East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

One hundred and fifty for Kipling

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English: Kipling the British writer

English: Kipling the British writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been made aware – thanks to my friend’s Claire blog – of the fact that 2015 will be the Rudyard Kipling anniversary, one hundred and fifty years since his birth1.

Now Kipling is not so hot in Italy right now – I heard him recently labeled “an expression of British colonialism” and apparently the general belief hereabout is that by reading Kipling one will instantly feel the need to hunt for tigers, practice pig-sticking and kill the occasional Zulu warrior or Pathan at large. The lot, while riding on the back of an elephant2.

I’m probably weird myself, but the first stories that come to my mind thinking of Rudyard Kipling are

  • the ABC stories, which are not very colonial in the first place,

  • A Matter of Fact, a weird and atmospheric story about a meeting with a Plesiosaurus or other sea monster, and

  • yes, color-me-Raj, The Man that Would be King (mostly due to the Huston film).

Quest-for-Kim-Hopkirk-Peter-9780192802316I also read Kim, when I was a kid, the book straight out of the school’s library, and I found it mindboggingly boring.
It was the translation, really – and I read the original much later, enjoying it quite a bit.
And the reason why I re-read Kim was another book – Peter Hopkirk‘s The Quest for Kim.

Hopkirk’s book is a personal narrative of the author’s search for the history behind the events in the novel – and thus is a personal exploration of the Great Game, the war of spies waged between Russia and the Raj across the Himalayas.
A subject well known to Hopkirk, the author of a number of great books about the history of Central Asia.

The Quest for Kim’s not a recent book, and I do not know if it’s still available for purchase. It was published in the mid-90s.
Back in the day, the book was dismissed – and by the New York Times nonetheless – as a piece of cute nostalgia, written by a somewhat befuddled old man, longing to recapture the thrill of his youthful readings and blind at the horrors of Orientalism

the reduction of the East to a set of demeaning stereotypes.

I’m not so sure.
When I read it, and then went back to Kim to check Hopkirk’s assumptions, the book did not sound as such an acritical pean to lost empire, but rather an investigation in the connection between actual events and fiction – and I do not speak of history and fiction because it’s not like that: what’s history now was news for Kipling. He was writing about current events.
Was he a biased observer?
Indeed he was, and so I’m afraid are we all – and yet his obvious biases did not cause him to overlook the width and breadth of the country he so clearly loved, and wrote about.
Truly Kipling did understand, and love, India.
And if he was biased, he still did write this passage…

for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behooves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see

Take that, New York Times.

For my money, reading Kipling’s Kim and Hopkirk’s Quest back to back, or even better in parallel is quite fun, is a nice source of insight on the process through which current events can become fiction, and it is not demeaning in any way.
It’s history, it happened – we can’t force our views on dead people.
We can enjoy a story without having to subscribe to the biases of its author – we can just enjoy the ride.
Or that’s the way I see it, anyway.
But of course, I read Tarzan as a kid, and we all remember what George Orwell said about those kids that read Tarzan, and what they would become when they grew up, right?



  1. Looks like I picked the right year to leave Shanghai and China behind for a while, and move to India in my readings (and writings). 
  2. apparently in this country only the Jungle Books are all right – but, as I was told a while back, “that’s fine, that’s Disney.” 

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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