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The Great Unspooler. Romeo meets Juliet in 'Kashmir'

'Shalimar the Clown' by Salman Rushdie

Cover: November 2005November 2005Medium length read
 

Toward the beginning of A Satanic Affair, his analysis of the furore caused by The Satanic Verses, Malise Ruthven tells the following story. A month or so into the publicity for the novel, Rushdie was invited onto BBC radio’s Desert Island Discs. He chose the ten CDs he would take with him to a desert island. What book would he take? The 1001 Nights, of course. And what object? Rushdie replied instantly. He liked the idea of having a telephone with an unlisted number, on which he could ring everyone but no one could ring him. Five months later the Ayatollah Khomeini announced his fatwa and Rushdie was whisked into hiding. It was as if, in the most terrible way, he had been granted his wish.

This story bears repeating, not only for its ironies. There have been plenty of these. After the 1989 fatwa it was as if Rushdie had become one of his own characters, twinned to false identities, teleported from place to place, the pawn of history and other people’s stories – just like Saleem Sinai, the narrator of his 1981 book Midnight’s Children, who found himself telepathically linked to the 1001 other children born on the stroke of midnight on the day of Indian independence. Rushdie’s fate was to see his name forever coupled – even after the fatwa was lifted nine years later – to the Islamic faith he had abandoned.

That wasn’t all. Celebrity meant that Rushdie’s fiction, which had always stood outside the storytelling process itself, was judged on a different level. Subsequent novels such as The Moor’s Last Sigh, The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury, while certainly less brilliant than his earlier fiction, sometimes appeared to have been assessed less on their literary qualities than on whether Rushdie himself had been somehow worth the trouble. Irony of ironies, his writing would be read for what it “said” about his experience at the hands of fundamentalist Islam, often in the most literal or fundamentalist of ways.

At first glance Shalimar the Clown (Jonathan Cape, 398pp; $49.95) seems about to take all this on. It opens in 1990s Los Angeles with the stabbing, in front of his daughter, of Max Ophuls, a Jewish–American ex-diplomat, celebrity author and counter-terrorism expert. Shalimar, his chauffeur and now murderer, is Muslim. Ophuls had recently appeared on TV, blasting the rise of religious fundamentalism in Kashmir. So you can’t read my novels without thinking about the stabbing of my Japanese translator and my own near-death, Rushdie appears to be teasing us? You want to know how it feels? This is characteristic Rushdie – part intellectual mission, part smartypants hubris – and you find yourself drawing a sharp breath on his behalf. But no sooner has his novel whetted appetites for some kind of autobiographical revelation than it swerves away from expectations. Shalimar is a trained terrorist – but his vengeance has nothing at all to do with what Ophuls has said.

Shalimar the Clown flashes back more than 30 years to the Kashmiri town of Pachigam. It is 1961 and two 14-year-olds from prominent families have fallen in love. He is Muslim, she is Hindu. They consummate their love secretly. When their families find out, they make the surprising decision to let the children marry. The girl Boonyi, a dancer, is soon unhappy with the narrow confines of her life with handsome tightrope walker Shalimar, perhaps because he has vowed ardently that if she ever cheats on him he will track her and her child down and kill them. She waits for her chance to escape. When Ophuls visits Kashmir as US ambassador she grabs it.

For a moment you draw another quick breath. Is Rushdie suggesting that acts of terror can be reduced to the most cliched and banal of motives? Of course not. Rushdie is addicted to complication. His writing, with its Scheherazade-like unspooling of stories within stories, has always homed in on the seismic ruptures that empires leave in their wake. This is Romeo and Juliet played out against the post-colonial history of Kashmir. Fair Pachigam, through which the Muskadoon River gently flows, may pride itself on its tolerance – Hindu and Muslims make their living performing plays together, its women are unveiled – but since 1947 (the year of Indian independence, as well as Boonyi and Shalimar’s simultaneous births) it has been bitterly contested by India and Pakistan. The Indian army is cracking down on its sense of exceptionalism; America favours Pakistan; the iron mullahs are stirring.

And Rushdie is only getting started. His novel loops back into the World War II persecution of Ophuls in Nazi-occupied Strasbourg: to his daring escape; to his sexless marriage to the Grey Rat, a ridiculously upper-crust English resistance heroine. When Ophuls loses interest in his pregnant mistress Boonyi, Rattie sends her back to Kashmir and takes the child “Kashmira”, whom she rechristens “India”, to England. As fundamentalism spreads from the next-door village to Pachigam, Shalimar hones his hatred in a Jihadist training camp.

As usual with Rushdie, you would be hard-pressed to find a clear moral line. His lovers are star-crossed; his exploiters are also exploited; paradise is poisoned. Rushdie’s fiction is typically so over-determined by its promiscuously multiplying narratives, so fixated on portents, that for all the moral authority of his attacks on the certainties of empire, the reader frequently feels as if one is peering at a cartoon through a heat haze. It was arguably this very slipperiness that so enraged Islamic critics of The Satanic Verses: not only did it question the divine authorship of the Koran, but its sheer inability to be pinned down seemed to make it more perversely and diffusely offensive. That’s the point, of course. In Rushdie’s novelistic universe, colonialism has knocked everything off-kilter. But if it’s the only point, it is also a kind of trap. Are his novels doomed to repeat this same trick over and over?

One senses that these same qualms may have troubled Rushdie. For this novel begins as a slightly different animal. Its thriller-ish opening and conclusion – in which we watch India, the wannabe film-maker in LA, dealing with her anger – have a pared-down style reminiscent of DeLillo. Instead of storytelling itself, this time Rushdie appears to have chosen as his grand theme the intimacy of hate. The most intense relationships are between enemies: Shalimar and Boonyi who, living in exile on the hill above her village, can feel him coming for her; Ophuls and Shalimar, who as master and chauffeur establish an unspoken sympathy; India and Shalimar, whose dreams she storms with her fury. Shalimar himself, especially in the book’s final section, is a fascinating portrait of incandescent, self-sustaining rage.

But Rushdie can’t help himself. His book soon slips into the warm bath of cartoonish cliche and gratuitous cleverness. The most egregious example is the naming of his diplomat after the real Jewish–German emigré director Max Ophuls. Rushdie’s hero hates cinema – is this the joke? Are we supposed to feel sorry for Rushdie, stuck with a public version of himself that is really another person? Or are we to make something of the fact that Ophuls’s films, as one film website notes, depict the human condition as at once “deeply tragic and terribly superficial”?

More than ever, Rushdie’s writing is easy to admire, much harder to love. The awful fate of Kashmir, which should be heartbreaking, is overwhelmed. Shalimar the Clown walks a fine line between the terribly superficial and the deeply tragic.

About the author Delia Falconer
Delia Falconer is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2009. Her books include The Service of Clouds, The Penguin Book of the Road and Sydney.