Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Am I a fool? - sarcastic Kipling

Rudyard Kipling’s imaginative territory is large.  “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes” would be logical places to visit, since they are masterpieces, the latter a proto-weird tale, the former among the greatest short stories ever written, technically brilliant, deeply perplexing, leaving me vaguely embarrassed I had not read it before.

These two stories are, narrowly, parables of English imperialism, and, broadly, satirical allegories on the folly of human striving, the first nominally realistic although literally outlandish, the second intensely bizarre, full of people living in holes and eating crows they have trapped (the bait for crows turns out to be crows), and following self-contradictory maps through quicksand.  Kipling wrote that one when he was 19.  Odd kid, Kipling.

How anyone can read these stories and attribute to Kipling a simple, uncritical view of the imperial enterprise in India is beyond me.  Working through the Plain Tales story “Lispeth,” obooki emphasizes not merely Kipling’s ambiguity but his open and continual sarcasm:

Perhaps, in this last quotation, you can spot some sarcasm creeping in.  Well, we’ll find plenty more examples before we’re through.

Kipling is not the most sarcastic writer I have ever come across since he is not Mark Twain.

“On the City Wall” is found in In Black and White, which contains only stories about Indians.  It is prefaced by a letter from his servant:

Nabi Baksh, clerk, says that it is a book about the black men – common people.  This is a manifest lie, for by what road can my sahib have acquired knowledge of the common people?  Have I not, for several years, been perpetually with the sahib; and throughout that time have I not stood between him and the other servants who would persecute him with complaints or vex him with idle tales about my work?...  Without me he does not know where are his rupees or his clean collars…  Have I ever told the sahib about the customs of servants of black men?  Am I a fool?

Sarcasm is the correct word, although a little ambiguity does creep in (“about my work”).

Let me try another example from the same book, the beginning of “On the City Wall”:

Lalun is a member of the most ancient profession in the world…  In the West, people say rude things about Lalun’s profession, and write lectures about it, and distribute the lectures to young persons in order that morality may be preserved.  In the East, where the profession is hereditary, descending from mother to daughter, nobody writes lectures or takes any notice, and that is a distinct proof of the inability of the East to manage its own affairs.

I guess I have met people who would read this as if Kipling meant it all.  Those readers exist.  In this story, the Kipling-narrator is tricked – very easily tricked – by the courtesan into helping a political prisoner, a veteran of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, escape from an English military prison.  "Am I a fool?"

I had meant to ignore the guff about Kipling the roast-beef jingo, but it is an easy target and perhaps good to get it out of the way – plus I can just parrot obooki (see above), who has already gone over this ground.  I have no idea what objectionable things the later Kipling might have written, but the 1888 Kipling is a slippery trickster.


  1. I think he always remains a slippery trickster; he had the annoying habit of not clearly stating what his own opinions are, but merely having his characters state opinions. (A bit like the ever so modern Henry James - or Faulkner: he always reminds me of Faulkner). In his autobiography, Something of Myself, he plays a little with the idea - that he is considered a jingoist: but not enough that you're likely to draw any conclusions from it.

  2. Even his own character, his narrator, is careful not to say to much. A lot of fun.

    It is baffling that anyone could read these early stories and keep that simple "bad Kipling" story. I would guess that these stories are not read so often.

  3. Kipling greatly enjoyed concealing, distorting, and withholding information from the reader; relying on unreliable narrators, mixing satire, sarcasm, mystery, mystification and malice into the mix of his short stories. Even his autobiography, aptly called 'Something of myself', hides more than it reveals.
    And if you think his early stories are something, wait until you read his last stories; things like Mrs. Bathurst, Dayspring Mishandled, The Vortex, A Madonna of the Trenches, The Gardener, The Church that was at Antioch, The wish house... Oh. My. God. I used to swear by Henry James, Kafka and Pu Song Ling as the gods of the short story, until Borges introduced me to Kipling via the comment that Obooki quotes in your link: 'Kipling’s last stories were no less tormented and maze-like than the stories of Kafka or Henry James, which they doubtless surpass …'!!.
    Now, Kipling sits at the head of my pantheon of favorite short story writers.

  4. Kipling has been an exciting discovery, as silly as that sounds. There has been too much mystification about what Kipling's writing is like!

    Your reporting on the later stories is exciting. I am not at all tired of Kipling yet, so I may get to them sooner than I might have guessed.

    My potted "history of the short story" has shifted a bit, too. All of these masters - Kipling, Machado de Assis, Chekhov, James, Giovanni Verga, Maupassant - working at the same time, re-making the short story.

  5. So glad to see you are enjoying Kipling so much, and that another is firmly in the ranks of "how do people seriously think this?" I never thought until I read "The Man Who Would Be King" that Kipling would actually good. I felt quite cheated! Especially when I love short stories so much.

  6. You would get a lot out of his short fiction. I am quietly pushing on with it past 1888 - so far, so good.

  7. Oh, it's definitely calling to me now--you've succeeded in that!