It’s been many years since I have read any Kipling, and even then, I don’t know that I ever read very much more than The Jungle Book. But I recently came across a reading list of books read by a WW1 soldier that he had put at the end of his diary, and while Kim wasn’t on the list, a number of books by authors that I have been reading such as Ian Hay, John Buchan and Gene Stratton-Porter are, along with Jack London, and , Rider Haggard. Since a couple of books by Jack London are currently somewhere in Mount TBR, I thought it might be an idea to focus a bit more on literature read in the trenches. As well as all the other books I’m focussed on.
I enjoyed Kim. The streetwise urchin is a common enough archetype, although Kim is light years away from the treacly sentiment of Michael O’Halloran, for example. We are not left at the end of Kim wondering how a child brought up on his wits has managed to learn that lying and stealing are wrong – Kim unrepentantly does both, and is no paragon, but is nevertheless most engaging.
In terms of plot, the novel takes the form of a coming of age tale, largely picaresque in nature, as Kim allies himself to a wandering Tibetan Lama’s search for enlightenment, and seeks the answer to the question of who he is. It is significant for its large cast of Indian characters who are largely sympathetic and well drawn, unlike similar characters in contemporary novels, and it probably does give a fairly accurate picture (if one bears the obvious biases in mind) of life in India at that time.
Kimball O’Hara, the orphan son of an Irish soldier of the Raj, is raising himself on the streets of Lahore, more at home in Punjabi than English, and terrified of being carted off to an orphanage. One day his path crosses that of Teshoo lama, and Kim finds himself swept up in the quest for enlightenment, acting as the lama’s chela or disciple, although in reality protecting the naïve Tibetan from the ravages of Indian opportunism. Along the way Kim runs into his father’s old regiment, which leads eventually to Kim’s recruitment as an intelligence agent. This part of the plot is very boy’s own, and of less interest, for me it was the journey through India that made the novel so good.
The only thing about it that really irritated me was the way Kipling chose to represent characters speaking Indian languages by the use of overtly archaic English forms – ‘thou art a wastrel’ and so forth. I’m not sure but that it was a convention of the time to do that, but it’s still unnecessary, and gets in the way of the story.
Other discussions of Kim