit suspect too - what intelligence organisation would be daft enough to give all of its agents a common recognition signal? One traitor would be enough to blow the whole organisation.
Is it a handbook for military adventures on the North-West frontier? If that's how it is being used, it might explain the current lack of progress of NATO forces in Afghanistan. Anyone who's read Peter Hopkirk's books knows that by the time Kim was written, the danger of Russian incursions into India and Afghanistan, if it ever existed, was long past. There was, as there always has been, unrest among some of the Muslim communities in the area, but Kipling doesn't tell us anything about that. Kipling's view of the Great Game is a fantasy, and probably has more to do with the costly and unsuccessful colonial war of the moment (South Africa) than with India.
Is it a primer in basic Buddhism? Probably not. There is no coherent explanation of what Buddhists actually believe, or why. We do get glimpses of the way the lama's religious beliefs help him to deal with concrete situations, but we are led to attribute his qualities to his own strength of character, as much as to his Buddhism. He is really a kind of generic holy man - he would be just as plausible if he were a Baptist or a Benedictine.
Is it imperialist? Yes, of course it is. Kipling was firmly convinced that it was the duty of the British to run India, because he felt that they could do a better job than anyone else. This was a minority view (especially in Britain itself), but it was considered a perfectly respectable political standpoint at the time, and Kipling at least had some experience of the realities of colonial India from his time as a journalist. Said is right, of course, to draw attention to the way that Kipling selectively shows us Indians who support the British Raj, and ignores other viewpoints.
Is it racist? Certainly, although the passages Said draws attention to are mostly just evidence of a failure to distinguish between racial and cultural characteristics, which is common to most writers of the period. Kipling compensates for this laziness to a large extent by the way the two most important Indian characters, Mahbub Ali and the Babu, are drawn as individuals who transcend racial stereotypes (in fact, both of them are conscious of the way Europeans stereotype them, and exploit this perception for their own ends). However, in the case of Kim, we have someone who as grown up to all intents and purposes in an Indian cultural environment, having lost his European parents at a very young age, but who nevertheless has a special destiny because of his racial origins. I don't think we can absolve Kipling of racism on this point: on the other hand, it is an assumption Kipling pushes so far into the foreground that I don't see how any modern reader of the book could fail to be conscious of it: it's simply a point that we have to accept as one of the underlying assumptions of the book.
Is it a great novel? Yes, of course! Kipling wasn't very successful with the novel in general, but this is the one place where he produced a full length novel that can stand up with the best of them. Interestingly, Said chooses to compare Kim side-by-side not with other adventure stories, but with Hardy's Jude the obscure, making the point that most novels of the period were about frustrated hopes and ambitions, but that the freedom of movement offered by a colonial setting allowed Kipling to write a novel about possibilities seized and opportunities exploited. Hardy can be put side-by-side with Kipling in other ways too: both were fascinated by the voices of ordinary working people, and produced rich, if idealised, views of traditional societies confronted by the modern age. You can certainly imagine Mahbub Ali the horse trader doing business with Michael Henchard the corn merchant. It's probably not a huge exaggeration to say that Hardy's rural Wessex would have been as remote and exotic as Kipling's India to the average urban middle-class reader in 1901.
The story revolves around Kimball O’Hara who, at the beginning of the story, is living as a native orphan on the streets of Lahore. He meets and makes an instant connection with a wandering lama from Tibet. Together they embark upon a journey, both spiritual and actual. Travelling the crowded rails and dusty roads of India, meeting many interesting people along the way. Kim becomes the lamas disciple or “chela” and his love and respect for the older man grows. That these feelings are returned is obvious as well. Eventually Kim meets up with a company of soldiers from his father’s Irish Regiment who take him under their wing. With his ability to blend into the native population, he soon finds himself involved in “The Great Game” as a British agent.
High adventure indeed, but for me it was the detailed descriptions of India, the sights, the smells and the people that made this book special. From the crowded marketplace to the dusty plains, Kipling’s colourful writing brings India to life.
Kim is a book that I can see reading over and over again as I believe every read would give you a different perspective. Truly a classic.
