I have just read Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim and am in awe of it.
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
- he wrote the wonderful Just So Stories
- his reputation as a stuffy defender of the British Empire
- 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.