Kim by Ruyard Kipling

Kim.jpgAs I mentioned in a previous post, fellow blogger Ben Ausptiz was kind enough to send me the Ruyard Kipling classic Kim after he won the free book contest. I finished it but never managed to post my reactions until now.

I must say I am a bit intimidated by this book.

Kipling is a favorite of a number of people I respect so I have always held him in high esteem. Plus, you know how those english major and cultural studies types love to discuss books like this; going on about theories of race, imperialism, etc. After all, Edward Said edited and provided the introduction for this “brilliant scholarly edition.” I don’t feel qualified for that type of review, I tend to read fiction for enjoyment not the intellectual challlenge.

So what I can tell you is that Kim is somehow more than the sum of its parts. The plot is eloquently summed up on the back cover of the Penguine Twentieth Centruy Classics volume Ben sent me:

Two men – a boy who grows into early manhood and an old ascetic priest, the lama – are at the centre of the novel. A ques faces them both. Born in India, Kim is nevertheless white, a sahib. While he wants to play the Great Game of Imperialism, he is also bound spiritually bound to the lama. His aim, as he moves chamelon-like through the two cultures, is to reconcile these opposing strands, while the lama searches for redemption from the wheel of life. A celebration of friendship in a beautiful but often hostile environement, Kim captures the opulence of India’s exotic landscape, overlaid by the uneasy presence of the British Raj.

I can’t really compete with that introduction so let me just point out a few things:
– Kipling immediately engrosses you with the character of Kim. He is such a fascinating character: young and even naive but yet razor sharp and insightful; white, a sahib, and yet immersed in his adopted land’s culture and cutoms; ambtious and bold yet loyal and submissive.
– Kim’s story is the search for identity and meaning. The Great Game is what provides the excitement and adventure that he so desperately seeks. It has the potential to make hims someone – to allow him to be a part of history. His realtionship with the lama, however, is what gives him personal meaning and a deper relationship. He gets unique joy in serving another, in using his skills to help someone he loves.
– Kipling describes India almost by not looking at it directly. India comes alive in this book because it is weaved into the lives of the characters. India is so large, so ancient, so complex that it beggers description.
– Perhaps that is a comment on Imperialism. India is not something one can tame or conquer but rather something that just is. People come and go , epochs change, battles are fought, wars won and lost, but India exists.
– Coming down from the philosophical, however, one does find great insight into the India of Kipling’s life. The desriptions of the people and of the life there are great. Like little portraitures and landscapes, they give the reader glimpses into people and places long since gone. His descriptions of the train rides and travel across the vast plains are particular fascinating. The contrast he draws between the people who live in the plains and the moutain people is also intriguing.
-While Kipling realy only flirts with the Great Game of imperlialism, what he does include adds a bit of excitement to the overall plot. The process whereby Kim finds himself involved in complicated and deadly espionage reveals crucial aspects of Kim’s and India’s character but the secondary characters – like Mahbub Ali the horse trader and spy or the master impressionist Babu – are fascinating in their own right.
– In the end, however, what makes the story tick is those two simple characters: Kim and his lama. Luckily, those are two great characters.

Overall, Kim is an fascinating and thought provokig classic of English literature. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a good read and a glimpse into India in the time of the Raj.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Kevin,

    I am delighted that you enjoyed Kim. It’s a minor tragedy that Edward Said got to do the Penguin introduction, but one can’t have everything in life. You may be interested in the very fine review that ran in the Atlantic in 1901 here. It contains this apt description of Kim’s richness: “the little book, like the country where the scene of it passes, is infinite.”



  2. The terrible quote across the top of the page by George W Bush nearly turned me off reading the review below – that aside I am going to read Kim as soon as possible

  3. The terrible quote across the top of the page by George W Bush nearly turned me off reading the review below – that aside I am going to read Kim as soon as possible

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