Woot, some of you are actually promising to try re-reading and following along with me! So we will see if this post gets comments. Even if it doesn’t, I am still happy because I just love talking about this book.
In this section, Kim is identified as a child of the British Army, the Masons, and the Catholic Church, three powerful groups. He is sent to the best boarding school in India, organized by the Catholic church but paid for by his beloved Monk. On vacation, he disappears into India and has adventures before finding his old friend the Afghan horse trader who takes him to a remote mountain town to live with a mysterious jeweler and learn more about spy craft. While there, he also meets a big silly seeming Bengali scholar who he learns is a fellow spy. After 2 years of training, learning about memorizing distances and wearing disguises and so on, he finally is officially hired by the British government as a “clerk” and leaves his school. The Afghan trader and the Bengali help him go into disguise as a native Indian before freeing him to go find his Monk and spend the next 6 months traveling with him before beginning his “real” work.
This is the section that has had the most influence on future work. This is the ultimate, the original, in spy training stories. Kim is a natural in this very strange skill set, there are all these other fascinating mysterious people around him, it’s part of some larger story he doesn’t fully understand. I mean, this is Jason Bourne, this is Jack Ryan, this is basically every mysterious clever spy story since Kim. Heck, right up to the TV show Homeland! The whole idea of “The Great Game” was invented here by Kipling, this international brotherhood of mysterious people doing mysterious things with mysterious training.
This is also the section that I personally find least interesting! I’m all about Kim and the Llama’s relationship, I don’t care nearly as much about all the spy stuff. But it is so well-written, I find it interesting in spite or myself, trying to follow the traces of the seemingly meaningless things Kim is doing with how they will be part of “The Great Game”.
Let’s talk a bit about this “Great Game”! And also, Orientalism. Orientalism is used a lot as sort of a catchall word without an awareness of where it comes from in the academic sense. Edward Said wrote this huge brilliant satisfying book called “Orientalism” back in the 1970s. What he tried to trace back was the idea of categorizing humanity, explaining it, turning it into some sort of logical system, as the intellectual basis for colonialism. Said’s counterargument is radical humanism, go back to the very basic level and accept food, family, shelter, human essentials we all share. And build from there based on particular geographic locations and so on. Most of all, reject any argument that is AGAINST humanism. For example, “this group doesn’t love their children” or “this group is cowardly” or “this group is brave” or “this group doesn’t need good”.
I think it is important to be specific as to the sins Kipling commits within Kim. First, what he does NOT do! He does not demonize native Indians, he does not claim they are less human at an essential level than other humans. This is a little bit radical at the time. This book has almost no “white” characters, instead it is filled with “brown” characters who love each other, who have families, who have histories, who have personalities, who are good and bad all mixed together like everyone else. But! He does still accept the basic premise of Orientalism that humans can be categorized. The Bengali is an intellectual, the Afghan is emotional and brave, and of course Kim is Irish and therefore curious. This is seemingly harmless, charming even. And it’s something we do to this day, Shahrukh has joked about his identity as a “Pathan”, so many movies have the “Bengali intellectual” type, and so on and so forth. But the problem is, according to Said, this sort of categorization is the first step in deciding you can change people, you should change people. Once you realize that Kipling is categorizing and giving traits to every race BUT BRITISH, you have found the problem. The British are just, you know, humans. It’s everyone else who has to be raised to their level.
And yet, even while Kipling is trapped by the Orientalist thinking, his natural human instinct sneaks through. Kipling grew up in India, Kipling loved India, Kipling would have waked up every day going out into the world and seeing people, and having to force himself to think of everyone around him as not just human but something a little less. He has Mahboob Ali, the Afghan, say crazy things like “by the time I was his age I had killed my man and begat my man”, but also has him be worried about Kim like any human person would. He has Hurree Babu be the “cowardly” Bengali, but then consistently show great bravery. You can read this book as a counter-argument to Orientalism as well, the way the characters are performing the identities they have been told belong to their “race”, but the individual sneaks through.
It is this tension between “us” and “them” that I think is Kim’s legacy to the spy novel. A spy is loyal to the nation state for which they work, so loyal they are willing to risk their life for it. And then they go into a whole other world and become part of a whole other world and lose track of why they are doing this in the first place because the “other” becomes more like themselves than they are. The idea of a spy losing their mind, losing their bearings, the more kind of intellectual and emotional level to it, that’s from Kim. The book and the character.
Anyway, like I said, this section is important but not my favorite. My favorite bits of the section are the ones that call back again to the relationship between Kim and the Llama. Kim is surrounded by people and institutions that care about him at this point. When he was first introduced, he had an abusive foster mother and no one else. Now he has Colonel Creighton mentoring him from afar, travels months at a go with Mahbub Ali, is trained by Hurree Babu and the jeweler, plus his friends at school and teachers and so on. And yet the book keeps putting in traces that at his heart, Kim cares most about his Llama.
Maybe that’s what Kipling was getting at with this spy story and Orientalism and all mixed together? That is the Radical Humanism that makes the book work? Forget “The Great Game”, forget the future of India, forget all these superficial things, it is about two extremely unlikely people (a young Anglo-Indian spy and an elderly Monk) who form a bond.