Friday, 25 January 2013

Kim - Rudyard Kipling

I encountered Kipling as a child, which was clearly a great mistake.  I didn't get it.  I hated it.  Thick end of half a century later this amazing cover image stared at me out of the library window.  I considered overnight whether I should risk associating myself with a work of Kipling. Thought what the hey, borrowed it, and had my eyes well and truly opened.

There is a view that for Kim, and for Kim alone, Kipling won the 1907 Nobel Prize, this of course being before Baden Powell fetishized the Jungle Books.  I can well believe it.  Kim is an astonishing tour de force, literature which transcends mere narrative.  There's something of the Pilgrim's Progress at work here, but with a total immersion in the multi-coloured world of Raj India.  Kim is only a child but he has two distinct identities, Sahib and native guttersnipe, which he switches between at will.  For this reason he is subsumed into the Great Game (British Intelligence) whilst at the same time being the devoted chela of the Tishoo Lama.  How any novelist can make an interesting character out of a lama with no personal identity, engaged on a hopeless quest, beats me.  That Kipling can make him so attractive and compelling defies belief.  The other characters likewise: the Afghan horse dealer Mahbub Ali, the healer of pearls Lurgan Sahib, the garrulous widow, the all-powerful Woman of Srinagar, and the Babu doctor - a magnificent gallery, all richly realised, several without even a name to distinguish them.

Apart from the cover, this Penguin classic is a horrible edition.  There are far too many endnotes, sometimes three or four a line, which interferes with reading pleasure.  It would have been much better to include an appendix dealing with Kipling's use of local colour.  To my mind, he uses Indian names like a conjurer uses abracadabra - it really doesn't matter what they mean, they are there to add zing to the experience.  The introduction by Edward W Said is unforgiveable.  Why commission a critic who doesn't like Kipling?

For one thing, it is far too long.  Introduce it, for Pete's sake, don't append a scholarly paper.  As a piece of criticism it is very old fashioned, the sort of stuff that was de rigeur in the seventies and eighties but has long since passed its sell-by date.  Said seems to have convinced himself that Kipling is a racist.  Nonsense, as all those wonderful characters I have just listed demonstrate.  Kipling is not patronising his Indians, he clearly adores them.  Kipling evidently considered the Raj to be a good thing, but that doesn't make him racist, it makes him imperialist - a man of his era.

Said is a Conrad specialist, so he compares Conrad and Kipling.  There is no connection or parallel.  Conrad was a Pole who turned himself into an Englishman.  Kipling was an Englishman born and raised in India.  Conrad was pretty much a nobody when he arrived in England; Kipling couldn't have been more Establishment - he was Stanley Baldwin's cousin for one thing.  If the Conrad comparison is not sufficiently spurious, Said goes on to compare Kipling's Kim with Thomas Hardy's Jude.  Why?  Again, no sensible comparison is either possible or conceivable.  Kim is a happy-go-lucky youth devoid of all ties, Jude a depressive stonemason weighed down by family. Ridiculous.

Back to the main issue, though.  This is a staggeringly brilliant novel.  Read it - re-read it if need be.  But skip the intro and don't waste time on the notes.

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