Kim – Rudyard Kipling

Kim

Summary

An orphaned son of an Irish soldier, raised by an Indian opium seller, agrees to become the helper of a Tibetan lama searching for a mythical river, but also becomes involved with British intelligence gathering.

Review

I first (and last) read Kim about 40 years ago. I recall that I liked it, but wasn’t overwhelmed; I liked Kipling’s other work better. Now, re-reading as an adult, I’m impressed that I did so well with it. The language is far more dense and allusive than I recall, and in this second reading, I had less patience for it.

Kipling grew up and worked in India, and he’s clearly bringing his experiences and contemporary views to bear. There are plenty of stereotypes of Asians and Indians here, but there are also plenty about Britons and Europeans, and often just as unflattering. The impression is affectionate, though – while Kipling may use terms and phrases that we’re no longer comfortable with, he’s not mocking his stereotypes, just drawing them larger than life.

While there is a plot, the bulk of the book is a series of character sketches or descriptions – the impressions of Kim as he wanders around northern India with his lama. For those looking for an overview of an exotic landscape, I expect it was appealing. To be fair, Kim is a fairly well developed character, and his cohort is varied and fun. However, on this reading, I found the story difficult to engage with. As I’ve gotten older, I’m often impatient with description, and more interested in emotion; Kim’s approach is generally the reverse. In visual terms, it’s impressionistic – all color and little structure. The plot, while functional, is clearly intended as a carrier for the settings and characters, and not as an end in itself; it holds together, but doesn’t bear too much attention. The characters are the book’s strength, and frankly, there’s more Kipling could have done here, especially if he’d been willing to go beneath the surface a little. The relationship between Kim and is lama is deep and textured, but it’s largely hinted at rather than explored. As an adult, that’s where I’d have liked to see the story go. As a child, I imagine that lack didn’t bother me.

I didn’t remember the book well, and had frankly expected something altogether different. While I first read this as a child, I find it hard to see as a children’s book anymore. There’s the clever protagonist to identify with, but the language is hard to follow. Then again, I did like it as a child, and we often underestimate children, so perhaps I’m doing that now. All in all, a colorful picture of a bygone India from a character and writer who cross boundaries.

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