ATLANTIC MAGAZINE (1901)
There is a fine antidote to all manner of morbidness in the brilliant pages of Kim. Mr. Kipling’s last work is, to my mind, his best, and not easily comparable with the work of any other man; for it is of its own kind and of a novel kind, and fairly amazes one by the proof it affords of the author’s magnificent versatility. “Not much of a story” may perhaps be the verdict of the ruthless boy reader who revels in the Jungle Book and Captain Courageous, and derives an unholy gratification from Stalky & Co. Kim is, in fact and upon the surface, but an insignificant fragment of human history; a bit out of the biography of a little vagabond of Irish parentage, orphaned when a baby, and left to shift for himself in infinite India. But the subtlety of the East and the “faculty” of the West are blended in this terroe filius, this tricksy foundling of earth’s oldest earth. His adventures are many and enthralling. He joins himself, as scout and general provider,—incidentally, also, as chela or disciple—to a saintly old lama from Thibet, “bound to the Wheel of Things,” and roaming India in search of the Stream of Immortality. The pious people of the country are permitted to “acquire merit” by feeding and lodging these two, between whom there grows up an odd but very beautiful affection.
Kim is presently recognized upon his travels, reclaimed and adopted by the Irish regiment of which his father had been color sergeant, and given a genteel sufficiency of education in a Catholic college. He endures the thralldom of St. Xavier’s, however, only upon condition of being allowed still to tramp the continent in the long vacation with his beloved old Buddhist priest. Before he is done with school the remarkable fitness for employment in the secret Indian service of the English government is discovered by our old friend Colonel Creighton, and he is placed under the tuition of sundry wonderful native proficients to learn the first principles of the Great Game. The result is that he distinguishes himself, while yet a stripling, by capturing in the high Himilayas the credentials and dispatches of a formidable Russian spy, and—this is all.
We have to part from Kim in the flush of his first victory, when the down is barely sprouted upon his shapely lip, and the women, one and all, who soften to his beauty, are summarily dismissed from his consciousness as those who “eternally pester” him! We long to know more, but feel that it would be greedy to ask it; for, bald as this outline of a plot may seem, the little book, like the country where the scene of it passes, is infinite. It contains the whole of India,—incalculably rich, unspeakably poor: with its teeming cities, barbaric, uralt; its forgotten temples crumbling to decay in the dusk of “caverns measureless to man;” its ravenous holy rivers and heart-breaking stretches of burning plain, and the overpowering grandeur of that mountain barrier upon the north, which dwarfs all the other highlands of the globe into practicable hills. It contains the human soul, also, of that Orient which we have all now become bound to study,—a cunning, piercing, elusive soul, patient and proud; stayed in supernatural quiet on the sanctions of a secular faith.
All this vast vision of things material and immaterial may be discerned between two thin book covers by those who read aright, as the crystal-gazer sees past and future events in the lucid globe he can hold in the hollow of his hand. Only in the one case, as in the other,—or so the faithful say,—the eye must have been anointed beforehand and the heart prepared. He who has thus been predestined will salute in Kim a work of positive genius, as radiant all over with intellectual light as the sky of a frosty night with stars; the most truly spirituel production, in the proper sense of the term, of this or many seasons. He will find something upon every page which he desires to quote, but will stay his hand, as I do, by the reflection that illustration is wasted on those who cannot see. A word may be said, however, for the actual and very original pictorial illustrations in basso-relievo, which are by Mr. Kipling’s father, and for the brilliant captions which the fitful poetic Muse of the author has bidden him put to a few of his chapters, and of which both the wittiest and the naughtiest is the reactionary explosion of the Prodigal Son:—
Here I am, with my own again!
Fed, forgiven and known again,
Claimed by bone of my bone again
And sib to flesh of my flesh!
The fatted calf has been dressed for me,
But the husks have greater zest for me,
I think my pigs will be best for me,
So I’m off to the sties afresh!