Does Rushdie Matter?
Celebrity is the enemy of the artist.
Oct 31, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 07 • By RANDY BOYAGODA
Shalimar the Clown
SALMAN RUSHDIE RANKS SOMEWHERE BETWEEN James Joyce and Madonna in terms of the contributions he has made to modern civilization. This is no faint praise; only an artist of uncommon talents can simultaneously draw on multiple literary and cultural traditions, engage pressing political questions of the day, revisit grand and terrible history, and provocatively mine the pop culture indices of contemporary Western life.
Rushdie has accomplished all this in his best writing--Midnight's Children, for example, is a magnificent, extended trip to a cerebral and absurdist Third World circus. Meanwhile, leaving aside its extra-literary infamy, The Satanic Verses is an impressively ambitious fable of reinventions and voyaging that spans centuries, continents, and dimensions. With his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie attempts to advance some of the major themes, concerns, and settings of these books to match the hysterics of terror-addled living in the contemporary East and West. His explosive rendering of these difficult times traces out the life of a Kashmiri clown-cum-terrorist and the diverse people in his orbit. The result is an explosively bad novel, a loose series of sideshow attractions and banal insights that comes off, with few exceptions, like self-parody.
The novel's basic plot is cheap melodrama striving to be politically conscientious: Shalimar is a heartbroken boy from torn-up Kashmir who leaves his village to become an international terrorist after his wife, Boonyi, cuckolds him. The novel begins with Shalimar murdering Max Ophuls, inveterate seducer of beautiful women, former U.S. ambassador to India, and Washington's counterterrorism czar in the early 1990s. The bloody deed occurs in front of a Los Angeles apartment building where Ophuls's daughter resides. She happens to be the love child of a messy affair between Ophuls and Boonyi, whom Shalimar has already killed for her betrayal. It falls, then, to the grieving daughter, who's named India in one of the novel's many touches of inchoate significance, to balance out Shalimar's acts of vengeance by performing one of her own, which occurs in the closing pages.
In between, Rushdie works up a massive, noisy machinery of intrigue and conflict that seemingly informs the killings that open and close the book. To its peril, the novel's action consistently obeys its governing premise: "Everywhere was now part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, flowed into one another's, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people. There were collisions and explosions. The world was no longer calm." Laden with literati gravitas, this evocation comes off as painfully dull, a statement of globalization's interconnections and volatile sprawl already many times told. In fact, the ideas and very prose Rushdie uses here (and at intervals throughout) seem almost directly transposed from the pages of Fury and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the two globetrotting novels he wrote immediately prior to Shalimar. But more damning than the obviousness, derivative markings, and repetition of the novel's primary conceit are the consequences of its enactment across some 400 frenetic pages.
In earlier novels, Rushdie imagined Kashmir as a gorgeous Eden ruined by ugly Indo-Pakistani politics. He returns to this premise by depicting warm, prelapsarian relations between Hindus and Muslims in the fictional village of Pachigam, who, we are told, "were not connected by blood or faith. Kashmiris were connected by deeper ties than those." The novel abounds in such mystical obfuscations, which essentially project a secular liberal ideal of multicultural amity onto mid-20th-century subcontinental history: Family, race, and religion are represented as secondary matters before one's self-determined commitment to a numinous, undefined higher good.
As the location to unfold this pretense, however, Kashmir does not work so well. Rushdie, better than most, knows how deep blood and faith run in India and Pakistan, and he knows that Kashmir has been a perennial stage for conflict since the maharajah of its predominantly Muslim population chose to join India over Pakistan in the 1947 partition. Indeed, one of the novel's most evocative lines speaks to this very issue, wonderfully describing Kashmir as "perched thousands of feet up in the mountains like a tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant's teeth." But Rushdie diminishes Kashmir's congenital difficulties, and the blood and faith that color them, by opting for repeated images of merrymaking, feasts, acrobatics, and plays performed by Hindus and Muslims for each other. Things get knotted up when the son of the local Muslim sarpanch, Shalimar, and the daughter of the local Hindu pandit, Boonyi, go star-crossed and decide to marry. Rather than generate communal tensions, however, their nuptials represent the summa of harmonious unity in the village, which its inhabitants uphold until assorted snakes enter the Kashmiri garden.
