I cannot escape the feeling that writing too much about Kim after reading it once, or making too strong of a claim about it, is a mistake. The novel has escaped in me in some interesting ways. This is not a complaint. So some notes.
1. How much difference does it makes that Kim is a boy’s book? Or how much of a boy’s book is it? I don’t know. It was curious to see, in what essentially a Victorian novel – I guess it is Edwardian by a few months – Kim’s mentors openly worry about the boy’s adolescent sexual adventures. Maybe there aren’t any. Kipling is suggestive but ambiguous on this point. The mentors only care not out of any feeling for Victorian morality but because they are afraid that too much entanglement with women will ruin Kim’s effectiveness as a secret agent.
2. I am amazed that this book has become part of an indictment of Kipling’s imperialism. The book ends with a debate over the sleeping Kim between another spy (although Muslim, not English) arguing for the things of the world and the Buddhist lama arguing for the spirit. Which does Kim choose, or does he find a balance? “’Who is Kim – Kim – Kim?’” (Ch. 11) asks the hero, in one way or another, several times. No answer. Another of the novel’s deep ambivalences. Kipling ends the novel before answering the question.
The issue is unfortunately close to impossible for an amateur reader to pursue. The post-colonial literary theorists who have accused Kim and Kipling of various sins generally write in a jargon that requires not just effort but training to penetrate. Ever try anything by Homi Bhabba? I am too ignorant to call it gibberish. It is a specialized form of discourse from which conclusions emerge based on arguments that I have no way to evaluate.
3. At one point, long ago, Kipling was likely the most popular English-language writer on earth, and Kim one of the most popular novels. For how many readers did it become the novel about India, and Kipling the Indian writer? I can see how this would drive Indian writers and other people with real knowledge of India crazy. Some push-back was probably necessary.
One example, one that I have finally figured out, is that Kipling’s India is really northwest India: the Punjab, Delhi, and some nearby areas. Large parts of Kipling’s India are now in Pakistan. Saying Kipling writes about “India” is just a bad shorthand.
4. The world is good, so Kim is in a minor way a food novel:
Kim yearned for the caress of soft mud squishing up between the toes, as his mouth watered for mutton stewed with butter and cabbages, for rice speckled with strong scented cardamoms, for the saffron-tinted rice, garlic and onions, and the forbidden greasy sweetmeats of the bazars. They would feed him raw beef on a platter at the barrack-school, and he must smoke by stealth. (Ch. 7)
I can hardly believe I did not spend a day on the food. Next time.