Monday, May 12, 2014

K is for Kipling

I have a certain feeling of ambivalence after reading Rudyard Kipling's Kim, my 11th writer in my dead guy challenge. After turning over the last page, I thought that it was merely a coming-of-age novel. But then I checked out the novel's summary online, and boy oh boy was I surprised. How could I have missed all those details! To say that I felt stupid would be an understatement.

Kim, the main character, is a boy of Irish descent living in India during the British empire in the 19th century. He's a ruffian, a jester, a street rat in Lahore. Then he befriends Teshoon Lama, a former abbot whose dream is to free himself from the Wheel of Things. Teshoon Lama is on a quest to find the River of the Arrow, and he and Kim find themselves in many adventures in their quest.

As the novel progresses, we witness how Kim grows from the unruly orphaned boy that he is to a chela (servant) of the lama, a student in an English school in Lucknow, a government appointee, a surveyor (a spy of sorts), and a key player in the battle between the British empire and the Russians. And this last role is where I have a problem with. I felt that Kim was never really offered a choice in his role as a spy. Everything was laid out for him to become one.

What I did like were the amusing parts where Kim and lama travel to many exotic locations in India. Also, I found their encounters with several characters (e.g., a prostitute, a sick child, a sorceress) charming. This is where Kipling's novel shines. As for the grand plot involving espionage, everything was like a blur. I would have preferred more details, more texture, on these parts of the novel.

Kim is still an entertaining read. Although one major aspect of my ambivalence toward is whether the novel can be enjoyed by children or not. I do see Kim in many bookstores under the children's section, and there's a Puffin edition of it. But the novel's political themes may be too overwhelming for young readers. I guess if the readers are guided to focus on the characters' adventures, then I guess it could very well work as a children's book.

Read this book if:
  1. You like your adventure stories set in exotic locations.
  2. You've always been curious about the actions of the British empire.
  3. You'll read anything by Nobel Prize-winning authors.


Jack said...

Ah, Kipling, one of the few classical authors that my stomach will tolerate. Small wonder that the literary snobs insist that he really isn't a member of the true classics. I didn't get Kim as a child, and haven't returned to it. Of course, The Jungle Book remains his best-known work, and many people know If without really knowing where it came from. White Man's Burden is routinely misunderstood, and my personal favorite is Tommy. Such a range this man covered, he truly offers something for every taste. As a literary observer, you could do a year on Mr. K, and not lose a speck of quality between New Year's and Christmas. Well done, good sir!

Peter S. said...

Hello, Jack! And his poetry too! I think I prefer his poems to his novels.

Jeane said...

I totally missed all the political goings-on when I first read Kim as a teen. I just enjoyed the characters, without really following much of it. Glad I read it again, and if I read it now I'm sure I'd understand & discover even more. One of my favorite scenes was when Kim and the Lama were riding in a train and disguised themselves, completely changing their identities and striking awe into their fellow-travellers.... such great descriptions.

Peter S. said...

Hello, Jeane! Me too! I love that scene as well!

When I reread Kim, I'll make sure to do so slowly.