On the surface of it, this is a straight up adventure tale – the stories of a half-Irish half-Indian orphan, left to shift for himself on the streets of India, who gets wound up in the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia in the 1880s (ish). I’m a sucker for a book with a map in the front, so it was probably inevitable that I picked up another copy over the years:
Among his many adventures, Kim joins with a saintly old Lama from Tibet (seeking enlightenment by wandering around India searching for the Stream of Immortality), attends a catholic school, and defeats a Russian master spy.
Kipling was clever, though. It’s not just a run-of-the-mill adventure you’ve got on your hands here: If you dig a little deeper, it reveals all of the embarrassments of colonialism (perhaps Kipling didn’t view them as embarrassments exactly, but still, they’re in there) alongside the richness of India.
Ultimately, East and West are perfectly matched in Kim, with Kipling using him to explore the country he loves:
“India was awake, and Kim was in the middle of it, more awake and more excited than anyone, chewing on a twig that he would presently use as a toothbrush; for he borrowed right- and left-handedly from all the customs of the country he knew and loved.”
Just like Kipling that isn’t it? To sneak complicated ideas into simple sentences, I mean. The whole style of this novel is like that, whilst barely containing his characteristic exuberance, that sings at times. It is almost joyful. The opening sentence even makes it into my top-ten-all-time-opening-sentences list:
“He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam Zammah… Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.”
I recommend this quite a lot. As long as you can stand all the bits of colonialism and stuff.