Friday, August 23, 2013

I think it good - the variety of Kim

Kipling packs in the characters, the rush of life, all kinds of sensory detail, place names.  And languages, too.  He enjoys scenes where characters are speaking different languages, or flipping among languages.  Kipling is happy to specify who is speaking what, although he sometimes leaves it to me to figure out why, why that language in this situation.

He blundered out almost into the Englishman's arms, and was bad-worded in clumsy Urdu.

Tum mut?  You drunk?  You mustn't bang about as though Delhi station belonged to you, my friend.”

E.23, not moving a muscle of his countenance, answered with a stream of the filthiest abuse, at which Kim naturally rejoiced.  (Ch. 12)

If nothing else, Kim is plausibly a boy.  In this scene, the use of Urdu and even the cursing are actually meaningful to the plot, since they are a means to communicate secret information in a public place.  E.23 is so named, or code-named, because he is a spy.  He uses his Urdu curses to convey secret information to another spy.  Every character in the excerpt is a spy, Kim, E.23, the English policeman.

While I’m on here – “bad-worded.”  A writer can easily overdo this kind of thing, but in this case the neologism complements the meaning of the scene.

Kipling has one more linguistic way to rapidly expand his fictional world, by keeping as many non-English words as he thinks I can manage, whether he translates them immediately as above or lets me figure them out by use.

Note that if the dialogue is spoken in Urdu or Punjabi or what have you, then the narrator is presenting it in translation.  In a sense, most of Kim is a work of translation, even if the original existed only in Kipling’s imagination.  Or perhaps it is better to call it a simulation of translation.  The dialogue that is not in English is not meant to sound like British English.

There is religion, too.  Hindu, Islam, Buddhism, Queen Victorianism, all treated with respect, all taken as legitimate.  Kim and his accompanying narrator are not dogmatists.  Quite the opposite.

I have been describing Kim as a holy man’s assistant or beggar.  The word Kipling and the characters use is chela, disciple.  The Buddhist lama speaks first here, in what is close to a summary of the ethical stance of the novel:

Chela, this is a great and a terrible world.”

“I think it good,” Kim yawned.  “What is there to eat?  I have not eaten since yesterday even.”  (Ch. 11)

Kim and Kipling love their part of India, its food, landscapes, languages, and people.  It is easy to imagine an alternative critical history in which Kim is not held in suspicion but is openly celebrated as the great Victorian novel of what we now call multiculturalism.  The world is good.


  1. It is so very impressive that the "translation" of what is actually imagined dialogue really seems to be a translation. I have only read his shorter poems but this based on your commentary this one will be added to my list.

  2. Kipling has weathered well really ,I loved kim as a teen such images of india ,all the best stu

  3. There is a strong academic stance that Kipling has weathered so badly that he is poisonous. I do not see how that position has any relation to actually reading Kipling's work. It is baffling.

    This idea about Kipling writing in translation seems pretty good to me, so good that it is a shame I do not know how to follow it up.

  4. Tom. Do you think if Kipling had not written his famous, infamous poem about The White Man's Burden he would be held in higher esteem and not just seen as a John Bull writer looking down on the "darker races". He is a more complicated writer than most give him credit for.

  5. I don't know. I suppose he is a big enough target wven without that poem.

    I have come across accusations of racism against Kim, all of which seem to confuse culture with race. Or perhaps in some ideologies we are supposed to pretend that there are no differences among cultures? What nonsense.