The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

KIPLING'S MOT JUSTE

From Wressley of the Foreign Office:

One of the many curses of our life in India is the want of atmosphere in the painter’s sense. There are no half-tints worth noticing. Men stand out all crude and raw, with nothing to tone them down, and nothing to scale them against. They do their work, and grow to think that there is nothing but their work, and nothing like their work, and that they are the real pivots on which the Administration turns. Here is an instance of this feeling. A half-caste clerk was ruling forms in a Pay Office. He said to me, ‘Do you know what would happen if I added or took away one single line on this sheet?’ Then, with the air of a conspirator, ‘It would disorganise the whole of the Treasury payments throughout the whole of the Presidency Circle! Think of that!’

If men had not this delusion as to the ultra-importance of their own particular employments, I suppose that they would sit down and kill themselves. But their weakness is wearisome, particularly when the listener knows that he himself commits exactly the same sin.

This is pretty typical of Kipling's work, certainly the early Kipling: cynical, superior, funny, precise, and the mean-spirited edge softened a little by an acknowledgement of the other fellow's point of view, or of the narrator's own weakness. Edward Said, in his introduction to the Penguin edition of Kim, has a fair old go at its author while still admitting that it is a great book; Orwell snipes at Kipling now and then in Orwell in Tribune, yet he still quotes from him and makes reference to him. I guess that may be a tribute to Kipling's talent, the truth and relevance of much of what he wrote, and especially his enormous popularity. Whether one agrees or no, Kipling seemed to speak for many of the English of his time, and he could speak to them, and listen as well, at all levels of society. What writer nowadays could claim to do that?

I must admit to being in awe of his technical ability. This is the start of 'On Greenhow Hill':
'Ohé, Ahmed Din! Shafiz Ullah ahoo! Bahadur Khan, where are you? Come out of the tents, as I have done, and fight against the English. Don’t kill your own kin! Come out to me!’

The deserter from a native corps was crawling round the outskirts of the camp, firing at intervals, and shouting invitations to his old comrades. Misled by the rain and the darkness, he came to the English wing of the camp, and with his yelping and rifle-practice disturbed the men. They had been making roads all day, and were tired.

Ortheris was sleeping at Learoyd’s feet. ‘Wot’s all that?’ he said thickly. Learoyd snored, and a Snider bullet ripped its way through the tent wall. The men swore. ‘It’s that bloomin’ deserter from the Aurangabadis,’ said Ortheris. ‘Git up, some one, an’ tell ’im ’e’s come to the wrong shop.’

‘Go to sleep, little man,’ said Mulvaney, who was steaming nearest the door. ‘I can’t arise an’ expaytiate with him. ’Tis rainin’ entrenchin’ tools outside.’

‘’Tain’t because you bloomin’ can’t. It’s ’cause you bloomin’ won’t, ye long, limp, lousy, lazy beggar, you. ’Ark to ’im ’owlin’!’

‘Wot’s the good of argifying? Put a bullet into the swine! ’E’s keepin’ us awake!’ said another voice.

A subaltern shouted angrily, and a dripping sentry whined from the darkness—

‘’Tain’t no good, sir. I can’t see ’im. ’E’s ’idin’ somewhere down ’ill.’

Ortheris tumbled out of his blanket. ‘Shall I try to get ’im, sir?’ said he.

‘No,’ was the answer. ‘Lie down. I won’t have the whole camp shooting all round the clock. Tell him to go and pot his friends.’

Ortheris considered for a moment. Then, putting his head under the tent wall, he called, as a ’bus conductor calls in a block, ‘’Igher up, there! ’Igher up!’

The men laughed, and the laughter was carried down wind to the deserter, who, hearing that he had made a mistake, went off to worry his own regiment half a mile away. He was received with shots; the Aurangabadis were very angry with him for disgracing their colours.

The main body of the story is pretty thick with Victorian sentiment, but the framing narrative, and especially the ending, is simply sublime. Brutal, but sublime.

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2 Comments:

At 17 May 2007 at 16:41 , Blogger Yvonne said...

I like Kipling. Especially Puck of Pook's Hill.

One has to read things in the context of their time and appreciate the technique and the characterisation whilst reading between the lines, methinks.

 
At 24 May 2007 at 10:41 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Yeah. Kipling's been given a hammering for the phrase "the white man's burden" and that line in Kim about how Kim could "lie like an Oriental", which is a bit like hammering John Buchan for that (admittedly vitriolic) speech in The 39 Steps about the Jews. Of course a lot of it is with hindsight, a reaction to imperialism and the Holocaust, which is, as you say, hardly fair.

 

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