According to wikipedia, in 1901, when Kim was published, the first Nobel Peace Prize was given to French poet Sully Prudhomme over Leo Tolstoy, a decision that many people considered outrageous. Anthropologist Margaret Mead was born, and Johana Spyri, author of Heidi, died. Other notable works published in 1901 include My Brilliant Career, by Australian author Miles Franklin, Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, and Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter.
This was my first book by Rudyard Kipling. Mr. Kipling was born in India in 1865 to a British mother and father. He lived in India until he was five, when he was sent home to England, as was the custom in British India. There has been criticism of Kipling’s “imperialist” viewpoint as relates to India. Nonetheless, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1907.
I found Kim to be both a bit of a struggle and occasionally transcendent. I love reading about British India – there is something so exotic about that time period and place, with its pageantry and intrigue. The culure and geography of India is endlessly fascinating. Much of what I loved about Kim was the way that Kipling described India. For example:
The Grand Trunk at this point was built on an embankment to guard against winter floods from the foothills so that one walked, as it were, a little above the country, along a stately corridor, seeing all India spread out to left and right. It was beautiful to behold the many-yoked grain and cotton wagons crawling over the country roads: one could hear their axles, complaining a mile away, coming nearer, till with shouts and yells and bad words they climbed up the steep inclined and plunged on to the hard main road, carter reviling carter. It was equally beautiful to watch the people, little clumps of red and blue and pink and white and saffron, turning aside to go to their own villages, dispersing and growing small by twos and threes across the level plain. Kim felt these things, though he could not give tongue to his feelings and so contented himself with buying peeled sugar-cane and spitting the pith generously about his path. From time to time the llama took snuff . . .
Thus, after long hours of what would be reckoned very fair mountaineering in civilized countries, they would pant over a saddle-back, sidle past a few landslips, and drop through the forest at an angle of forty-five on to the road again. Along their track lay the villages of the hill-folk — mud and earth huts, timbers now and then rudely carved with an axe — clinging like swallows nests against the steeps, huddled on tiny flats halfway down a three-thousand-foot glissade; jammed into a corner between cliffs that funneled and focused every wandering blast; or, for the sake of summer pasture, cowering down on a neck that in winter would be ten feet deep in snow.
Kim is a picaresque novel of the main character’s adventures in India. He is an orphan of a British soldier who grows up on the streets of Lahore. He meets and becomes the disciple of a Tibetan lama, and he is recruited to carry a message to the head of British intelligence in Umballa. He is educated in an Indian school for British boys, and is ultimately recruited into “the Great Game” or into the intelligence service of the British raj. He is chameleon-like, able to take on new identities convincingly and easily. The book ends before Kim’s twentieth birthday, when he is barely out of childhood, before he has decided which path he will take – will he continue to seek enlightenment with his lama, or join the Game?
Kim himself often shows much confusion over his own identity. Near the end of the book, he cries out:
“I am Kim. I am Kim. And what is Kim?” His soul repeated it again and again.
He did not want to cry, — had never felt less like crying in his life, — but of a sudden easy, stupid tears trickled down his nose, and with an almost audible click he felt the wheels of his being lock up anew on the world without. Things that rode meaningless on the eyeball an instant before slid into proper proportion. Roads were meant to be walked upon, houses to be lived in, cattle to be drive, fields to be tilled, and men and women to be talked to.”
Overall, I enjoyed Kim. Kipling is sometimes considered a children’s author, and Kim is sometimes considered a boy’s adventure novel. This is a multi-layered book that “presents a vivid picture of India, its teeming populations, religions, and superstitions, and the life of the bazaars and the road.”*
*”Kim”. in: The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature. Ed. Margaret Drabble and Jenny Stringer. Oxford University Press, 2007. Oxford Reference Online.