Books: A boy's own story

QUEST FOR KIM: In Search of Kipling's Great Game by Peter Hopkirk, John Murray pounds 15.99
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The Independent Culture
Former, the 13-year-old hero of Rudyard Kipling's Kim is the fullest, most endearing creation in a long tradition of literary fiction exploring the secretive, complex minds - and aimless, obsessive roamings - of boys who are no longer children but who are not yet men either, from classics such as Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn and J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye to recent additions like Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story and E L Doctorow's Billy Bathgate.

Such books, though rarely written specifically for children, nevertheless make most impression when read during one's formative years, and Peter Hopkirk himself recalls discovering Kim as a "highly impressionable, romantically minded schoolboy of 13". Now, after a career determined partly by a wish to discover Kim's India for himself, and the intimate world of the Great Game into which Kim gets initiated, Hopkirk has finally decided to retrace (as much as it is possible to do so) the route taken by Kim and his beloved lama, during which the two develop what Hopkirk believes, quite correctly I think, to be "the most original and sensitively portrayed friendship in English literature".

Considering Hopkirk's reputation as a leading authority on the Great Game (the century-long Anglo-Russian struggle for the mastery of Asia, charted and manipulated by specially recruited spies, and centred on India), one might be forgiven for expecting Quest for Kim to be testingly detailed and scholarly. But the opposite is true. In an original combination of autobiography, travel writing and literary detective work, Hopkirk manages accessibly to tell the story of Kim and his own obsession with it, and only in the process of doing this does he reflect on various bits of original evidence that will reward the attention of the Kipling scholar - he proves, for example, that the narrative begins in about 1888, roughly ten years before the date offered in previously published studies.

The quest begins, appropriately enough, in Lahore. There, in the opening pages of Kim, the lama and the boy meet for the first time outside the "Wonder House", the museum where Kipling's father was curator and before which thousands of Kim pilgrims have subsequently paid homage. But this turns out not to have been the original model. Hopkirk is the first to uncover that the present museum was built some five years after Kipling left India for good.

In the novel, Kim is playing on the Zam-Zammah which stands at the entrance to the museum. In its day it was the largest gun in India, and it is still, Hopkirk finds, "an adventure playground for young Kims", who overcome the protective fences to slip and slide on its huge barrel. These "young Kims" crop up everywhere, and appear indeed to be the chief joy of what is charmingly called "Kim Country" on the accompanying map. It seems that the journey undertaken by Hopkirk, with his contemplation of these boys, is as much an excuse to recapture the spirit of his own adolescence as the writing of Kim undoubtedly was for Kipling.

Most of the principal characters were based at least in part upon real individuals, or by characters of popular stories, like the many European "natives" which are supposed to have been discovered during the last century in India, after years of their being allowed to roam free - the obvious models for Kim. Hopkirk dutifully traces the originals, while catching the same trains, visiting the same villages and cities, and searching for the buildings immortalised in Kim, at times seeming to forget that the India through which he is travelling is real, but that Kim's was a fictional creation.

This blurring of fiction and reality proves to be the main strength of Quest for Kim. In an age when books are thought by many no longer to matter, or to be a self-indulgent pastime, Hopkirk illustrates how creatively and thoroughly the reading of a work of fiction can shape a whole lifetime's experience.