Thursday, 18 June 1998

Rudyard Kipling: Kim (1901)

Edition: Penguin, 1987
Review number: 69

Kipling's famous novel of British India, which made his name in the late nineteenth century, is still worth reading today. Kipling is rather out of favour today with the academic world; his work is routinely accused of racism. It's perhaps rather unfair to suggest this of Kipling; he was hardly as bad as many of the people of his own time, and Kim suggests considerable respect for many aspects of Indian culture.

Whatever else Kipling's book may be, it is certainly a good read, and was the prototype for many "ripping yarn" type stories. There is surprisingly little in the way of action when you think about it; Kim may become involved in spying, but he is hardly James Bond before his time.

There are certainly aspects to the story that have not endured so well. The odd remark strikes the reader as patronising (asides about the Oriental idea of efficiency and so on), and the idea that a white man could pass unnoticed through Indian society, even if brought up as though a native, is fairly absurd, as is pointed out in Edward Said's excellent introduction to this edition. (The introductions are one of the strongest points of the Penguin Classics series.)

One of the reasons Kim succeeds is because of the sympathetic treatment Kipling gives to the lama befriended and served by Kim. The lama is completely taken up with his quest for the river of healing, and is naive about the world while being extremely wise. His complex personality makes the comparatively sketchy nature of the other characters work well.

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