My mother had suggested a few times that I read it and so, of course, I didn’t. This was a triumph of stubbornness over experience. My mother has a few intellectual quirks (Mets fan?) but has never, ever steered me wrong in a book recommendation.*
Prior to reading Kim, all I knew of Kipling was
1. he wrote the wonderful Just So Stories
2. his reputation as a stuffy defender of the British Empire
3. and is author of one a great poem about the plight of forgotten veterans, The Last of the Light Brigade.
There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, the had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.
None of which prepared me for Kim.
It is the story of an orphaned son of a British soldier, Kim, who has spent his early childhood as a beggar in the Indian city of Lahore. As a result he is both of Britain and of India in a very deep way. He comes into the service of both a Tibetan Lama and the British Secret Service. (If you need it there’s a very good plot summary here. ) The rest of the book concerns the adventures that come about as a result of this. And Moby Dick is a guide to whales.
While it has a wonderful adventure story as its frame, Kim is a book about reconciling the spiritual and the physical. It also has an wondrous story of the love between Kim and the Lama who becomes, in essence, his adopted grandfather.
For the most part the spiritual is shown in the people of Asia and India. One of the many things that makes Kim an exceptional story is that the indigenous people are rendered as complete human beings. They are not what my friend Steven calls “magical black people” who are only in the story to educate or help the white folks. (Steven is African-American so he uses another word instead of “black people.” He gets to do that.) If you would like an example of the Magical Black Person genre see the movies The Legend Of Bagger Vance, Driving Miss Daisy, Bruce Almighty and on and on and on…
Nor are all the Asians and Indians “spiritually minded.” Many, like the spy and horse trader Mahbub Ali, are as pragmatic and skeptical as anyone from the world of the British ruling class. On the other side, the spy Lurgan – a Brit – is an adept of the mysteries and wonders of Asian and Indian non-rationalist thought.
The Brits are not denied a spiritual life nor is the Christian tradition denigrated. It is just presented as alien to and useless in India and related lands. Although the Christian belief system is respected, the clergy are not. There is some very fair lampooning of one minister but he is ridiculed for being closed minded not for what he believes in per se.
Both British and Asian cultures are portrayed as less-than perfect but with each is also shown to have their own distinct and separate strengths. These can crudely be called the mechanical vs. the magical. Kipling neither faults nor exults one over the other. His chief criticism of both is their inability to appreciate and tap into each other. This is what makes Kim’s development into their synthesis so emotionally powerful.
All that said, make no doubt that Kim is a racist novel. Its racism is sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant. The edition I read (Penguin Classics) includes a fine essay by Edward Said that does an excellent job of highlighting that racism and placing it in context without forgiving it or explaining it away. As Said points out the subtle racism can only be understood by what is left out of Kim. Although the Indian and Asian characters are full people not one even considers that they should not be ruled by the British. The more obvious moments of racism involve references to stereotypical “Eastern” behaviors and ways of doing things. In fact these references are so at odds with the rest of the novel that they stand out and interrupt the rest of the story.
Without giving Kipling a pass for his racism, it is worth noting that the most truly egregious stereotypes are reserved for other Europeans. A French secret agent is vaguely effeminate and totally condescending toward everyone else. His Russian partner is stupid and brutally ruthless. Neither is particularly clean. As neither France or Russia were subjected to colonization these stereotypes do not bother me in the least.
One of the tremendous accomplishments of this novel is that it forced me to accept, question and consider how a work of art could be both racist and essential at the same time. In the case of Kim it pulls this off by never letting us forget that nearly everyone in it is a human being, even while it refuses to consider any challenges to the author’s status quo.
For me Kim ultimately is about the effort to reconcile the power and significance of the unseen and unknowable with the power and significance of the mundane. What makes it so successful is that it offers no conclusions on the topic. When the Teshoo Lama finally stumbles upon the river that he has been searching for – one whose waters will cleanse his karma — it is left up to you to decide whether it is “The River” or a stream or both.
*Currently reading her copy of Karen Armstrong’s Short History of Myth. I will be returning it to her because half-way through I decided I had to own a copy. So there.
