Review of Kim by Rudyard Kipling

First read: 6/2001
Reviewed on: 6/17/2001
Click here to buy it

I did not like it.
I liked it.
I thought it one of the Best Novels of All Time

The first Rudyard Kipling book I ever read was about a plucky young mongoose.  It was also the last, and a long time ago.  I remember very little about it, except that I loved the story.  Perhaps I didn't even read the Kipling story, but some dumbed-down children's version.  I don't know; it was a long time ago; I am old.  

Last week, I started Kim on an airplane trip to Colorado.   I made the mistake of looking through the introduction before starting, and was depressed.  The Kipling Scholar praised Rudyard for the greatness of Kim, even though it did not actually have a story.  "Oh, great," thought I.  "No story.  I'm not looking forward to this."   Well, the Scholar was plain wrong - the novel does have a story, and a damn good one.   It took me about 20 pages to get into it, and then I was enchanted.  Kim is one of the more interesting protagonists I've ever encountered. You never know when he is being serious, but not in a contrived "jester" sort of way.  It is hard for me to describe.  That's Kipling's genius - he was able to create several characters that I can't even begin to describe.  For example, its clear that by the second half of the book Kim truly loved his lama.  Did Kim feel that strong admiration at the beginning, when he said he did? 

Sometimes this felt like a James-Bond action adventure novel, set in India, without the action and adventure.  I know that sounds like me making fun of the story, putting it down.  It certainly doesn't make you want to read it.  But Kipling pulls it off.  For example, early on, Kim meets Harree Babu, and learns the art of disguise and imitation.  Kim, that lovable rapscallion, gets a bit of ego about it, but Babu claims that he is still able to fool Kim.  Then, later in the book, Kim is debating a medicine merchant, and they wind up alone together, and lo' and behold, Kim's antagonist is Babu!  Trust me, it is a cool scene, and completely surprised me.  And my point is that this is something out of a Bond novel, but I hardly could call it "action."  So if you are looking for gunplay and brawling, this isn't the book for you. 

In Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin used a piece by Kipling as an example of "Gorgeous Writing".  I wouldn't use such a word to describe it, primarily because my Aunt Shirley used the word "gorgeous" a lot, primarily just after picking me up and scaring me.  But I will say that Kipling is able to make you feel like you are in India, hanging out with some very unusual people.  You will feel cold when you're climbing one of his mountains, hot and sweaty when you are jostling people (and elephants) on a crowded Delhi road, and serene when meditating in a monastery. 

This novel was a gem that made a wonderful trip to Colorado even moreso.

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