Salman Rushdie, recently knighted for services to literature, attracts two types of critic. There are those who find his writing a rattlebag of pretentious showing off, the storytelling obscured by thickets of (grudgingly admitted) beautiful language. And there are those who call for him to be put to death for insulting their religion. To the latter I say nothing (what would be the point?), though personally I enjoyed The Satanic Verses enough to read it twice. To the former, I admit that Midnight’s Children was something of a struggle at times, and that I never did manage to finish Shame, The Moor’s Last Sigh or The Ground Beneath Her Feet. But I really did read The Satanic Verses twice, honest.
His 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown is a typically dense multicultural circus, written with verve and vivacity. The story is unpeeled in layers. The surface details the murder of Max Ophuls, the octogenarian former American ambassador to India, by his driver, a Kashmiri named Shalimar the Clown. “It all made the new, senseless kind of sense.” As soon as we see mention of Kashmir, the flashpoint borderland between India and Pakistan, we know the murder must be political. But it is personal, and in finding out why it happened, we travel back to Kashmir, to the generation before Shalimar (real name Noman), and to Max’s past as a Jew in wartime France too.
Shalimar the Clown himself, meanwhile, a man who “puts the past into the present tense,” doesn’t spring into life as a character until two-thirds through the book, which is when the book picks up in pace and becomes viscerally thrilling as well as intellectually. It contains devastating accounts of the things that men do in the name of faith or country: the Indian army general suppressing insurrection by any means necessary (“Bullets entered flesh like music, the pounding of clubs was the rhythm of life, and then there was the sexual dimension to consider, the demoralisation of the population through the violation of its women. In that dimension every colour was bright and tasted good”); the three brothers tutored in the ways of the Afghan Taliban (“‘I would order the execution of dentists, professors, sportsmen and whores. God spits on intellectualism and licentiousness and games”); and Shalimar the Clown, no longer the innocent youth he once was (“I have been asleep. … And now that I’ve woken up there is something important I need to do”). We see “the consequences of U.S. policy choices in South Asia, and their echoes in the labyrinthine chambers of the paranoiac jihadi mind.”
And all of this means of course that it is political after all, and the various conflicts between East and West, Muslim and Hindu, Nazi and Jew, other cultures and American freedom (“freedom to choose folly over greatness”), give Rushdie plenty of scope to address the big issue:
The cycle of violence had not been broken. Perhaps it was endemic to the human race, a manifestation of the life cycle. Perhaps violence showed us what we meant, or, at least, perhaps it was simply what we did. … Maybe tyranny, forced conversions, temple-smashing, iconoclasm, persecution and genocide were the norms and peaceful coexistence was an illusion. … The crimes of the fourteenth century needed to be avenged in the twentieth.
There is a great deal in the book that is brilliant (in both senses): dazzling paragraphs, shining sentences. At the same time, the power of Rushdie’s writing can be exhausting, and I felt that the most affecting scenes early in the book (such as Boonyi’s calamitous return to Kashmir, where “the air was full of frozen particles of itself”) would have been all the more striking with some breathing space beyond. Instead we launch into more brilliance, and are so busy concentrating on this that we forget about what we’ve just left. Rushdie’s tireless talent, like a gifted child, can be maddening at times.
This paradox runs through the first half of the book (and, if memory serves, through Rushdie’s oeuvre). On page 94, I was tearing my hair out when yet another new character was introduced (“Colonel Hammirdev Suryavans Kachhwaha of the Indian army had…”), just as I was getting the hang of the existing ones. But eight pages later I was almost tearful with gratitude for the almost miraculous display of character portrayal and satire I’d just delighted in. I’d simply needed to readjust my atrophied brain to this richer food. And Rushdie is as adept at getting under the skins of Kashmiris as he is French Jews, and the young in Los Angeles:
The beautiful came to this city in huge pathetic herds, to suffer, to be humiliated, to see the powerful currency of their beauty devalued like the Russian rouble or Argentine peso; to work as bellhops, as bar hostesses, as garbage collectors, as maids. The city was a cliff and they were its stampeding lemmings. At the foot of the cliff was the valley of the broken dolls.
Ultimately what Shalimar the Clown seems like is an eight-hundred-page book squeezed to half the size. It feels like what Martin Amis called “a transfusion from above,” and I was constantly aware that Rushdie’s erudition is so great that I must be missing half a dozen literary, historical or mythical allusions for every one that I picked up (I gave myself a pat on the back for spotting the closing lines of Joyce’s The Dead at the end of one scene). And yet it is never wilfully obscure, and there is plenty of wit, charm and beautifully pitched dialogue. The last hundred and fifty pages are breathlessly compelling. Not incidentally, it acts as a primer for those of us who have always felt under-informed on the troubled history of Kashmir, a place “like paradise … the flowers too numberless to name, ablaze with bright perfume,” yet which was depicted in my old school atlas as a jagged line between Pakistan and India, meaning blankly border conflict. Rushdie will not allow such simplifications to stand.