What the Swedes Read

A Monthly Column

by Daniel Handler

 

  • LAUREATE: Rudyard Kipling (1907, Britain)
  • BOOK READ: Kim

Rudyard Kipling is one of those writers people still read widely in America, if by “still read widely” we mean “watch The Jungle Book, the animated movie based on Kipling’s most popular work.” As much as it charms me that there’s bona fide overlap in the Venn diagram of the Nobel Prize in Literature and Walt Disney, the ability to sing “The Bare Necessities” seems like pretty skinny evidence that Kipling’s still on people’s bed stands. Various editions of The Jungle Book are out there, but they seem geared for the nostalgic market—to be given to other people’s children, or perused by Boomers thinking of that magical summer when they were ten and went to stay in a cabin by the lake, etc. Most editions have radically altered the text, for reasons you can imagine. I was assigned The Jungle Book in a college class in order to study the ways in which imperialist ideas filtered through the culture.

The jewel in the crown of that class was Edward Saïd’s monumental cultural study Orientalism, which chronicles the lengthy and sorry history of Western artists portraying Eastern culture through a prejudicial lens. Saïd wrote the smart and lengthy introduction to my copy of Kim, a novel that balances, quite nimbly, Kipling’s two preoccupations: chronicling India at the height of the British occupation and daring adventure stories. “Although it can be read with enjoyment by adolescents,” Saïd says, “it can also be read with respect and interest years afterwards, both by the general reader and the critic alike.”

I admit to a quarrel with the first part of that sentence. Kim begins like this: “He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on her brick platform opposite the old Ajaib-Gher—the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who hold Zam-Zammah, that ‘fire-breathing dragon,’ hold the Punjab, for the great green-bronze piece is always first of the conqueror’s loot.”

We are already on the sixth of Saïd’s much-appreciated explanatory endnotes. You give Kim to an adolescent—I’ll wait here. It’s a shame that Kipling’s language feels a little muddy to the modern reader, because it’s only the first of several hoops to jump through in order to appreciate the novel. Once you’ve accustomed yourself to the style, you’re in the prickly territory of India at the turn of the last century. The bowings and scrapings of the lower castes, the emphasized exoticism of costume and spirituality, the presumed heroism of the Brits—none of it sat well with me as I read. Any book a century old will have to be out of step in its cultural norms, but race and imperialism are such bright and instant red flags—particularly for a graduate of a place where you read The Jungle Book looking for precisely those things—that it was hard to sahib my way through the book.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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