Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published: 1901
From the cover:
A boy growing into manhood, and an old ascetic priest are on a quest. Kim was born and raised in India and plays with the slum children, as he lives on the streets, but he is white, a Sahib, and wants to play the Great Game of Imperialism, while the priest must find redemption from the Wheel of Life. Kim (first published in 1901), celebrates their friendship and their journeys ina beautiful but hostile environment, capturing the opulence of the exotic landscape and the uneasy presence of the British Raj. Filled with rich description and vivid characters, this beguilling coming of age story is considered to be Kipling’s masterpiece.
Well, the first from my list of the best spy books ever, that has actually lived up to at least part of its billing. Problem is, it’s not really a spy book. Yes, Kim comes into contact with people playing The Great Game, but that’s not what the book is about in any way shape or form. Kim, through being a street urchin of many years standing, knows everyone and everything, and wants to know more. But that’s just because he is curious, growing up and wanting to find out who he is. He is naturally curious, at once worldly and yet naive. To me, the character the book is most about, is the old Lama’s search for his mystical river. It’s his search the book and Kim follow, once Kim meets up with him. And from the first couple of chapters, when the Llama has stated his purpose several times, you know exactly where he’s going to find his river.
It’s about India, the country, the landscape, the peoples and their traditions. And, as it is written by an Englishman (in love with India) at the start of the 20th Century, I think he is almost presenting the case for their suitability for independence from the Empire. Which may well have been a pretty controversial idea at the time, I’d imagine. Clearly Kipling loves everything about India and all his points about the Indians and what makes them really interesting to the reader, must be to prick the conscience of the top of British Empire society. Today, we wouldn’t think twice about Indian – or any other country ruled by a colonial power – independence, but you have to put yourself in the mind of 1905 (?) British society when reading this. Possibly.
Maybe it is to win over – or stick two fingers up at – those who wouldn’t understand why Kim, a half-Indian, would choose his Indian side, over his British. I could imagine many at the time, reading the book and not being able to follow this idea and so Kipling thinking they need all the persuading he can cram in.
But the main theme is Kim’s Lama. His search for his personal river and through him, Kim’s search for his own identity. It is this, rather than anything of Kim’s involvement in The Great Game, that is the main driving force of the book.
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