I probably know what every Brit my age knows about Rudyard Kipling – born in India… The Jungle Book… Nobel Prize for Literature… ‘If–’… He’s supposed to be the quintessentially British Empire writer. And yet I’ve only seen Disney’s The Jungle Book, and never read anything by him. Which is why I picked Kim as my March reading for this year’s challenge…
Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, brought up as a beggar on the streets of Lahore. One day, he meets a Tibetan lama, and becomes his chela or disciple. The two set off on a religious trek around India, searching for the River of the Arrow which will free the lama from all sin. In the past, Kim has also run errands for Mahbub Ali, a Pathan horse-trader who works for the British secret service. Through Ali, he becomes involved in the Great Game, the covert war for control of Central Asia between Russia and Britain throughout the Nineteenth Century.
During their journey, Kim stumbles across the regiment his father belonged to, and is identified as the son of a Sahib. He is sent to school, but then recruited by Mahbub Ali’s superior officer. He sends him to a top school for Sahibs in Lucknow. After several years there, Kim returns to his lama, and the two continue their religious trek, this time up into the foothills of the Himalayas. There they stumble across a pair of Russian spies and Kim does his part for Empire.
If British sf authors followed in the footsteps of HG Wells, after reading Kim I have to wonder if US sf authors took Kipling’s path. There’s something about its depiction of India during the days of British Empire which reads more like early US-style space opera than historical fiction. The mix of strange cultures, the historical info-dumping, the somewhat archaic language (all thee and thou), the nobility of purpose of the characters… It’s a rich and heady stew and every bit as exotic and adventuresome as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom or Leigh Brackett’s Mars.
The prose is… odd. It’s not just the archaic language – you soon cease to notice that. But it almost falls into reportage in places, and Kipling frequently breaks the illusion between reader and story – at one point, for example, he even adds authorial commentary to an expression used by a character:
‘The house be unblessed!’ (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word.)
A lot of the plot is carried in dialogue – as it is in a lot of early science fiction, where characters explain intentions and actions and consequences to each other. It’s never done crudely, like sf’s infamous “As you know, Bob,” info-dump. But I did wonder if such poor exposition in sf was born from a bad attempt to emulate Kipling’s style. Also, Kim‘s plot features a hurried tying-up of plot-threads and an abrupt resolution – yet another characteristic sf shares with Kim.
Despite all that, the landscapes in Kim are vividly-drawn, and the writing is at its most evocative and impressive when the story moves into the Himalayas. Perhaps some of the characters are a little over-the-top, especially Hurree Babu and Lurgan, two of Kim’s colleagues in the British secret service. And perhaps some parts of the story are glossed over a little quickly, such as Kim’s school years in Lucknow. But what is there has its compensations. It’s a fascinating world Kipling describes; but while there are enough adventurous elements to the story to keep you reading, there is also a lot of instructional dialogue.
I suspect I’ll not be reading Kim again. However, the (cheap) edition I bought also includes The Jungle Book. I think I’ll give that a go one of these days… and then stick the book up on bookmooch.com.