Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Rudyard Kipling's "Kim": Book/Audiobook Review

As Amazon lumps together all editions and formats of public domain texts often, this review will highlight the two ways I followed this story. I listened to Ralph Cosham's Blackstone Audio rendering. He handled the accents well of so many Indian and British characters, and the doughty if now impolitically correct Hinglish of clever Babu, the woman of Kulu, and the woman of Shamlegh stand out along with the titular Kimball O'Hara and his lama companion. Among the native speakers, Father Victor, Lurgan Sahib, and Colonel Creighton represent the lively spirit of those who try to remain Kim's betters, no small feat given his enthusiasm for the Great Game. Hearing the unabridged reading in my car each day, I'd follow it, for the terms to look up and another go at what in listening could evade me as to details, foreign terms however translated, and the intricately shifting plot, with re-reading the chapters I'd heard.

I used the Penguin Classic edition by Edward Said. His notes were often too terse to please me, but he handled in his extensive, probing introduction the imperialist themes as deftly as would be expected. Contrary to my expectations, Said shares much admiration for the novel's delightful renditions of life on the Great Trunk Road, and he tempers his criticism of Kipling's unquestioning support for the British Empire's control of the Crown Jewel with a warm understanding of what Kipling conveyed so well as one from India.

However, Kipling and his characters never ask what alternative to the Victorian hold over India might have offered its millions. Nobody challenges the British except to assert a Russian rival. The Indians serve the Crown, the British--and Irish, a point that Said notably does not single out for analysis--enforce it, and the religious quest that intersects movingly and powerfully as the book reaches its close in slightly awkward but thematically mature manner shifts it off at a parallel to the material ambitions which Kim apparently inherits as his legacy, and as approved by the natives themselves.

All this understood, the story entertains and you don't know what will happen next. The machinations of Babu gain particular momentum late in the novel, and they prove worthy of the adventure set in motion by such as Mahbub Ali, Creighton, and the coded secret agents who stretch back before Kim arrives and finds himself soon implicated to advance the interests--never questioned--of the Queen and, post-Mutiny, her willing minions. Kipling's inability to anticipate a few decades on the revolts and the resistance cannot be blamed on him but as Professor Said explains, they complicate more than the author might have comprehended how his own advocacy of imperial strategems implicated him in its telling and its cheerleading.

But I wonder if Kipling despite his control of the plot let on to the ultimate insignificance of at least the symbols of such political obsessions to overpower all rivals and all counter-plotters. This scene stands out as representative: "The wheeling basket vomited its contents as it dropped. The theodolite hit a jutting cliff-ledge and exploded like a shell; the books, inkstands, paint-boxes, compasses, and rulers showed for a few seconds like a swarm of bees. Then they vanished; and, though Kim, hanging half out of the window, strained his young ears, never a sound came up from the gulf." Kim wonders to himself more than once who he is, Irish, English, Indian, and the lingering mood that wraps you up as you follow him hints that Kipling raised in India appears, like his creation, not to be sure either. (Amazon US 6-16-12)

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