Friday, 15 December 2000

Rudyard Kipling: Traffics and Discoveries (1904)

Edition: MacMillan, 1949
Review number: 696
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Most collections of Rudyard's Kipling's short stories today seem rather uneven; some of his writing has dated much more than the rest. Traffics and Discoveries is not so much uneven as poor; few of the stories it contains have much to say. There are several patriotic stories from the Boer War period; as this was hardly marked by British moral superiority - being best remembered today for the British invention of the concentration camp - its propaganda now gives an uncomfortable feeling to the British reader.

Among Kipling's most successful adult stories were those whose central characters were three privates in the Indian Army, and there are three stories in this collection which attempt to repeat this formula with the Navy. It doesn't really work, partly because there is virtually no originality in them, and partly because the writing is diffuse and confusing.

Most interesting are the stories which look at some of the most significant new technologies of the time - the car, the radio, and electric power. This includes what it almost certainly the earliest story to feature a traffic policeman. The car is also important in 'They', which begins with a breakdown. Probably the best story in the collection, it is a rather Jamesian tale about the ghosts of children.

One other tale deserves comment. Initially, The Army of the Dream seems to be Kipling the right wing Imperial apologist through and through; it is basically a tract in support of the formation of what amounts to the Territorial Army, and apparently views warfare as an extension of team sports. (This was, of course, a not uncommon metaphor among the British upper classes until it was discredited in the First World War less than a decade after the publication of this collection.) However, it has a sharp sting in the tail, as the narrator awakens from his dream in his London club to realise that the men he has been talking to are all dead. This of course undermines everything he appears to have been trying to say, and leaves the reader with an uneasy feeling - exactly as Kipling must have intended.

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