“Who Is Kim?”: Rudyard Kipling, Kim

broadview-kim“Hai mai! I go from one place to another as it might be a kickball. It is my Kismet. No man can escape his Kismet. But I am to pray to Bibi Miriam, and I am a Sahib”–he looked at his boots ruefully. “No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?” He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India, going southward to he knew not what fate.

I read Kim because it–and Kipling more generally–seemed like a gap in my knowledge of “my” field. It seemed plausible to me before I read it that I might add it to the reading list for my course in the late(r) 19th-century novel (though strictly speaking, Kim is a 20th-century novel, as it was originally published in 1901). Without knowing much specific about it, I did know that it was about an English boy growing up in India and thus about empire and colonialism and national identity (again, strictly speaking, Kim turns out to be Irish, which is of course relevant to those themes as well). It is indeed about those things. I imagined it was some combination of adventure story and Bildungsroman–and, again, it is indeed both of those things. I also imagined it would be lively and entertaining to read. Hmmm.

oxford=kimI guess it was lively and entertaining, occasionally, and it was also occasionally beautiful and poetic, and funny, and suspenseful. But I also found it something of a slog to get through, mostly because so much of the dialogue is a wearying blend of theatrical posturing and archaisms. The latter, and perhaps also the former, are meant (I assume) to give the language a “foreign” air so that we know the characters are not actually speaking in English–and there are also idioms and allusions drawn from the characters’ various cultures and languages that add to the effect. A small sample, from the first chapter:

“But I now see that he was but sent upon a purpose. By this I know that I shall find a certain River for which I seek.”

“The River of the Arrow?” said Kim, with a superior smile.

“Is this yet another Sending?” cried the lama. “To none have I spoken of my search, save to the Priest of the Images. Who art thou?”

“Thy chela,” said Kim simply, sitting on his heels. “I have never seen anyone like to thee in all this my life. I go with thee to Benares. And, too, I think that so old a man as thou, speaking truth to chance-met people at dusk, is in great need of a disciple.”

Perhaps it doesn’t seem so bad in a snippet, but I found it pretty tedious and sometimes just hard to follow when it goes on (as it often does) for pages. I suppose I would get better at it, feel more at home in it, with practice. I don’t find Scots dialect in Scott particularly hard to follow, after all–and I have even made a case for the value of an estranging idiom in Romola. I really did have a hard time with it here, though.

penguin-kimOn the other hand, I loved Kipling’s scene setting, which is vivid and concrete and rich in detail. From the crowded streets of Lahore to the mountains of Tibet, he shows us the sights, and conjures up the sounds and smells of the landscape as well. “This was seeing the world in real truth,” Kim thinks as he looks around one bright morning on the road:

this was life as he would have it–bustling and shouting, the buckling of belts, and beating of bullocks and creaking of wheels, lighting of fires and cooking of food, and new sights at every turn of the approving eye. The morning mist swept off in a whorl of silver, the parrots shot away to some distant river in shrieking green hosts: all the well-wheels within ear-shot went to work. India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it, more awake and more excited than anyone, chewing on a twig that he would presently use as a toothbrush; for he borrowed right-and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved.

(As a side note, Kim is the only novel from the period that I can think of in which characters are so regular and explicit about cleaning their teeth! They mention it a lot.) Here’s another nice bit:

So they travelled very easily across and among the broad bloomful fruit-gardens. . . . After long, sweet sleep under the dry stars cane the lordly, leisurely passage through a waking village–begging-bowl held forth in silence, but eyes roving in defiance of the Law from sky’s edge to sky’s edge. Then would Kim return soft-footed through the soft dust to his master under the shadow of a mango-tree or the thinner shade of a white Doon siris, to eat and drink at ease. . . .