Rushdie has long had a penchant for creating allegories between individuals and larger, bruiting forces. In this regard, Shalimar abounds to the point of incoherence. The novel strains to establish the valley's fall from paradise as due to the collective actions of cross-border militias, the Indian army, Pakistani intelligence operatives, a mullah literally made of iron, and a womanizing American ambassador. These dark powers collectively wreak their religious, political, and military havoc on an otherwise paradisiacal valley through their private involvements with Pachigam's main actors, whose latent desires for fame, power, and vengeance are stirred up and turned destructive, on themselves and each other.
In folding this action, Rushdie variously invokes Romeo and Juliet, Genesis, and the ancient Indian epic The Ramayana, with expected postmodern renovations. He also sets up post-partition Kashmir as a screen onto which he projects a series of 21st-century shorts--about Islamic fundamentalism, liberationist movements, terrorism, wars on terrorism, civil wars, border wars, guerrilla wars, and unsightly American empire-building. He also throws in an extended sidecar story about World War II-era Franco-German espionage. Rushdie aficionados usually go mad for this hyperactive splicing, but they will be profoundly disappointed by the present effort, primarily because the ideas that purport to hold everything in whirring orbit are so lazy and weak.
As an example, one of the novel's main axes runs between World War II Strasbourg and post-partition Kashmir. It is traversed by Max Ophuls, whose heroics as a spy for the French Resistance make him a diplomatic titan, "one of the architects of the postwar world," and then, after further geopolitical gyrations, Washington's man in India and the self-appointed, would-be solver of the Kashmir problem. This convoluted itinerary leads Max to a personal revelation halfway through the novel, when he's in Kashmir and thinking of Strasbourg. This would seem to affirm Shalimar's overarching premise: "He had come a long way but perhaps not so very far. Could any places be more different, he asked himself; could any two places have been more the same?"
Later on the same page, when Rushdie actually nears an authentic idea, the result is less trite but still unsatisfying. Max starts to reflect about his attempt, as a Westerner, to understand "the shape of the conflict in Kashmir. . . . Did the mind discover likeness in the unlike in order to clarify the world, or to obscure the impossibility of such clarification?" The ponderous prose notwithstanding, this question offers a welcome critique of the novel's homogenizing cosmopolitanism, and its drunken-octopus design. More significantly, it opens onto a wider issue, addressing the difficulties of symmetry and asymmetry that come up when we try to comprehend those distant, long-running problems whose convulsions can affect us with unprecedented immediacy.
But how does Rushdie respond, this novelist with an encyclopedic grasp of First and Third World experiences and traditions whose prior achievements guarantee him a large, educated, and international audience? He ducks. "He didn't know the answer. But it was one hell of a question."
Rather than venture anything resembling a thoughtful response, the novel churns on, and Rushdie's attempts at all-inclusive relevance grow worse, culminating in a ludicrous denouement. Rushdie sets Shalimar's murderous act to coincide, roughly, with the Rodney King riots. Apparently, this concurrence offers yet further proof that "Everywhere was a mirror of everywhere else. Executions, police brutality, explosions, riots: Los Angeles was beginning to look like wartime Strasbourg; like Kashmir." In writing a global village aria to victimhood, Rushdie strips bare what little intellectual nuance and historical substance the novel had to begin with. Moreover, the chaotic Angelino cityscape inspires some monumentally bad prose: "L.A was a flame-grilled Whopper that night." This sentence, in short, spells the end of Salman Rushdie's career as a pop culture-savvy, postmodern ironist.
Rushdie has elsewhere proposed that "a book is not justified by its author's worthiness to write it, but by the quality of what has been written." Measured against his own dispassionate criteria, Shalimar the Clown is spectacularly unjustifiable. The world used to take notice of a new Salman Rushdie novel, and often with good reason. His latest, however, is cause for neither concern nor excitement. He has written a big bland airplane novel that labors across time-zones, its effects turbulent and tiring.
Randy Boyagoda is a fellow at the Erasmus Institute at Notre Dame.