Fears Of A 'Clown'

In once-heavenly Kashmir, Salman Rushdie's 'Shalimar' introduces a sweet man who will learn to embrace jihad.

September 11, 2005|By Laura Demanski | Laura Demanski,Special to the Sun

NOVEL

SHALIMAR THE CLOWN

By Salman Rushdie. Random House. 416 pages.

It circumnavigates the globe and the last half of the 20th century like a hyperactive satellite, but Salman Rushdie's rich and restless new novel, Shalimar the Clown, has an ominous stillness at its center. Its title character is a dangerous cipher. We are supposed to believe that he is driven to homicidal monomania by romantic betrayal, but the heart of this Muslim Kashmiri is opaque.

Shalimar the Clown makes vivid stopovers in 1990s Los Angeles and resistance-era France, but the novel's true home is the gorgeous, viciously contested land of Kashmir. Squeezed between India and Pakistan as if in a vise, Kashmir is a terrestrial paradise when the novel begins, shortly after the 1947 Indian partition.

In the actors' village Pachigam, Shalimar's home, Hindus and Muslims live as affectionate neighbors, "not connected by blood or faith" but by the "deeper ties" of their shared land and history: "The words Hindu and Muslim had no place in their story. ... The frontiers between the words, their hard edges, had grown smudged and blurred. This was how things had to be. This was Kashmir."

In harmoniously multicultural Pachigam, Shalimar, a daring young tightrope walker, falls in love with Boonyi Kaul. He is Muslim, she Hindu; he is sweet, she reckless. Yet on the night they become lovers, Shalimar voices a strange pledge for such a gentle boy: to murder her if she ever leaves him. "You say the sweetest things," Boonyi replies. By the time they are married in a succession of festive Hindu and Muslim weddings, however, Boonyi has had an attack of claustrophobia. Her "ravenous longing for something she could not yet name" sets the wheels in motion toward the realization that Shalimar has been dead serious.

Enter Max Ophuls, naturalized American turned ambassador to India. Unrelated to the German filmmaker who shares his name, this Ophuls is a wholly fictional construction. An Ashkenazi Jew born in Strasbourg, he is a young printer when France falls to Hitler's army, leaving his home "a ghost town, its streets ragged with absences." Falling in with the resistance as a forger of documents, Max begins to earn his legendary aura and his entree into the diplomatic elite.

In an uneven World War II section, the flashier details of Max's underground resume -- involving a Bugatti airplane and the strategic seduction of a female agent known as "The Panther" -- are the more tedious. By contrast, Rushdie's depictions of the insensibility of Max's parents to the doom closing in on them as they stubbornly stay put in Strasbourg are piercing. The aging Ophulses putter around serenely "as if it were an excellent idea that the house was largely shuttered up and the population had fled and the street names were being Germanized and the speaking of the French language and the Alsatian dialect had been forbidden," and when Max leaves France, it is without them.

Max reaches India as U.S. ambassador in the mid-1960s after stints in England and New York, trailing myths and legends behind him. Insisting on a risky visit to Kashmir, the ambassador finds there his own past as reflected in a funhouse mirror: "his history reasserted itself and he climbed back into its familiar garments -- in particular the history of his hometown, and the whiplash movements of the Franco-German frontier across its people's lives. ... One snaking frontier had made him what he was. ... Had he come here, to another such unstable twilight zone, in order to be unmade?"

In a way, he has, though that unmaking will be a long time coming. An inveterate womanizer, Max catches an intoxicating glimpse of Boonyi and spirits her away to install her in India as his mistress. This earns him, Boonyi, and the child they eventually bear Shalimar's silent vow of vengeance and launches the spurned Kashmiri's career as a jihadist.

Racing from the 1960s to the '90s, the second half of Shalimar the Clown follows three linked narrative threads that include Shalimar's recruitment as a terrorist and Boonyi's disgraced return to Pachigam. The most vital, though, is the story of Kashmir's descent into an earthly hell at the hands of Islamist terror groups on one hand and a rapacious Indian army on the other. (The former is personified by one of the novel's more vibrant creations: the Iron Mullah, a rigid militant literally made of metal.) This nested historical novella about Kashmir's fate is the novel's pinnacle and its sine qua non.

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