I enjoyed the characters, especially Kim and the wise but fumbling Buddhist lama whom he adores. Kim matures about halfway through, at which point the novel loses some of its charm - I preferred the irascible child to the confident teenager - but there are still moments to treasure and Kim remains the same boy at heart. Mahbub Ali and Hurree Babu are also standouts. The British characters are the least interesting, except for Lurgan who seems to be a practiced magician of some sort. I'm still not certain what's taking place in the scene concerning the broken jar. Is it an illusion, hypnotism ...?
I also appreciated the 'peaceful coexistence' portrayal of India's wealth of diverse religions and peoples. Among the fourth chapter's descriptions of the Grand Trunk Road, there are people stopping to "make a prayer before one of the wayside shrines - sometimes Hindu, sometimes Mussalman - which the low caste of both creeds share with beautiful impartiality." It's refreshing to see religious diversity being extolled and maintained as a background element rather than made the source of a story's conflict.
"Kim" is sometimes taken for a children's novel for its simple plotting, light theme, and featuring a youth as protagonist. Our own children might enjoy the exploits of street-smart Kim (especially his sharp tongue), but I think it requires an adult's perspective to best appreciate the setting's portrayal.
Forty years later I read it again and thought it was one of the best books I've read all year. It is a "coming of age" yarn, with deep background on British ruled India, the relationships between various Indian cultures, and the ruling British.
For the 21st century American reader, what is striking about Kim's tale is how little material benefits are considered valuable; rather, it is the quality of one's work that is prized by the British and the Indians alike. There is no political correctness in the book: various cultures strengths and weaknesses are depicted and the English do not come out as the most noble of the group.
That is all background. For the plot, Kim, an Irish solder's orphan (Kimball O'Hara), lives on the streets of India, passing as a Indian. What may be missed by Americans is that at the time, this was rather counter cultural of Kipling to make the hero an Irish lad. Kim's nickname is "Friend of All the World", for he befriends all, but is taken in by none. Then he gets involved in intelligence work with the British foreign service while accompanying an aged Tibetan lama.
By all means read this book, and enjoy it.
As a young orphan, Kim befriends a lama who is on a quest for the River of the Arrow, which will cleanse him of his sins and help him attain enlightenment. Very soon Kim becomes completely devoted to the Teshoo Lama, will follow him anywhere, serving the Lama as his chela, or disciple. Kim’s love for this man is complete and touching. And the Lama’s love for Kim is equally strong.
Meanwhile, though, Kim has come to the attention of the British governmental spy system. They’re eager to exploit the boy’s amazing talent in languages, his ability to adopt the manners and dress of any one of the many cultures in India, his outstanding memory and mental strength, and his desire for adventure.
In a slightly complicated plot line, Kim is sent to a British school, learns surveying, and, at 17, is sent on a dangerous and important mission.
Kim’s continued devotion to his Lama, his bravery and cleverness, and his sense of fun all work together to make him beloved by many of the men who oversee his education, bookish and otherwise.
But. Has it all been too much weight for his slim shoulders? Does he have a nervous collapse, perhaps made worse by dengue fever? And what will Kim make of his adult life? He accomplishes his mission, but takes a long time to recover, physically and emotionally, from the strain.
The reader is given a tiny glimpse that all may not go well for Kim. And yet it might.
I loved this book when I first read it, and I love it still today. I do have one response to those who say Kipling indulges in stereotyping here, citing the character of Babu. Babu is often afraid, and is the only character who admits to that. And yet he risks his life and the acute possibility of torture, both to accomplish British aims and to save Kim and the Lama. I would argue that he’s a true hero: smart enough to be afraid, but brave and loyal enough to overcome those very real fears and do what he sees as the right thing, and his duty.
As the introduction to this volume says, “Kipling’s view of life is a deeply pessimistic one. Not only is man, as he once put it, at war with his surroundings in a world that does not care, but that world itself is without intrinsic order: chaos and anarchy constitute its true moral reality.” What better place for this worldview than India, with its harshness, diversity, and chaos.
In the story, Kim meets an aged lama and becomes his disciple, and throughout the book there is a duality between Kim’s humanistic love with the lama spiritual love. The fundamental message Kipling imparts to us is that this duality can never be “resolved” and will always exist. The novel takes place during what is referred to as “The Great Game”, that is, the political conflict between Russia and Britain in Central Asia at this time, and there is a similar “earthly” duality between this tension and the better instincts of humanity that is also shown to be unending.
