Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mutton stewed with butter and cabbages - notes on Kim, for next time

I cannot escape the feeling that writing too much about Kim after reading it once, or making too strong of a claim about it, is a mistake.  The novel has escaped in me in some interesting ways.  This is not a complaint.  So some notes.

1.  How much difference does it makes that Kim is a boy’s book?  Or how much of a boy’s book is it?  I don’t know.  It was curious to see, in what essentially a Victorian novel – I guess it is Edwardian by a few months – Kim’s mentors openly worry about the boy’s adolescent sexual adventures.  Maybe there aren’t any.  Kipling is suggestive but ambiguous on this point.  The mentors only care not out of any feeling for Victorian morality but because they are afraid that too much entanglement with women will ruin Kim’s effectiveness as a secret agent.

2.  I am amazed that this book has become part of an indictment of Kipling’s imperialism.  The book ends with a debate over the sleeping Kim between another spy (although Muslim, not English) arguing for the things of the world and the Buddhist lama arguing for the spirit.  Which does Kim choose, or does he find a balance?  “’Who is Kim – Kim – Kim?’” (Ch. 11) asks the hero, in one way or another, several times.  No answer.  Another of the novel’s deep ambivalences.  Kipling ends the novel before answering the question.

The issue is unfortunately close to impossible for an amateur reader to pursue.  The post-colonial literary theorists who have accused Kim and Kipling of various sins generally write in a jargon that requires not just effort but training to penetrate.  Ever try anything by Homi Bhabba?  I am too ignorant to call it gibberish.  It is a specialized form of discourse from which conclusions emerge based on arguments that I have no way to evaluate.

3.  At one point, long ago, Kipling was likely the most popular English-language writer on earth, and Kim one of the most popular novels.  For how many readers did it become the novel about India, and Kipling the Indian writer?  I can see how this would drive Indian writers and other people with real knowledge of India crazy.  Some push-back was probably necessary.

One example, one that I have finally figured out, is that Kipling’s India is really northwest India: the Punjab, Delhi, and some nearby areas.  Large parts of Kipling’s India are now in Pakistan.  Saying Kipling writes about “India” is just a bad shorthand.

4.  The world is good, so Kim is in a minor way a food novel:

Kim yearned for the caress of soft mud squishing up between the toes, as his mouth watered for mutton stewed with butter and cabbages, for rice speckled with strong scented cardamoms, for the saffron-tinted rice, garlic and onions, and the forbidden greasy sweetmeats of the bazars.  They would feed him raw beef on a platter at the barrack-school, and he must smoke by stealth.  (Ch. 7)

I can hardly believe I did not spend a day on the food.  Next time.


  1. Your Kim posts have been fascinating! Kipling is a writer I know of, not directly, and (as is often the case) you make me realize that what I think I know of him is not really enough, or accurate. OLM editor Maureen Thorson also wrote about Kim a while ago for one of our 'year in reading' features. Between the two of you, I think I'm convinced I should get on with reading it. But I too won't be able to get far with the post-colonial stuff. Your comments on the imperialism issue (accusation?) inevitably make me think of 'Heart of Darkness' - when I finally read that, I was surprised how much more complicated and ambivalent it was than what the po-co narrative about it had led me to expect.

  2. I too have really enjoyed the Kim posts.

    I would never complain about one more dedicated to food. I just Googled recipes for mutton stewed with butter and cabbages and might try to give it a go.

  3. The food: this is another area where Kim's adolescence is depicted with vigorous realism. He is always up for more.

    Thorson's adjective - "unexpected" - is a darn good one. There has been some distortion of Kim. I do not exactly want to blame the post-colonial people. There has likely been some "telephone game" static as well. Complex, squishy ideas simplified and hardened.

  4. Mutton in India means goat meat. I don't recall ever having seen a sheep there.

    I hitched along the jeetee road from Delhi to Kabul getting lifts from crazy Sikh drivers on trucks where the original cab is taken off and replaced by a larger wooden one and festooned with Xmas lights and painted with images of swans, sadhus and Guru Nanak.

    It's a while since I read Kim. India really is the most colour, caste, and ethnically conscious nation in the world. Read the matrimonials in any of their papers. That Kim should reflect this is just good reporting.

