Monday, September 12, 2005

Review: Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown

Rushdie melds passion, politics in nimble novel that illustrates the mind of a Kashmiri terrorist

By Salman Rushdie.
Random House, 416 pp. $25.95.

Perhaps no other novelist is more qualified than Salman Rushdie to write a novel exploring the origins and mind-set of a Muslim assassin.

To recap, in 1989 the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran called for the execution of Rushdie, as well as his editors and publishers, after publication of The Satanic Verses, a novel Islamists accused of parodying the Koran.

With a bounty on his head, Rushdie hid for years, living under armed guard until the late '90s when he re-emerged into public life, appearing onstage at a U2 concert and becoming a fixture on the party scene in New York and London. His new lifestyle was reflected in a pair of entertaining of-the-moment novels, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a book about rock 'n' roll, and Fury, a riff on boom/bust pre-millennial New York. More recently Rushdie has made headlines for marrying his fourth wife, the Indian celebrity cookbook author and model Padme Lakshmi, giving hope to every socially challenged bookworm on the planet.

Shalimar the Clown returns to the themes and settings of his superb early novels, Midnight's Children, about 1,000 paranormally enhanced children born at the moment of India's emancipation from Britain in 1947, and Shame, an allegory about the creation of Pakistan told through the lives of single family.

A story with depth

The action starts with an assassination. In the first few pages of Shalimar, Max Ophuls, an octogenarian French-born Jewish-American diplomat, has his throat cut by his driver, the Kashmiri terrorist nicknamed Shalimar the Clown. The murder takes place on the steps of the apartment building in Los Angeles where Max's 24-year-old illegitimate daughter, named India, is living. The day before his murder, Ophuls had given his daughter a DeLorean, the bat-winged car featured in the hit movie of that year, Back to the Future.

Rushdie uses the vehicle of the novel to jump back and forth through the 20th century, lingering on important milestones in each character's life: Shalimar's childhood in a culturally divided Kashmiri village, famous for the villagers' ability to throw a feast and offer live entertainment; Ophuls' youth in Strasbourg and his World War II role in the French Resistance, which made him a folk hero; and the moment when their two lives intersect at a dance at the village where Ophuls, by then U.S. ambassador to India, becomes enchanted by Shalimar's seductive and restless young wife, Boonyi.

Roughly a third of the way through the novel, Shalimar makes love to Boonyi for the first time and announces, "Don't you leave me now, or I'll never forgive you, and I'll have my revenge, I'll kill you and if you have any children by another man I'll kill the children also." The words take on a chilling resonance and make it obvious that Shalimar's killing of Max is motivated by something more than cultural and religious politics.

Giving tale realism

Rushdie is able like no other writer to reduce global events to individual lives, to marry macro socio-political conflicts to personal stories. In Shalimar he is able to re-create the political divisions of Kashmir, the disputed mountain valley on the border between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India, within the characters themselves. The marriage between the Muslim Shalimar and Hindu Boonyi is itself a form of political compromise. (Ultimately, it is the introduction of modernity in the form of television, with its political propaganda, that divides towns.)

Rushdie is also a master at portraying the divided self. Shalimar, who is at first quite literally a circus performer, a high-wire expert whose dream is to "walk into empty air and hang there like a cosmonaut without a suit," is slowly transformed into a terrorist through a combination of suppressed sexual rage and religious pride. Likewise, Ophuls, who starts life as a freedom fighter and whose parents died in the Holocaust, evolves into a man a lot like our own Congressman Charlie Wilson, working with the mujahedeen who would later give succor to al-Qaida.

It should also be noted that Ophuls, who shares his name with a famous early 20th-century Jewish-German film director, has a history that frequently dovetails with that of former University of Texas professor Walt Rostow, who appears to have served as one of many sources for the character.

If the book has any shortcoming it is Rushdie's tendency to become overly baroque when writing about the role of spirituality and magic in the lives of the Kashmiri villagers. These passages bog down the pace of this otherwise nimble novel. Also, many of the settings and events will probably be unfamiliar to Americans and, taken cumulatively, can cause a minor headache trying to keep them straight. A glossary and timeline would ease the pain.

Ultimately, these are fairly minor quibbles compared to the overall joy of reading Rushdie's prose, festooned as it is with sharp observations and clever satire.

Though there are already a number of fine novels that have examined the mind-set of the budding Islamic terrorist — including Salar Abdoh's The Poet's Game, Viken Berberian's The Cyclist and Lorriane Adams' Harbor (just out in paperback) — this is probably the most important of all. Why? Because Kashmir, at the border of India, Pakistan and China, is the most likely flashpoint on the planet for an exchange of nuclear missiles between countries, thus making Shalimar the Clown a brilliant work of political imagination. You don't need to read far into the novel to know what Rushdie feels about the political state of Kashmir — one of the two epigrams is "A plague on both your houses" from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet — but you'll need to read through the entire book to understand exactly why he feels that way. It's a welcome return to form for one of our modern masters of the novel.

This article originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle

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