Thursday, August 22, 2013

'What is your caste? Where is your house? Have you come far?' - sprawling Kim

The Grand Trunk Road scenes in Kim are spectacular.  They are so full of variety, of life, that they seem to sprawl outside the bounds of the page.  In my imagination, I mean, since the words do not go anywhere.  Kipling seems like a spendthrift with his words, but is in fact usually parsimonious.  A few words, as in the passage from Chapter IV I quoted yesterday, creates birds and policemen and oxen out of nothing, and then they wander around while the next paragraph generates more men, beasts, noises, and smells.

It is the list technique at a  high level of craft, but fundamentally still a list.  I have gone to look for details that I remembered as effusively described only to find policemen made of nothing but “important coughings and reiterated orders.”

Then there are the proper names.

'What is your caste?  Where is your house?  Have you come far?'  Kim asked.

'I came by Kulu – from beyond the Kailas – but what know you?  From the Hills where' – he sighed – 'the air and water are fresh and cool.'

'Aha!  Khitai (a Chinaman),' said Abdullah proudly.  Fook Shing had once chased him out of his shop for spitting at the joss above the boots.

'Pahari (a hillman),' said little Chota Lal.  (Ch. I)

This is early, page five or so, the important scene in which Kim meets the holy man who he will guide (and who will guide him) through the rest of the novel.  Kim is immersive.  Three places, one at least in English; two ethnicities (annotated); three people.  None of these names, not one, need to be remembered.  Fook Shing “the Chinese bootmaker” was introduced a page earlier, as part of a description of the lama.  They have similarly “yellow and wrinkled faces,” our first hint of the lama’s non-Indian origin.  So Fook Shing never appears in a scene yet is mentioned twice (and never again) as if he is commonly known to exist.  Kim’s world is full.

The edition I used has footnotes for much of this stuff.  I imagine the original readers, just tossed onto the streets of Lahore.  I remember that Kim is commonly considered a boy’s book (and rightly so in some ways, but who are these boys)?  War and Peace has a similarly thick world, as do novels set in Balzac’s Paris, or the London of Bleak House.  But I do not know a predecessor that puffs out such a big world in so few pages, and this in a novel with just a handful of major characters.  I can see why previous readers found the book so thrilling, even before discovering that it is also a spy novel.

Strangely, or cleverly, the two parts of that passage that should be not remembered but seized upon when re-reading are transparent.  The last major episode of the novel is a return to those fresh, cool hills.  And then there are those questions that Kim asks.  He is just a boy here.  They are the questions he asks himself several times in the novel, although he simplifies them to three words: “Who is Kim?” 


  1. Maybe I need to overcome prejudice and read Kim. Interestingly to me I saw article that DNA from ancient corpses showed the caste system going back around 2000 years

  2. Good point about "thick worlds". I have found that such complex depictions of fictional worlds will turn many folks, including perceptive and intelligent ones, away. This is often true for young people. I have found however that it is well worth the effort, endnotes, footnotes, etc. sometimes make the effort bearable however.

  3. mel, I will have a little bit to say on this later, but I tell you, some people have - I will stay polite - mischaracterized Kim.

    The funny thing is that millions of people slurp up G. R. R. Martin and J. R. R. Tolkien and so on, and much of the appeal of those books is the "thickness" of their world! Tolkien does not plunge you in so dramatically.

  4. That's what is good about Kipling. He is a complex artisan, but he is not devious. If you reread carefully all the clues are there. Short stories like The Gardener or The Dog Hervey grow better and richer every time you read them; the same applies to Kim. Things missed on a reading become 'transparent' on the next reading. Like a new pair of glasses replacing an old set covered with scratches. Some novelists may even mark a key point in a novel with such a device.

  5. For those who don't know, the glasses humblehappiness mentions are in the novel.

  6. This is why I've always felt a strange connection between Kipling and Faulkner, particularly in Kipling's short stories. Neither of them are writers who immediately explain to you what's going on, who people are, as if they assume you know all about it already - but both written with such skill that if you're prepared to go along with it for a while, everything begins to fall into place - or perhaps doesn't matter so much after all.

  7. Faulkner, that's good. I had not thought of that.

    I want to now search for Faulkner and Kipling together to see what other critics have said, but I am sure I will get nothing but lists of Nobel Prize winners.