If anyone needed proof that no two people read the same novel in the same way, my impressions of Kim, compared to some of the reviews quoted in the back of the book, would provide it. This is what I wrote in my books database:
Truly wonderful, dripping in evocative description of India, populated by skilfully drawn characters. Kipling's love of the place comes out vividly in Kim.
Whereas Arthur Bartlett Maurice (The Bookman, October 1901) said of Kim: "so cold, so dead, so lifeless", also accusing Kipling of, "raking through the cinders of his youth in search of the bits of half-burned coals with which to make a little flame and warmth. The old spontaneous fire seems to have irrevocably gone."
Pall Mall Magzine</i>, July 1904, who complained that Kim and the lama lacked life: "we have not read thirty pages before we see that those two will be the same at the end of the book as they were in the beginning."
This last point is just plain wrong. The Kim at the beginning and even the lama (who of course is an old man and therefore less likely to change noticeably) are not the same people they are the end -- and yet they are. Like real people who both stay the same and change, Kipling manages this in his characters.
I grew up believing the prevailing view that Kipling was jingoistic and a supporter, even propagandist, of the British rule in India. This might be why, though I was brought up loving the Just So stories, not to mention frequently playing Kim's Game when I was a Girl Guide, I never felt attracted to the novel Kim. Perhaps it's as well, because by delaying the reading, I've just savoured a most wonderful reading experience that I might not have appreciated as a child.
Also, apparently, critics have argued that Kim isn't a novel. *Shrug* Compared to many modern novels, it has as much structure and far more realistic and sympathetic characters. Which just goes to show that coming to a novel with completely different preconceptions has produced an entirely different take on it. I have never been to India, but Kipling conjures in vivid word portraits the sorts of scenes I've seen on TV in documentaries. He really convinces me that it's all real.
Not all of his contemporaries were so negative, of course, Andrew Lang said: "His theme is India, where he is always at his best; and we learn more of the populace, the sects, the races, the lamas, the air, the sounds, the scents and smells from a few pages than from libraries of learned authors." (Longman's Magazine, April 1901).
But where does the accusation of support for British Imperialism come from? I, personally, can't see it in the text of Kim. Perhaps I'm being blind, but I don't see support there. My personal view of Kipling is that he fits with a bunch of other writers I have filed in a pigeon-hole in my mind labelled "humanityists". There may already be a proper term for this, but "humanist" isn't quite what I mean. I mean people who have a genuine feeling of warmth towards the many and varied people that populate their stories. They have an acceptance and affection for human strengths and also for human foibles. They are not necessarily uncritical, especially of established religion, but they are never cruel and show deep understanding in their depiction of character. However, because they have a tendency to support the status quo, usually on the principals of the old Welsh proverb: Better the worst peace than the best war, they can be hailed as reactionary.
Early critics may also have had a negative reaction to the lama's Buddhism. If you see the Way as a lot of meaningless mumbo jumbo, then the book really has had its guts ripped out. Personally, speaking as a Buddhist (though probably not a very good one), I don't think that Kipling could have written the lama so well, nor described his mystical experiences without having not only studied Buddhism to some extent, but also having an acceptance of what the Buddhist path is. Not that I'm trying to claim Kipling as a Buddhist, because he is also sympathetic to the Muslim Afghan horse-dealer Mahbub Ali and even to the Catholic priest. What Kipling seems to prize in people, at least as portrayed in his writing, is the ability to see beyond the surface, to take what is good from a religion or culture, to find the common ground.
For me, one image that sums up Kim is near the end (though it echoes back to the opening where Kim, sitting on the gun Zam-Zammeh, first meets the lama at the door of the museum, known to the locals as the Wonder House.) The lama looks across at Kim.
He peered at the cross-legged figure, outlined jet-black against the lemon-coloured drift of light. So does the stone Bodhisat sit who looks down upon the patent self-registering turnstiles of the Lahore Museum.
Kim is half-white, half-Indian and, through his story, Kipling takes the rich Indian cultural heritage out of the museum where the British Imperialists would hide it away and simply revels in all its wonder. And though Kim might not have a plot in the thriller sense of the word, it's structured beautifully by theme and resonance.
Oh, and from a writerly perspective, if I could write omniscient narrative half as well as Kipling, I would be very very happy.