Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Plenty of atmosphere but not much plot
Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim, published in 1901, is considered a classic tale of adventure and a seminal precursor to the modern spy novel. It even makes frequent appearances on top 100 lists of the best books ever written in the English language. Such high praise creates high expectations, and this novel didn’t even come close to living up to them. Though obviously penned by a highly skilled wordsmith, the novel offers neither enough adventure nor enough espionage to satisfy on either front. It does provide a detailed depiction of India worthy of a vintage issue of National Geographic, but one that is needlessly verbose and unfortunately dull.

Kim is a white boy in India, the orphaned son of a poor Irish soldier. He lives on the streets of Lahore, jovially scraping by as a beggar and errand boy. When a Buddhist Lama from Tibet comes to town, Kim volunteers to accompany him on his journey to find a mystical river of healing. Along the way, he is recruited to practice espionage on behalf of the British government, and becomes a participant in “The Great Game”—the contest between Britain and Russia for dominance in central Asia.

The chronicling of Kim’s travels and training allows Kipling the opportunity to present a vivid panorama of India in the late 19th century. Kipling, who was born in India, obviously has a great love for the land of his birth and proves himself quite knowledgeable on the richness and diversity of Indian culture. There is an overall comical tone to the book, however, that leaves a bit of an aftertaste of imperial condescension. The narrative is populated by a myriad of characters, and each one is indeed a character. While Kipling displays a comprehensive ethnographic understanding of everyone’s races and creeds, he often depicts their beliefs and practices in so quaint and picturesque a manner that he seems to be making fun of them. What’s worse, he’s far more interested in the personal quirks of his characters than in the parts they play in advancing the story. He heaps on so much local color that it’s detrimental to the plot. Every conversation in the book is four times longer than it needs to be. When Kim comes to a figurative fork in the road, the reader knows immediately which way he’s going to turn, but must read through a half hour’s worth of deliberations peppered with proverbs, prayers, and song. One finds himself wishing Kipling would just “get to the yolk of the egg,” as Kim so aptly puts it. The instances of espionage in the book are not the least bit intricate and are far from exciting. With so much talk going on, it takes over half a chapter just to don a disguise.

As a reviewer, I take no pride or pleasure in taking shots at sacred cows (no pun intended). I have nothing against Kipling in particular—I did enjoy the Jungle Books—but here he’s guilty of overindulgent description at the expense of good storytelling. Readers who don’t care for that sort of thing probably won’t like this book, and can consider themselves warned. Should you choose to tackle Kim, prepare yourself for way too many adjectives and not nearly enough verbs.

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