Kim by Rudyard Kipling isn’t a spy novel as much as a novel about the type of person who would be recruited as a spy. Kimball O’Hara is a street urchin living in Lahore. A well-known and liked orphan—the locals call him “Friend to all the World”—he’s the offspring between a British soldier, with the Irish Brigade, and an Indian woman. Since both parents died, Kim was raised by his mother’s sister. One day, as he’s playing with local kids, he spied a lama entering the Lahore museum. Interested by the holy man, Kim decided to join his quest to find the River of the Arrow. To do so, Kim borrowed money from a horse trader who’s an agent for the British secret service. To justify giving Kim money, he assigned Kim a message to be delivered to a British man in Umballa.
That is the set-up for Kim, a novel that is part a coming-of-age story, a spy thriller, and a spiritual quest. As an Irish orphan growing up in India, Kim is a creature of two worlds. His desire to determine which of those worlds best deserves his loyalty motivated his decision to join the lama. It also motivated him to contact the Irish brigade. When members of that brigade recognized him as the son of a former colleague, they took Kim under their wings. They sent him to an English school in Lucknow. For three years, Kim studied as a Westerner, but he spent the school holidays with the lama. He met Colonel Creighton, a British spymaster at school, who recruited Kim as an agent and catered Kim’s education—both at school and outside—to spycraft.
From the moment we meet Kim, playing with his friends on Zam-Zammeh, a cannon outside the Lahore Museum, we feel like we know the boy. Perhaps it’s the game he’s playing; as a variation of King of the Hill, it’s familiar to us. More likely, it’s Kim’s friendly nature and open-mind attitude. When he saw the lama for the first time—a man of the likes he had never seen before—he didn’t cower away from the unfamiliar, as many people would’ve done. Instead, he concocted a way to meet the man, befriend him, and even serve him as his chela or disciple. It is this friendly attitude that inspired his nickname as Friend to all the World. It also endears us to him and incites our concern about his welfare and goals.
There was some justification for Kim,—he had kicked Lala Dinanath’s boy off the trunnions,—since the English held the Punjab and Kim was English. Though he was burned black as any native; though he spoke the vernacular by preference, and his mother-tongue in a clipped uncertain sing-song; though he consorted on terms of perfect equality with the small boys of the bazar; Kim was white—a poor white of the very poorest.
Kim presents us with a colorful, multi-cultural India, filled with people from multiple lands who worship various gods. As Kim and the lama searched for the River of the Arrow, they travel to different cities like Umballa, Simla, and Lucknow. Kipling describes these cities with enough detail to create the craving to see them. As I read Kim, I often put the book down and picked up my pad to Google these places and the buildings Kipling describes. Oh, to travel to India! It had never been high on my lists of dream destinations, but Kim had steered my travel lust in that direction. At times, I confess, the local color was too much. I felt buried in unfamiliar terms and traditions. During those passages, my reading slowed to a crawl. I feared the plot was somehow buried beneath exposition and description. However, these passages help characterize Kim, whose curiosity drives him to new experiences and sights. It was that curiosity that attracted him to the lama in the first place.
In most spy novels, the mission is defined early in the novel and becomes the protagonist’s primary goal. Since Kim isn’t a spy novel as much as it’s a novel about a boy who became a spy, the mission came late in the story, after Kim’s education and his return to the lama. Russia sent a couple of agents to the Himalayas to map out routes for a possible invasion and seek friendly rajahs who craved rebellion against the British. Kim joined with Hurree Babu, another of Creighton’s spies, to intersect the Russians and capture their notes. Using his cover as the lama’s chela, Kim established contact with the enemy spies and gained their trust. But then it’s easy to trust Kim; he’s the Friend to all the World.
Kim’s greatest strength as a spy was his ability to blend in with the crowd. Being an Irishman born and raised in India, he could pass both as a European and a native. He knew the dress, customs, and language of both England and India. He became a master of disguise. In one scene, Kim helped another agent, E.23, disguise himself to avoid capture. Since Kim had a sincere goal of helping the lama find his River of the Arrow, to be his chela, traveling with the lama became his natural cover. Sometimes the best lie is the truth.
Kim lit a rank cigarette—he had been careful to buy a stock in the bazar—and lay down to think. This solitary passage was very different from that joyful down-journey in the third-class with the lama. ‘Sahibs get little pleasure of travel,’ he reflected. ‘Hai mai! I go from one place to another as it might be a kick-ball. It is my Kismet. No man can escape his Kismet. But I am to pray to Bibi Miriam, and I am a Sahib.’ He looked at his boots ruefully. ‘No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?’ He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all the roaring whire of India, going southward to he knew not what fate.
Like Kim, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was a British citizen born in India. His unusual first name came from the English lake where his parents had met. As a youth, his parents sent him to England for his education. Though his first guardian abused him, he later lived with a maternal aunt. After school, he returned to India to work as a journalist. Here began his writing career, both for the newspapers where he worked and as a fiction writer. After making a name for himself, he returned to India via America, where he met Mark Twain. In England, he married Caroline Balestier. The couple lived in the United States, but after a diplomatic crisis between England and America, they returned to England for the rest of their lives. Kipling is best known for his children’s books like the two Jungle Books and Captain Courageous. As well as being a prolific fiction writer, he wrote hundreds of poems. He died on December 30, 1936, after a failed surgery for an ulcer.
Above I said Kim is part spy thriller, part spiritual quest, and part a coming-of-age story. Though I read it as part of my survey of spy fiction, the most prominent theme is that coming-of-age story. We meet Kim as a boy and follow his development to young adult. In truth, he’s still very much a boy at the end of the novel, a teenager, but one who’s beginning his career as a British spy. Emotionally, Kim hunts for his place in the world. Is he English or is he Indian? Is his role secular, a spy for the British Empire, or is it spiritual, the chela to a lama? Kim discovers himself not by answering these questions but by accepting his duality.