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The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling

October 6, 2016 20 comments

The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling (1888) French title: L’homme qui voulait être roi.

book_club_2Timing is important in reading books and what happened to me with Kipling’s novella The Man Who Would Be King is a good illustration of that principle. This was our Book Club choice for September and I wasn’t quite in the mood to read it but it was September and well, a schedule is a schedule. So I started it anyway. I have it in a bilingual edition. At first, I thought I’d read it in English and glimpse at the French if need be. I ended up reading the French translation without much enthusiasm. I gave it a one star on Goodreads and left it aside. Then I realized it was high time to write my billet about it. Blank mind, I couldn’t remember a coherent thing about the story. Since it’s only 70 pages, I decided to read it again in a ebook version and in English. And this time, I really enjoyed it tremendously and moved it from one to four stars on Goodreads. Timing and mood are key factors in my appreciation of books. I’m glad I didn’t study literature in school, reading on demand for classes would have been difficult. But back to The Man Who Would Be King.

 kipling2This novella published in 1888 is set in India and relates the story of two loafers who decide to become kings of Kafiristan, a part of Afghanistan. These two adventurers/kings are Peachey Carnehan and Daniel Dravot. The narrator is a journalist who met Carnehan on a train and passed a message from him to Daniel Dravot. After he was back publishing the newspaper he works for, the two loafers come and see him to explain how they’re on their way to become kings of Kafiristan. The narrator is skeptical about their chances to succeed in their crazy scheme as Afghanistan is a dangerous country and a war zone.

A couple of years later, Peachy comes back, worn out and scarred, and relates his and Davrot’s adventures in Kafiristan. He describes how they managed to take control of the area, submitted the natives to their rule and became kings. Davrot was the actual leader in this adventure but he didn’t survive.

On the second reading, several things caught my attention.

Kipling’s tale depicts a classic case of colonization: the whites arrive, they take advantage of the natives’ belief that they are some god. (Think of Cortes and the fall of the Aztec empire). They pacify the country with superior or at least unknown weapons (rifles) and train the people to use firearms. Eventually, they convert the natives into farmers to keep them under control and to develop the land. The colonizers are adventurers who aren’t very educated but bold and power-thirsty. Davrot and Carnehan don’t even speak proper English. They barely know how to read. Yet they attach some of the local chiefs to their cause. And as long as the priests support them, things run smoothly. As soon as they lose the priests’ support, everything goes awry. In the end, the military that Carnehan had created and trained turns their back on them overthrows them with the assistance of the priests. The three powers don’t always have aligned goals. And as a good Judaeo-Christian writer would have it, the fall of the new kings will be caused by a woman.

But there’s more to The Man Who Would Be King than the moral tale of men who decide to be kings and dominate other humans out of greed and thirst for power. It is also strangely premonitory of the decolonization that would occur 60 years later in India and Kipling is critical of both the colonialist administration and the local power. The British administration chooses to turn a blind eye to corruption and violence in the Indian rulers.

The Native States have a wholesome horror of English newspapers, which may throw light on their peculiar methods of government, and do their best to choke correspondents with champagne, or drive them out of their mind with four-in-hand barouches. They do not understand that nobody cares a straw for the internal administration of Native States so long as oppression and crime are kept within decent limits, and the ruler is not drugged, drunk, or diseased from one end of the year to the other. Native States were created by Providence in order to supply picturesque scenery, tigers and tall-writing.

I wonder how this paragraph was received in 1888. Perhaps the readers of the time thought he was joking since he had a dry sense of humour. It shows here in his interaction with Carnehan:

“I am hoping that you will give him the message on the Square — for the sake of my Mother as well as your own.” Englishmen are not usually softened by appeals to the memory of their mothers, but for certain reasons, which will be fully apparent, I saw fit to agree.

It also appears in his description of his job at the newspaper where he stays up as long as possible before starting to print the paper, just to be able to insert a last hot piece of news that would arrive through a late telegram. It is a serious responsibility but he paints his obligation with irony.

I drowsed, and wondered whether the telegraph was a blessing, and whether this dying man, or struggling people, was aware of the inconvenience the delay was causing.

In a few sentences, Kipling manages to describe the atmosphere on the train or the climate in India. Here, our narrator is in the train from Ajmir to Mhow in Intermediate class:

There had been a deficit in the Budget, which necessitated travelling, not Second-class, which is only half as dear as First-class, but by Intermediate, which is very awful indeed. There are no cushions in the Intermediate class, and the population are either Intermediate, which is Eurasian, or native, which for a long night journey is nasty; or Loafer, which is amusing though intoxicated. Intermediates do not patronize refreshment-rooms. They carry their food in bundles and pots, and buy sweets from the native sweetmeat-sellers, and drink the roadside water. That is why in the hot weather Intermediates are taken out of the carriages dead, and in all weathers are most properly looked down upon.

We try to imagine the colourful crowd, the noise, the smell but also the poverty of these travellers thrown together in this Intermediate class.

Scrutiny of human nature, vision on colonisation and politics, glimpses of a country and its inhabitants, there’s a lot in these mere 70 pages. This was my first Kipling and I expected a stuffy colonialist writer. In the end, I discovered an author with a good sense of humour, a lucid vision of colonisation in India and affectionate descriptions of the land. Most of all, Kipling describes the madness that overcomes Daniel Davrot when he gets drunk on power. The French playwright Alfred Jarry wrote Ubu Roi in 1896, twelve years after Kipling published The Man Who Would Be King. Despite the very different settings, I can’t help wondering if Kipling inspired Jarry.

Anyway I’m glad my blogging habits pushed me to read it a second time because otherwise I would have missed something.

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