Monday, June 30, 2008

Book #14 - Kim (Rudyard Kipling)

I'm traveling this week, and for reading on my trip I picked up Rudyard Kipling's "Kim". Turns out it's not a bad choice, since for at least the first part of the novel the two main characters are themselves traveling. I seem to have been reading a streak of 19th century English literature recently...not planned, really, but it's been fun to stay within the same cultural context. Kipling, though, write this book in 1900, so I'm now at the tail end of that era, whereas "Frankenstein" was from the beginning of it. And this book takes place far from the British Isles, but rather in the British colonial posession of India.

I'm about 60 pages into the book. I've never read any Kipling before...never even saw the movie version of "The Jungle Book". I always had this vague conception in my mind that Kipling wrote for kids, probably because of "The Jungle Book" (or wait, was that written by Walt Disney?). While the protagonist of Kim is a young lad, I'm not so sure I'd call this a kid's book. In fact, the language gets a little dense in places, and can be hard to follow. It's the story of a young Irish boy whose father was a soldier in India. He is orphaned at an early age and is forced to grow up on the streets of a town in India, fending for himself. Sounds a bit like Dickens, but it really isn't. In Dickens, Kim's story would be one of squalor and constant danger, but Kipling's Kim is a wily, unbelievably street-smart kid who can more than take care of himself. He can totally confound and manipulate all the adults he runs across. He meets a traveling Tibetan Buddhist priest, who is looking for a magical river whose waters have wonderful powers. Kim tags along with him, and together they leave Kim's town for parts unknown...the priest to find his river, and Kim to, well, to just travel around. The story so far mostly concerns the different people they meet up with along the way. Kipling lived in India, and his descriptions of the different customs and castes of people there are well worth reading. It is indeed a whole different world.

One thing that's a bit hard for the modern reader (i.e. me) to get around is Kipling's attitude toward race. I don't think he's a racist, but he does focus on race a lot, and in stereotyped ways that would not be PC today. He refers to Kim as being burned as black as the natives. He says that Kim can "lie like an oriental". Race was certainly an issue in colonial India. After all, these were the days of the "white man's burden" (a phrase coined by Kipling, and the title of a poem he wrote). It was the height of the British Empire, and issues of the goals of empire were in question, as were the roles and obligations of the British to the non-white subjects they ruled over in their colonial possessions. But it's hard for the modern reader to relate, as there are no more European empires, and as ideas of race have changed so dramatically in the last 100 years. And unfortunately, I know very little about the history of colonial India. Nonetheless, it's an entertaining tale so far. I'm not sure where it's all going, but I'm willing to go along for the ride.

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