Early in Salman Rushdie’s new novel, a former US ambassador to India called Max Ophuls appears on a television talk show in Los Angeles. Ophuls, “a man of movie-star good looks,” grew up in “a family of highly cultured Askenazi Jews” in Strasbourg. Unlike his namesake, the director of such films as Lola Montès and Caught, Rushdie’s character fought in the anti-Nazi Resistance, making his daring escape from Strasbourg in a Bugatti plane. In London, he was privy to Charles de Gaulle’s anxieties about American influence in the postwar world. A “philosopher prince,” Ophuls also helped draw up the Bretton Woods Agreement, and headed the American counterterrorism effort during the CIA’s anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.
His TV host, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jay Leno, is more interested in Ophuls’s “fabled gifts as a raconteur,” his “anecdotal genius,” once revealed at Marlon Brando’s house, where Ophuls disclosed Orson Welles’s eating habits, described what Luis Buñuel did to the Christmas tree at Charlie Chaplin’s house, and also revealed the “improbable liaison between Warren Beatty and Susan Sontag.”
However, much to the dismay of the talk show host, Ophuls launches into a “political diatribe” on Kashmir, the Muslim-dominated Himalayan valley where an anti-India insurgency, backed by Pakistan, has claimed more than 80,000 lives in the last decade and a half. In June 1999, Rushdie described in an Op-Ed article for The New York Times how the “paradise” of Kashmir “has been partitioned, impoverished, and made violent. Murder and terrorism now stalk the valleys and mountains of a land once so famous for its peacefulness.” Ophuls describes the situation in Kashmir in similar terms.
“It is paradise itself that is falling,” he says; “heaven on earth is being transformed into a living hell.” He speaks about the “assassins of Islam”; the “rapes of young girls, the fathers set alight, burning like beacons prophesying doom.” This is all too much for his host, who, worried about losing his audience to his “tall bony gap-toothed rival” in New York, cuts Ophuls’s interview short.
Thus Rushdie introduces the complex subject of Kashmir, which he suspects, rightly, few people in the West know or care much about. Soon after the interview, Ophuls is beheaded by a Kashmiri Muslim acrobat called Shalimar, and Rushdie moves the action from Los Angeles to Kashmir. In a long flashback, he describes a fictional village called Pachigam, where Hindus, Muslims, and even a family of dancing Jews lived in perfect amity through much of the twentieth century, absorbed with hosting multi-course banquets and folk theater. In Rushdie’s idyllic setting of meadows and mountain streams, two children called Boonyi and Shalimar—one Hindu, another Muslim—grow up to be lovers and, eventually, husband and wife. But neither the impetuous Boonyi nor the hot-tempered Shalimar is fated to know happiness.
A powerful demon enters their serenely virtuous and multicultural world. This is Max Ophuls, recently appointed US ambassador to India by Lyndon Johnson. On a visit to Kashmir, he sees the newly married Boonyi perform a folk dance and determines to make her his mistress. A flattered Boonyi leaves her village and moves to Delhi, where the affair is exposed once she becomes pregnant and delivers a daughter. Abandoned by Ophuls, Boonyi returns to Kashmir. But he can’t escape the scandal, which is so well broadcast that both Norman Mailer and Joan Baez write about it, provoked by the fact that as Vietnam burned, “the goddamn American ambassador was apparently fucking the local peasantry” in India.
Years pass, and the cuckolded Shalimar, who has vowed to kill Boonyi, Ophuls, and their child, turns into a professional assassin and terrorist. Fanatical Muslims trained in Pakistan ravage the valley, and the equally brutal Indian army destroys Pachigam. Shalimar murders Boonyi, and, working through the netherworld of terrorist networks, finally manages to reach Los Angeles. On the last pages of the novel, he is killed by an arrow shot by a young woman pointedly named India, the child born from the liaison between Boonyi and Ophuls, who has grown into a troubled beauty in London and now Los Angeles, spending much of her neurotic energy on boxing, martial arts, and archery.
