Saturday, December 4, 2010

Plain Tales From The Hills

Since childhood, I had been vaguely aware of Kipling, as the author of the Just So Stories and of several poems that I never actually read but knew lines from.  I also knew of his reputation and a bit of his life story.  Over Thanksgiving break, I was looking through some old books at my Grandmother's house and found Plain Tales From The Hills.  I always like short stories, so I read one, and liked it so much that I asked to borrow the book so I could read the rest.

The book is incredibly good.  Most of the stories are first-class, very well-written, with lines and quotes that you want to repeat to other people around you.  They are very much like Mark Twain's early short stories, although with less emphasis on pure humor.  

In addition to their inherent quality, they are fascinating historical documents.  They reveal a way of life and thinking that is almost dead today, and very alien to our modern sensibilities.  One thing that particularly fascinates me is that I cannot tell if Kipling is subversively mocking these beliefs or if he actually holds them.  I tend to think the former; many of the statements are so outrageous that I think they must be like Swift's 'A Modest Proposal'.  Kipling constantly portrays the British colonial administration of India in a cynical way, creating the impression that the government was full of stupidity, waste, and corruption.

But then, he will write something in complete seriousness that is blatantly racist, or silly, or alien to the modern mind.  It is a fascinating mystery.

While reading these stories, I assumed that they were they work of a cynical, middle-aged, world-weary soldier.  I was surprised when I looked the book up and saw that all of them were written by the time he was 22.

I was also surprised by how many non-English words he throws around without explanation.  I do not know if all readers would have understood them, or if he did that to appear impressive and exotic.  Given that they were published in India at first, I assume the former.  As I was reading, I had to make a long list of words to look up, and there were a lot more that I already knew or could figure out from context

The stories are short and, aside from some of the vocabulary, very easy to read.  If you have a little spare time, read a few and see what you think.

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