These are the kinds of passages I found myself flagging as I went along, not the ones about Kim’s involvement in the Great Game or the lama’s ruminations on the Way or the Wheel of Life, or the elaborate schemes and ruses and quackery of Hurree Babu.

vintage-kimKim himself is a bit of a delight. I was disappointed that the novel ended so inconclusively, without clearly answering his oft-repeated question about his identity. Reading the very thorough introduction to my Broadview edition by Máiri ní Fhlathúin, I was not surprised to learn that this “unsatisfactory” ending has “proved amenable to many readings, and resistant to any conclusive interpretation”; the readings she summarizes focus primarily on how or whether Kim’s Indian and British identities are reconciled, whether he turns away from or is subsumed by his role as an agent of empire. His relationship with the lama is very sweet, though I personally found the lama kind of tedious (I have limited patience for “holy men” unless they do worldly good, and in my admittedly limited experience of Buddhism I have never found it particularly congenial).

I think Kim would be really interesting to teach, not least because (as Máiri ní Fhlathúin discusses) it is controversial as a novel about the British in India, vulnerable to charges of perpetuating orientalizing stereotypes and colonial attitudes but also defensible as a sympathetic and not uncritical exploration of a time of complex intersections between East and West. Also, the storytelling is great sometimes, and Kim’s charm, fearlessness, and ingenuity make him a very appealing protagonist. I would have to learn a lot to teach it well, but that’s really not a disincentive. What is, is my concern that students would have the same trouble I did persisting with it. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who has taught or studied it, or just enjoyed reading it. Do I overestimate the problem? Perhaps (at least as likely) I underestimate the difficulty of, say, Dickens’s idiosyncratic dialects or Eliot’s carefully rendered midlands speech: Kim’s linguistic peculiarities may be no greater than these, only less familiar to me, and so not likely to be any more off-putting to students, in this respect at least, than Silas Marner or Hard Times.

6 thoughts on ““Who Is Kim?”: Rudyard Kipling, Kim

  1. Tredynas Days February 27, 2019 / 4:43 am

    It’s so long ago that I read this I’m not qualified to answer your questions; I do recall those depictions of colonialism and the Great Game, and the parable about the goal of Kim’s quest – you’re a bit hard on the poor holy man! Just a few years after Gissing’s Odd Women, so could be a contrasting companion text (Victorian social class attitudes,etc.) That famous essay by Greg advocated emigration to the colonies as a solution to the problem of the surfeit of unmarried women…

  2. buriedinprint March 3, 2019 / 4:27 pm

    This was on my list of reading projects for 2017 and it took me the winter break of that year to finally get through it. (I’d tried about three times throughout the year and kept stalling within a few pages.) And, had it not been such a challenge just to get beyond those few pages, I probably would have given up at the half-way point, between Christmas and New Year’s and aiming to complete during that year, because I really wasn’t finding any aspect of it enjoyable. Although, if I were teaching it, I could imagine finding some of the historical elements of interest, with further reading/study. But, sheesh, surely there are other even-half-as-appealing candidates in your gap-filling projects! 🙂

    • Rohan Maitzen March 4, 2019 / 10:05 am

      Basically I agree that there are better options – by which I mean easier or more appealing options. I can imagine a reading list tilted towards ‘Britain and Empire’ for which Kim would be a great choice, and possibly in that context some of the effort that would go into understanding it would be mitigated by what we would know and discuss about related books. But for my more general survey courses, I think it would just not fly.

      • buriedinprint March 29, 2019 / 3:31 pm

        In the course of looking for another quote, I came across this passage which I had noted when I read L.M. Montgomery’s journals a few years ago, and thought of your recent reading:

        “I re-read Kipling’s Kim tonight – that is, I finished re-reading it, having had it out for several weeks – for alas, I get so little time for reading now, and what I do get I steal from sleep. I read it many years ago when it first came out and cared little for it as contrasted with his short tales. But this time I found it charming. And yet how strangely far away everything written before the war seems now. I felt as if I were perusing some classic as ancient as the Iliad.
        December 21, 1916”

        • Rohan Maitzen March 29, 2019 / 9:52 pm

          What an interesting connection!

  3. dollymix March 26, 2019 / 10:41 am

    I just reread this and didn’t have a problem with the dialogue – I quite liked the archaic elements of it. That said, there were parts I had trouble following, specifically what exactly was going on with the “mission”, such as it is, toward the end of the book, which may have been me not paying enough attention but which may have also been a lack of clarity in the language.

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