Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie
Random House, 398 pp., $25.95
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.