Reviewed by DAVID VINEYARD:          

PETER HOPKIRK – Quest for Kim: In Search of Kipling’s Great Game. University of Michigan Press, softcover, October 1999. John Murray, UK, 1996.

   This is an adventure story, a history lesson, auto-biography, biography, a journal of a journey, and a literary detective story about one of the masterpieces of English literature and world literature, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Like the author I will not debate the political or racial implications of the novel that takes place in the heyday of the British Raj. This is about the beloved adventure story and its origins, and the India and Northwestern Frontier where they take place, from the hold city of Benares to the Afghan border, the land of the Great Game.

   For anyone who doesn’t know, the war between the Russian and British Empire in India for Afghanistan and the riches of the Grand Trunk road and the gateway to the Far East was fought with actual battles and in the shadowy realm of espionage, dubbed by Rudyard Kipling as the Great Game.

   Kim, Kipling’s novel of half Indian Kim O’Hara, a child of the streets and back alleys of Benares; the strange Lama whose chela or student and servant he becomes and to whom he is wholly devoted; the rascally Mahbub Ali his friend and guardian, a red haired horse trader and secret agent; Colonel Creighton the mysterious head of the British Secret Service on the Indian continent, and all the rest of the motley crew young Kim O’Hara encounters is one of the most beloved books of all time.

   It has been read and influenced writers: John Buchan, Talbot Mundy, T. M. Murari, Frederic Wakeman, M.M. Kaye, T.S. Eliot, Philip Knightley, Mark Twain, …; adventurers, Wilfrid Theisger, T.E. Lawrence, Fitzroy Maclean (a model for James Bond), Patrick Leigh Fermor (the poet and wartime hero of the SOE who kidnaped a German General on Crete); and countless other boys grown to men with a taste for adventure and romance on the Grand Trunk road including a boy nicknamed for him, Harold “Kim” Philby.

   The Great Game, India, and the Raj all form the grand theme of the works of historian Peter Hopkirk, whose bestselling non-fiction recounts the exotic truth of that world with titles as evocative as Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, Trespassers on the Roof of the World, and Setting the East Ablaze knows Central Asia, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and the Middle East like the back of his hand.

   As one who loved Kim early on, Hopkirk’s paean to the book is a joy to read. He follows Kim’s trail from the relative peace of Benares to the still hazardous and dangerous borderlands of Simla as he tracks down the true locations, and the real people Kipling used in his narrative of life and adventure in 18th century India.

   The result is not only a tribute to the book, but a detective story as he unravels history, legend, and local mythology to bring new life to a living book many of us still turn to for lessons and wisdom. Most of all it is a tribute to a land and people. As Hopkirk concludes: “… the real hero of Kipling’s masgterpiece is neither Kim nor the Lama. It is India …”

   Read this and enjoy a real detective story full of history and adventure, and the wisdom of a young boy who lived in a world so vivid we still seek to visit and recreate, a world no film can do true justice to, a world that once captivated us, and still calls to us across our lives and across time and distance.