Many of the classic novels I have been reading in recent weeks have been reasonably familiar to me. often this is through film or television adaptations, or from having read versions or parts of the novel decades ago. ‘Kim’ is an exception to that general rule – although I had heard of the novel, I had no prior knowledge of the plot or characters. I am sure it has been adapted as a film at some point, but not I suspect with any great success.
Kipling is notorious as a jingoistic supporter of Empire, and as this novel is set in 19th Century India, one would have expected the white men to be the heroes, and the Indian characters to be (negative) stereotypes or caricatures. In the event, nothing could be further from the truth. The novel follows the adventures of a young orphan – Kim – who is born of Irish parents, but who grows up assimilated into Indian culture, and who identifies as an Indian (when he first wears white men’s trousers, for example, he finds them uncomfortable and can’t understand why anyone would wear them). He is a classic street rat, surviving on his wits. He meets a Tibetan monk on a pilgrimage, and quickly strikes up a friendship which is the heart of the novel. They journey around India in a fairly leisurely fashion. India is shown in all its magnificent complexity, which many different races, religions and castes. The occupying English forces are also not portrayed simplistically as either all good or bad – they include a range of well developed characters, some of whom are benevolent, others less so. But there is not a hint of jingoism anywhere in the novel. Kipling quite obviously had a deep affinity with India, and while his portrait of the country is not rose-tinted, at the same time he demonstrates an understanding of the peoples, traditions and cultures that you would never have anticipated from someone with his reputation as a defender of Empire. Occupation is not a benevolent force for good in India – neither is it the opposite – it simply is part of the experience of the citizens of the country.
In the course of his journeys, Kim’s parenthood is revealed, and he is given an ‘English’ education. Because of his knowledge of India and its culture, as well as a natural quick wit, he is prepared for a career as a spy, a player in the ‘Great Game’. We are introduced to some of the other spies, all native Indians risking their lives to ensure intelligence is fed to the occupying English. Towards the end of the novel, as Kim’s spiritual journey reaches its anti-climax, this espionage sub-plot also comes to a slightly comic conclusion, as two foreign spies (French and Russian, in an unlikely alliance) are humiliated because of their lack of respect for and knowledge of Indian culture.
Given the period in which it was written, this is a surprisingly enlightened novel. But was it any good? Perhaps there is a reason why the novel is not in the first tier of classics, not part of the cultural zeitgeist. Because the answer is not really. It was a struggle to complete. Much of the action is conveyed through dialogue, and Kipling uses innumerable terms deriving from the Raj which are sometimes translated, but often not (in the particular edition at least (Wordsworth Classics) – I can imagine that there are other versions with more comprehensive footnotes that would have clarified some of these terms). So it was at points not easy to follow the plot. Kim is an endearing character, and his supporting cast are reasonably well developed, but overall I never fully engaged with the novel, and would probably not have finished it were it not for a streak of stubbornness. I can see why, when choosing a Kipling novel to adapt, Disney chose ‘The Jungle Book’, not ‘Kim’!