Monday, May 06, 2013

[Books] Book Look: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling

Bool Look: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling: Kim is not an easy read. It is loaded with "thy"s and "thee"s and the poetic sentence formation and the vernacular of the British Raj. It's tough to do it in small bites, which is really the only way I read nowadays. It's probably best in a more extended session with ample time to acclimate to the rhythm and style. Still, it's a ripping good yarn by any measure.

Kim O'Hara is a street orphan in colonial India (late 1800's). The son of an Irishman, he has completely gone native. He is as street smart as they come -- but sympathetic and good-hearted enough to be nicknamed "Friend to all the World." As the story unfolds, Kim meets a wandering Buddhist priest who becomes his mentor and something of a substitute father figure. His innate wiliness brings him into the circle of a Muslim horse-trader who is also a British spy and becomes another father figure, although representing something much more practical. He eventually encounters the army regiment of his late father, who assume the responsibility of taking him in and transforming him into a Sahib (a European). Here he is watched carefully and it is determined that he should be trained to join the Great Game -- the British Intelligence Service's name for the cold war being waged between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia. In time, he re-unites with the priest and the collision of hsi mentor's spiritual quest and his duties in the Great Game bring about a crisis and reconciliation for both the priest and Kim.

The surface story is a tale of adventure, with Kim as a figure of the sort we would now call "the chosen one" -- someone fated to face a challenge to fulfill his destiny. In fact, Kim is often lumped in the Young Adult section of your library (in a colloquialized, somewhat dumbed-down form, most likely). All the tropes we know from action movies are there, although they are used less blatantly in context. And it is the context that provides the most interest.

A book from more than a century ago can be quite a shock to the uninitiated. All the good progressive signally we are used to seeing every day is not present. There are few more ethnically and religiously diverse times or places than colonial India, and Kipling relishes in colorful descriptions of a various stripes of people. However, there are no paens to equality. There is a clear pecking order with the Sahibs on top. That is not to say they are oppressors or the non-Sahibs are denigrated. Orientals (Kipling's word) are regularly admired for the wits and the skillful way they get by -- and for the depth of their spirituality. Kim even notes that most Sahib's can appear dull-witted and out of place. However, there is no question that the resources and clear-minded understanding of the world give them the upper hand, and that is not thought unjust. Readers nursed on the later twentieth century view of colonialism will be off-put. But like I said, there is sense of a certain order, but there is no blanket denigration. In fact, the Sahibs who are truly culturally insensitive are in for beatdowns -- either figuratively or literally.

(Aside: I am not even slightly off-put by such things. I wouldn't judge the values of earlier times by the current ones, lest I be judged by young'ns. In fact, I'm getting to the point where I see the times of my youth regularly judged to be morally wanting and my reaction is almost always "As if your world is superior. You have no idea what you're talking about. Now get off my lawn!" So I'll stay off the lawn of the British Empire.)

I mention those things because we live in a world so obsessed with jockeying for socially correct poses. Kim soars by way of a colorful, sympathetic, and deeply endearing characters (of all cultural types) that Kipling laces throughout the book. The eye cast on these folks is clear sees no illusions, but it is generally celebratory, and we, along with Kim can revel in the wonder and mystery of the world. It is a genuine impulse, not a pose.

Should you read Kim? It's good for a curious and thoughtful mind. Although there is a fair amount of action, it is a bit dialogue heavy, but it's still a cut above what you would probably read in a modern book of similar themes. Kipling's prose is quite lovely and clever, although it takes a bit of attention to get into the groove. I would say yes, you should read it, if you're ready to put in the time and effort. Money is not a question as it is long out of copyright and is freely available in various formats at What's better than a great book for free?