Today Kipling stands for the imperialism of the age and he’s controversial today for having written “The White Man’s Burden” (ugh) two years earlier, but it is not for that Kim didn’t resonate with me. Kim was “ok” as an adventure story, “ok” as a cultural study of India, and “ok” relative to insights into spirituality or the human condition … but not strong enough at any of these for me to recommend it. I think it’s a bit overrated.
"Thou art beyond question an unbeliever, and therefore thou wilt be damned. So says my Law - or I think it does. But thou art also my Little Friend of all the World, and I love thee. So says my heart. This matter of creeds is like horseflesh. The wise man knows horses are good - that there is a profit to be made from all; and for myself - but that I am a good Sunni and hate the men of Tira - I could believe the same of all the Faiths.”
“Bennett looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title of ‘heathen’.”
On eating, and different cultures:
“Certain things are not known to those who eat with forks. It is better to eat with both hands for a while. Speak soft words to those who do not understand this…”
The descriptions of Colonial India were the best part of this book. Definitely, it was a crossroads for many cultures that all seemed to work well together and coexist peacefully. Also, the amazing friendship that Kim develops with the old Tibetan Lama was sweet and touching. But, this book is on quite a few of the notable 'books you MUST read' lists including, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die, Modern Library and the Radcliffe List. For me the book was sweet and even memorable, but not quite earth shattering.
Two small things stuck out at me, unimportant in the grand scheme of the novel, but important to me. The first is the opening chapter, where the lama talks to a museum curator in Lahore. (The curator is apparently Kipling's father.) There's an interesting alliance between the curator's Western, scientific knowledge, and the lama's Eastern, mystical knowledge-- the curator is the only Western character in the whole novel interested in the lama's quest, and the lama is the only character of any type in the novel interested in the museum. Science and mysticism align across cultures, apparently, as both are concerned with the pursuit of truth. This is a marked difference from the Christian religious figures we see, who are (hilariously) only out for the benefit of their own religion's petty causes.
The second thing that fascinated me was the sentence, "The rest was as the darkness of interstellar space." As an sf reader, my kneejerk reading is that it refers to the areas outside of solar systems, but then I realized that in 1901, it probably actually meant the literal spaces between stars as you stare up at the sky. However, checking the OED's citations shows that it had the sf sense at least as early as 1880, so maybe my first inclination was correct! If so, it was definitely an unexpected simile to encounter.
A lot of it, of course, does sound imperialist to a 21rst century ear. "Kim" appeared in 1901, and he doesn't question the right of the "sahibs" to rule India. But in the context of the time, some of his attitudes seem remarkably non-imperialist. Some of the least sympathetic characters in the book are British, including a Church of England minister, who, upon meeting Tibetan holy man "looked at him with the triple-ringed uninterest of the creed that lumps nine-tenths of the world under the title 'heathen' "
Kipling is not "uninterested" in anything about India; he revels in it in what one reviewer termed "Orientalism". That's a fair criticism, but I don't think that it means that one should forego Kipling. I will certainly read more, after having read "Kim".
Yes there are very few female characters of note. Yes it's a time when the British Raj were in charge in India and one of their major issues was the possible incursion of Russia or France (or Russia and France) from Afghanistan. But still this story of an Irish orphan being trained to do work for the powers that be as part of the Great Game played by people in order to manage the country. His ability to be different people helps the situation immensely.
I must say that as a kid I enjoyed the adventure but now I enjoyed the details and having just read the Skull Mantra the difference in acceptance of Tibetan monks and the casual way in which the imperial system is accepted as being for the "betterment" of the "natives" is an interesting look into the past.
It's well written - just a bit blokey for my tastes.
Between the somewhat old-fashioned language and the many, many unfamiliar cultural references, I fear that parts of this may have gone past me a bit, but I enjoyed it a great deal, anyway. There's a wonderfully subtle sense of humor to it, and an equally wonderful sense of the vibrancy and diversity of the Indian landscape and culture. And the sly, savvy Kim is a terrific character, as are many of the people he shares his adventures with.