Salman Rushdie’s literary landscapes are often shattered utopias — idyllic worlds destroyed by the outside — and real — world’s intrusion. Often, these lands’ downfalls are the result of fervent nationalism, religious fanaticism, and imperialism. In Rushdie’s latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, the utopian land is Kashmir, and its destruction is a result of all of these forces. Its inhabitants too — for Rushdie’s lands are metaphors for his characters — are raped by Indian soldiers, abused by Muslim extremists, and taken advantage of by American ambassadors. They are tragic figures whose misfortunes take them to extreme — and often ignoble — measures. An ambitious revenge tale that spans three generations and three continents, Shalimar the Clown doesn’t always juggle its soap-opera drama and brutal realism with aplomb, but at a time when much contemporary literature is content with self-deprecating irony and obsession (masked as contempt) with pop culture, Rushdie’s commitment to difficult, serious topics is most welcome.
The novel begins with a crime — the murder of ex-U.S. ambassador Max Ophuls by his Kashmiri butler — and the meaty middle section, which comprises about 300 of the novel’s 400 pages, is an elongated flashback, explaining a complicated love triangle — the genesis of the crime. As Midnight’s Children‘s narrator Saleem Sinai asserts that he must his story by telling the stories of his parents and grandparents, Rushdie cannot explain the killer’s, who calls himself Shalimar the Clown, motivation without talking about the history of the town from which he hails, without detailing the histories of Shalimar’s parents and wife and her parents, without retracing Max’s roots to Germany and France and his involvement as a resistance fighter during World War II.
Amid all the globe-trotting and history lessons and family trees is a love triangle: one involving Shalimar the Clown, son of a Muslim theater troupe leader, and his wife Boonyi Kaul, daughter of a Hindu pandit. The two lovers are part of a secular Kashmiri society of performers and cooks. The two religions coexist peacefully in this town and borrow from one another; the Muslims adapt the Hindu’s gods and superstitions, while the Hindus learn to include meat in their daily cooking. Born on the same day to two best friends, Shalimar the Clown and Boonyi Kaul are inexorably bound — destined to become best friends and lovers. So when the two fourteen year olds are found making love in the wilderness, the liberal townsfolk don’t ostracize the precocious youth, but encourage the two to marry. This marriage serves as a symbol of Kashmir’s religious tolerance and a taunt to the Indian military guards keeping watch over the town, who disapprove of the inter-religious marriage and want Kashmir a strictly Hindu state.
But beauty, fortune, talent; these gifts often complicate Rushdie’s characters as much as they help them, and Boonyi’s beauty and her pride — like Kashmir’s — give her a desirability that ends up a curse. When Boonyi dances in the troupe’s performance for guest-of-honor Max Ophuls, the American ambassador to India, he is overcome with desire. The subsequent events unfold as in a soap opera: Boonyi wants to escape her provincial town, Ophuls initiates an affair but then is overcome by guilt (he has a wife), the cuckolded husband seeks revenge.
This all sounds fairly pedestrian, but in Rushdie’s hands the story becomes much more complex. The melodrama of the love triangle parallels — and directly influences(?) — the melodrama unfolding in Kashmir. Instead of Kashmir fighting for its independence from India, now it has both India and Pakistan — with its ascetic Islamic leader in the novel called the Iron Mullah — to contend with. No longer able to fend for themselves, the Kashmiri people divide into those for unification with India and those for Pakistan. The political situation is further obscured with the States’, who are supplying arms to the Pakistani troops, dubious involvement.
Though Rushdie is rigid in his opinions (the writer’s criticism of Islam in The Satanic Versus infamously led to the fatwa against him), he is not judgmental when it comes to his characters. His characters aren’t bad so much as the products of turmoil and misfortune. A cuckolded clown becomes a terrorist because of an uncontainable hurt and frustration with the Kashmiri resistance; a World War II hero becomes a seducer because he can’t stand the desperate look of desire in a woman’s eyes; a wife becomes a mistress because she wants a better life for herself and for her children.
Rushdie’s operatic lyricism accompanies the action brilliantly here, and the power of his language, whether describing the moonlit terrain or the rape of a townswoman, is unparalleled. He’s always been long-winded, but the style compliments, rather than burdens, his intricate narratives. His poetry also is in keeping with the streak of magical realism that typically runs through his novels — he incorporates Hindu mythology, snake curses, and ominous prophesies as seamlessly as he incorporates timely pop culture references.
The novel loses some of its mystique when transported from these magical foreign lands back to the United States, and, as a result, its ending is a bit of a let down after the captivating midsection. That aside, though, Shalimar the Clown delivers what fans have come to expect from a Rushdie novel: thoughtful analyses of politics and culture, history lessons, and, of course, a great story.