  5. "Ever try anything by Ever try anything by Homi Bhabba??"

    Bhabha is said to have said that he didn't want to distract people from his arguments by the elegance of his style. He certainly doesn't.

    An Indian novelist, T. N. Murari has written two sequels to Kim- The Imperial Agent and The Last Victory. He's not as good a writer, so wait a bit, but he looks at the adult dilemmas Kipling doesn't- can't, perhaps- consider in Kim's future.

  6. The novel is life-packed from the beginning, but the moment the characters drop onto the Grand Trunk Road it just explodes. Kipling knew he needed a big effect, and got it.

    Goat - that makes sense. I have had goat at Indian buffets in the U.S., but never sheep. Although I have had lamb. Eh, why do I think meat availability in the U.S. has anything to do with what is actually eaten in India?

    A sequel or two would be logical. I wonder why Kipling never wrote one. Thanks for the suggestion.

  7. Unfortunately, many writers worth reading have political ideas worth disliking. Pound praised Mussolini, Gertrude Stein admired Hitler, Mark Twain hated Indians, Poe was racist, Mencken liked eugenics, etc. It's up to the reader to decide what to do with that...

    Bhabha is, in fact, often cited as a bad writer. Not gibberish, just bad, even by academic standards.

  8. I have so much enjoyed your Kim posts! I can't say that I have ever really considered reading the book before, but now I think I am going to have to one of these days. I will load it up on my Kindle so it will be there and ready when the time comes.

  9. Bad writing is a useful smokescreen for gibberish. But how can I even say it is bad? I do not understand the language.

    Stefanie, good, thanks. I would still judge Kipling a better short story writer, but Kim is awfully good. I would judge Kipling an even better short story writer.

    It is funny that a started on Kipling with Captains Courageous, a novel with some outstanding parts but also a lot of serious problems. Kim is much more of a piece.

  10. When I was a kid, I thought Kipling only wrote kid's books. I was quite surprised later to find that he'd written all those other stories and novels, and had won the Nobel Prize. Your series of Kipling posts have spurred me on to read more of him.

    I know nothing of his politics, but anyone who views Kipling as an imperialist has never read The Man Who Would Be King. Anyway, the important thing is that Kipling was a great writer, yes? For Westerners anyway, Kipling's work has more or less become dislodged from history, hasn't it?

  11. Dislodged from history? No. An influential branch of academic literary theory has done a lot of damage to Kipling. Edward Said, in Orientalism: "a rich and absolutely fascinating, but nevertheless profoundly embarrassing novel" (quote via Googling - it is easy to find, but I didn't look it up for myself).

    The path to finding imperialism in Kipling's texts seems to be to strip them of irony. Or perhaps to flip the irony - what if "The Man Who Would Be King?" is secretly pro-imperialist, with the satire and irony as a cloak? Hmmmm?

    Kim is not anti-imperialist. To some critics, that is itself a problem.

  12. Maybe Peachy and Danny's imperialism was just the wrong sort of imperialism? I hadn't thought of that. But the book contains lots of markers pointing to a failure of British military conquest, or if not a failure, then a lack of meaningful fit between British Empire with the real world, a blindness on the part of the British. Maybe. I know almost nothing about Kipling, and I'm trying to think just about what's in the book. I am aware that this is not good critical practice.

    When I read Kipling, I don't think about Indian history much. I have my doubts that most Western readers of Kipling think much about Indian history. That's what I mean by "dislodged." When I read "Huck Finn" I am made uncomfortable by the word "nigger" but I don't reflect at length on slavery or the approach of the Civil War, nor do I think most readers reflect on those things. My personal discomfort isn't really tied to history, I don't think.

    I don't know what to do with those critics of Kim. Kipling had his own battles, I'm sure. I'm not willing to paint anyone who's not my hero as my enemy.

  13. The earlier "Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes" gave me the same feeling you are describing. "The author of this is pro-imperialism? Are you insane?" But Kipling was only 19 when he wrote that one.

    I do not know how most, or many readers approach Kipling. He still has a lot of good ones, readers who easily get past the post-colonial guff. The comments this week have been proof of that.