I have just finished Salman Rushdie’s ‘Shalimar the Clown’ (NY: Random House, 2005, 398 pp.) and venture the statement that – as some have already suggested – this is not just his best novel since the fatwa but, quite simply, the best thing he has ever written. I shall try to justify this objectively in ‘eleven theses’ below, and I do hope to write a full-length study in due course.
The novel moves backwards and forwards in globalised fashion between Kashmir, the US, France and Britain, and covers a period from the 1930s to the present day. It begins with the cold-blooded murder in L.A. of Maximilian Ophuls, former US ambassador to India, by a Kashmiri terrorist militant calling himself Shalimar the Clown. It is a revenge killing for Ophuls’ earlier seduction of the Muslim Shalimar’s late (Hindu) wife, Boonyi. The other main character is Max’s daughter by Boonyi, named India aka Kashmira. The book’s five sections are named: India – Boonyi – Max – Shalimar the Clown – Kashmira.
ELEVEN THESES ON ‘SHALIMAR THE CLOWN’:
1. It is far and away Rushdie’s best-researched novel. Perhaps taking a leaf from Vikram Seth’s book, he has meticulously researched everything from Kashmiri theatre and cuisine to the details of middle-class life in pre-war Strasbourg to the horrors of death row in California. The historical context is minutely realised, with much ‘real’ detail interpolated. Certain political figures from Rushdie’s earlier novels return in the novel’s wings – Indira Gandhi, General Ayub Khan. The results of the research are far more convincing than, for instance, the highly dubious, stereotyped representation of Spain at the end of ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’.**
2. As critics have noted, magic realism is used only sparingly by comparison with, say, ‘Midnight’s Children’ or ‘Shame’. There is a woman (Firdaus) who communicates with snakes; Boonyi communes with her dead mother Pamposh; a Kashmiri Islamist cell is led by an ‘iron mullah’ made out of discarded (Indian) army scrap, who seems a terrible parody of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz (but neither having nor seeking a heart). All in all, however, it is straight realism – be it grim or poetic – that dominates.**
3. The book is an elegy for ‘the broken heart of Kashmir’ (247). The old Kashmir is seen as a relatively tolerant, eclectic society crushed from all sides by ‘the new zero-tolerance world’ (290). Popular traditions flourished; the burqa was almost unknown; Hindus, Muslims and indeed Jews lived side by side, and Boonyi and Shalimar’s marriage is even a Hindu-Muslim match; humans lived in harmony with nature among honey-bees and peach-trees. Rushdie’s evocations of this lost Kashmir recall similar lyrical passages in ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’.**
4. Militant Islamism irrupts into Kashmir, with support from Pakistan’s ISI. Rushdie, as one might expect, sees this as an unmitigated disaster. The passages on forced imposition of the (culturally alien) burqa are particularly memorable (277, 301, 364).**
5. The Indian state, however, seems little better. Its centralised TV destroys the folk culture of the popular theatre; its army imposes vicious ‘crackdown’ tactics in Kashmir.**
6. Nor does the West appear as any kind of humane alternative. Here there is a sharp turnaround from ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ and ‘Fury’, where Rushdie seemed all but given over to US mass-cultural superficiality and the writing, especially in the latter, was often dangerously one-dimensional. Here, the LA passages too read as one-dimensional, recalling Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, but that now seems a deliberate strategy. Max’s seduction of Boonyi appears as cynical exploitation; the whole Californian police, judicial and prison machinery exposed in the death-row scenes at the end comes across as just as oppressive and inhuman as the Indian army’s methods. The French section, set in Strasbourg and Clermont-Ferrand, focuses on Nazism, Vichy, the Shoah and a highly ambivalent French Resistance, and, to say the least, does not glorify the West at all. Rushdie’s ‘Indian’ visiting of France is a far cry from Raja Rao’s dialogic encounter with French culture in ‘The Serpent and the Rope’. **
7. Rushdie has said in a recent interview that he believes in multiculturalism but not in cultural relativism. It is clear from this novel that he stands by the intellectual’s duty to criticise oppression everywhere (the burqa or the US death penalty), be it in Western or non-Western societies.**
8. A single episode contains a devastating critique of American political correctness and the counterproductive effects of its rule-governed mindset. On p. 381, India-Kashmira borrows a pair of night-vision goggles from a security guard who is breaking his employer’s ‘draconian new rules of engagement’ by speaking to her on non-business matters. Had he not disobeyed the rules, it is clear that on p. 398 she would have been killed. This episode is in its way as powerful a critique of PC as all of Philip Roth’s ‘The Human Stain’. This and the previous point also serve to demarcate Rushdie from a certain cultural-relativist, politically correct Anglo-Saxon ‘left’ – in fact from those who abandoned him at the time of the fatwa.**
9. The world of this novel is globalised but violent. Cruelty, oppression and superficiality seem ever more deeply rooted in India, in the Islamic world and in the West. No culture comes out unscathed.**
10. Rushdie has been accused in the past of peddling Orientalist stereotypes to Western readers seeking the exotic. An episode like the burning spicefields or ‘world’s biggest curry’ in ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’ might bear out such a claim. However, ‘Shalimar’, with its lovingly detailed accounts of Kashmiri food, crafts, music, etc (‘fenugreek-scented cottage cheese and tomatoes …’ – 104) , escapes such strictures. We should recall that Rushdie has an Indian readership too and that when he writes about the West he could be seen by some as reproducing ‘Occidentalist’ clichés. This may be true of ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ (fashion, hedonism, rock celebrity lifestyle, etc), but again such a charge does not stick here. It is also worth noting that the West in its darkest aspects (Nazism/the Shoah/World War II) has been the recent subject of ‘Occidentalist’ treatments by other leading IWE figures – Anita Desai in ‘The Zigzag Way’, Vikram Seth in ‘Two Lives’.**
11. So is there any redemption anywhere in Rushdie’s fictional world? The book’s ending is open-ended, ambivalent. Throughout, apparent victories metamorphose into defeat: to give but one example, Boonyi cures herself of dire bulimia by a magical effort of self-healing, but in the long run that cure does not preserve her life. The reader may find redemptive glimpses in popular creativity (albeit destroyed), in natural beauty (even if man ravages it), in the lost cultural hybridity of the old Kashmir, and, of course and as always, in the creative resources of language in Rushdie the novelist’s hands, in the words on the page. As to Rushdie’s universe of globalised violence and dogma where human values – ‘old-time tolerance and hope’ (282) – still struggle to prevail, we may sum it up In the words of Bob Dylan, a Literature Nobel candidate whose poetic songwriting we know Rushdie admires: ‘It’s an everlasting battle / For a peace that’s always torn’.