Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Rudyard Kipling's Kim: a zam-zammer wonder-house of wordplay

Many of the pleasures of Kim are straightforward, direct and easily absorbed – much like Rudyard Kipling’s prose. Indeed, his writing is probably chief among those joys. It’s a book where moving through the sentences is its own reward. Few novels have such beguiling rhythm, imagery and vocabulary.

The very words are fun to read, fun to say out loud: “Wonder-House”, “Zam-Zammah”, “Kimball O’Hara”, “Sind, Punjab and Delhi railway” – and those are just from the first page. But it’s what Kipling does with them that really counts, in prose so perfect you barely notice how clever it is when you first read through. It’s only when you stop to analyse that you notice how well everything is constructed:
As he drummed his heels against Zam-Zammah he turned now and again from his king-of-the-castle game with little Chota Lal and Abdullah the sweetmeat seller’s on to make a rude remark to a native policeman on guard over rows of shoes at the museum door.”
That’s a sentence chosen almost at random, also from near the start of the book. One of Kipling’s achievements in Kim is to make everything subordinate to the story – nothing gets in the way of the view of the world he is creating. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship is there. There’s more to see the more you look at it: notice how Zam-Zammah is placed to make a drum sound, how the sentence slows and broadens out as Kim’s head turns, how the “rude remark” arrives in a flurry of plosives – how that gives way to gentle assonance as we gaze over the rows of shoes.

Here’s another initially unobtrusive moment from much later on in the book:
Kneaded to irresponsible pulp, half hypnotized by the perpetual flick and readjustment of the uneasy chudders that veiled their eyes, Kim slid ten thousand miles into slumber – thirty six hours of it – sleep that soaked like rain after drought.”
That’s a sentence chosen almost at random, also from near the start of the book. One of Kipling’s achievements in Kim is to make everything subordinate to the story – nothing gets in the way of the view of the world he is creating. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship is there. There’s more to see the more you look at it: notice how Zam-Zammah is placed to make a drum sound, how the sentence slows and broadens out as Kim’s head turns, how the “rude remark” arrives in a flurry of plosives – how that gives way to gentle assonance as we gaze over the rows of shoes.

Here, it is the sibilance that helps us hear the gentle hissing breaths of that slide into sleep – and feel how things have smoothed out for Kim after that flickering and juddering rhythm.

It’s all very clever – even though the smartest thing of all is that it doesn’t matter if you don’t really notice such tricks. Indeed, it’s probably all the better if you simply focus on the marvels of Kim’s journey, the beauties of India, the bold personalities Kim meets on the road and the fantastic, thrilling peril of the Great Game. Kim is a travelogue and adventure story beyond compare, which is more than enough to make the book worth reading, but far from all that it has to offer.

It’s possible to think of Kim as one of the first YA novels. It’s a book that has always been marketed at teenagers and older children as much as at adults. But as with the best modern YA, that doesn’t mean that it is in any way superficial – Kim is far more than just a fine coming-of-age story. It asks some of the most fundamental questions of all: about personal identity, about spiritual enlightenment, about the conflicting desires to go out into the world and look in on yourself, about how you grow up …

To go on listing Kipling’s successes in this regard would make this article longer than the Grand Trunk Road (although please feel free to add them in the comments below), so I’ll restrict myself to one small aspect of his philosophical and emotional excavations: the importance of parental figures in the novel.

This strand seems simple at first. As several Reading group contributors have suggested, father and mother figures crop up throughout Kim, fulfilling the profound – although largely unstated – desire the young orphan has to replace the mother he lost to cholera and father who went soon after, sozzled on booze and drifting away on clouds of opium.

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