Thursday, June 11, 2009

Rudyard Kipling/THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING and other stories

I had thought these stories - or most of them - were originally part of Kipling's debut collection, Plain Tales From The Hills, which made his reputation and allowed him to return to England after 7 eventful years in India (he'd gone out fresh from school, when still only in his middle teens), and were here renamed - rebranded, perhaps - to trade on the popularity of the longest of the stories, now well-known through the memorable film adaptation of it made in the 1970s by John Huston, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the two amoral adventurers who set themselves up as god-kings of an obscure region of Afghanistan. It seems I was mistaken about that, but I believe these stories have been gathered together from his earliest writings about India in the 1880s - although I haven't been able to track down the original publication date.

Anyway, the 'Hills' of the title of that first collection refer to Simla, the summer capital of the British administration in India and the centre of colonial society (it enjoyed a temperate climate, by virtue of its elevation in the foothills of the Himalayas - in stark contrast to the baking heat of 'the plains' of central India). Many British wives were left unattended here for long periods, while their husbands - civil servants, engineers, army officers, etc. - had to attend to their jobs elsewhere. Many unattached men would eagerly apply for extended summer leave (or seek whatever excuses they could) to spend time there. It was, in short, quite a hotbed of extra-marital naughtiness. These shenanigans, however, are shrouded in tactful self-delusion; so long as people are "discreet", their peers don't get too censorious; husbands, it seems, must know what is going on, but choose not to make a fuss about it most of the time. And there is quite a broad possible spectrum for such relationships: enjoying the flirtatious companionship of young officers - an extended entourage of young officers, in some cases - is considered quite acceptable for most married women; and, given this degree of latitude, it is easy to imagine that many of them are using these very public but supposedly Platonic dalliances to disguise something more earthy. It is a microcosm of Victorian society in general: ostensibly very prim and proper and sexually repressed - but in reality, quite the reverse. Kipling examines this strange milieu with surprising frankness in several of the stories - yet retains also a coy evasiveness about certain details: this was an era when 'to make love to someone' meant 'to make declarations of affection, or to try to win someone over' rather than more directly 'to have sex with'. It is the moral and social consequences of such entanglements that he focuses on, rather than the specifics of the intimate behaviour between the parties.

Kipling seems to take quite a moralising attitude on this - not on the love affairs per se, of which he seems very tolerant, but on the occasionally selfish and callous behaviour of the men (women seem to be far more vulnerable, both in their emotions and in the precariousness of their social position): one young philanderer meets with a fatal riding accident; another is driven mad by the ghost of an abandoned lover. The potential awkwardness of such affairs is more easily swept away, more easily forgotten, forgiven, or simply ignored amid the bustle of Simla, where there may perhaps be many hundreds of such liaisons each year. When they occur on a remote colonial outpost - 'a small station' - with only a handful of foreign residents, they make for grim comedy.

Kipling also shows a sensitive interest in the emotional and imaginative life of young children. One of the most famous stories, Baa Baa Black Sheep, charts the shocking psychological brutalisation of a small boy sent back to England to live with an unloving and fiercely religious aunt, while another movingly illustrates how a child is starved of love and attention because of the cooling of relations between his parents. These two are perhaps the best and most interesting of all the stories here. (There is also a rather good 'horror story' - only slightly let down by an abrupt and perfunctory resolution - about a British engineer whose horse bolts into the desert with him in the saddle one night, and falls into a crater in the sand; the man awakes the next morning to find himself trapped in a hellish community of the 'dead, but not dead' - Indians who have improbably recovered from serious illness after being given up for dead, and have been banished by Hindu superstition to live out the rest of their days as pariahs in this hidden prison.)

These tales, then, are rich in historical interest - particularly for those of us intrigued by the sexual mores of the Victorians. However, I have to warn you that they are very heavy-going. The style is ploddingly laborious, extremely dated; the elaborate wit is too self-conscious, too heavy-handed. (One should perhaps make allowances for inexperience: these stories come from the very beginning of Kipling's career, written when he was a young man, little more than a boy.) And they are often pretty incomprehensible, thanks to the plethora of historical references, obsolete slang, fragments of native Indian dialects, etc. This is a book that is really crying out for footnotes. (I wonder, in fact, how much of this would have been accessible even to his contemporary readers back home: did the experience of British India so pervade the culture that even folks who'd never in their lives set foot outside the British Isles would get all of these references? I somehow doubt it.)

There are also, of course, misgivings about political correctness. Kipling presents the prevailing attitudes and prejudices of the time - that white men are innately superior to the uncleanly and immoral natives, that British rule over India is an undoubted and unqualified good - without comment or criticism, simply as unchallenged, perhaps unchallengeable, fact. Just occasionally one suspects - hopes - that there may be a hint of irony or satire about this; but for the most part, Kipling seems to be approving, even celebratory in his portrayal of the Empire and its assumption of white supremacy. This can make the some of the stories rather unpalatable for the modern reader.

Nevertheless, despite the turgid style, the inaccessibility of many of the references, and the discomforting racism, there is much to enjoy in this book. Kipling had a formidably profuse imagination and a keen eye for detail. There is such a broad range of stories and themes here, such memorable characterization, such withering social satire, that almost everyone will find something to divert them.

It's also made me impatient to get my hands on Charles Allen's new biography, Kipling Sahib.

1 comment:

freddie said...

Great review. I'll have to pick this one up.