“Nothing,” Paul Valéry once claimed, “can ever happen again without the whole world’s taking a hand”—the words could have served as an epigraph to Shalimar the Clown. Shocked by the unexpectedness and ferocity of World War I, Valéry believed that “the world to which we are beginning to belong, both men and nations, is only similar to the world that was once familiar to us” and
that the system of causes controlling the fate of every one of us, and now extending over the whole globe, makes it reverberate throughout at every shock; there are no more questions that can be settled by being settled at one point.
Rushdie’s life—he is a secularized Muslim from an upper-class Indian family, who moved to England after a childhood in Mumbai and now lives in New York—has given him reason to agree. In 1989 the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses in London provoked violent protests across the Muslim world, encouraging Iran’s chief cleric to sentence Rushdie to death. This ordeal together with his previous experience of self-invention and displacement seems to incline him to the view that, as he writes in Shalimar the Clown,
Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete.
Rushdie has sought to amplify this vision of an increasingly interdependent world in such novels as The Moor’s Last Sigh (1996), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), and Fury (2001). Moving through Mumbai, London, Kerala, Spain, New York, and Fiji, his main characters are cultural hybrids, constantly reinventing themselves amid what the narrator of The Ground Beneath Her Feet calls the “uncertainty of the modern.” In Midnight’s Children (1981) and Shame (1984), Rushdie used fantastical characters and an exuberant multilingual prose to trace the postcolonial histories of India and Pakistan. His later novels more self-consciously celebrate what Rushdie calls “hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs.”
As Rushdie wrote in 1990,
Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world [Rushdie’s italics]. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it.
Rushdie upholds this sense of possibility in his political commentary when he exhorts Muslims to renounce the “absolutism of the pure” and to embrace the uncertainty and instability of the modern.
Rushdie seems to derive this worldview at least partly from literary theorists and philosophers fashionable in the 1980s and 1990s, who questioned whether words have stable meanings, and whether human beings have unitary selves. Claiming that “reality and morality” are “imperfect human constructs,” Rushdie has often spoken of literature and especially the novel as the “privileged arena” where many truths coexist harmoniously, their multiplicity challenging the apparently absolute and oppressive truths of politics and religion. “Literature,” Rushdie asserts, “is the one place in any society where…we can hear voices talking about everything in every possible way” (Rushdie’s italics). Rushdie’s own voice usually dominates his fictional narratives, commenting on love, politics, religion, death, art, Greek and Indian myths, rock music, the media, and celebrity. His cosmopolitan range of themes, if not depth of reflection, makes Robert Musil and Hermann Broch—pioneers of the wide-ranging, essayistic novel—appear parochial in comparison.
The scale of Rushdie’s ambition becomes clearer when one considers how the delicate art form of the novel has long depended upon a deliber-ate or unselfconscious provincialism. The great novelists of the nineteenth century—Stendhal, Austen, Flaubert, Dickens, Tolstoy—could not help but belong to and write about relatively homogeneous and secluded bourgeois societies. They neither knew nor could know a great deal about places outside Europe and America. Confronted with foreignness, they tended to retreat to what might seem today conservative, even reactionary, positions. Dickens supported the harsh British suppression of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Deeply unsettled by Jewish immigrants on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Henry James would not have had much time for what Rushdie calls “new and unexpected combinations of human beings.”
Rushdie can claim, justifiably, that, living in a diverse and interconnected world, he cannot subscribe to James’s aesthetic of the high bourgeois novel. Many other postcolonial writers would concur. Yet few of them share the artistic endeavor that Rushdie once defined as “Go for broke”:
Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloodyminded. Argue with the world.
Faced with the mass migration and economic globalization that transform the societies of Europe and America, most novelists remain faithful to the traditional novel of character and plot, writing about politics, religion, and popular culture insofar as they affect individual consciousness. V.S. Naipaul, a writer frankly distrustful of political and artistic radicalism, has described vividly the clash of peoples and cultures in the modern world in such a formally conventional novel as A Bend in the River. Even Gabriel García Márquez and Günter Grass, Rushdie’s original inspirations, have not attempted the all-inclusive, globe-spanning novel of ideas.
This may be because they suspect that the novel, once uprooted from its home in the local and the specific, may also lose its ability to say anything original and provocative about the larger human condition; that, set afloat in the abstract realm of the “global,” a novel is likely to gather up and discard more characters and settings than it can satisfactorily evoke.
Though less expansive than The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury, Shalimar the Clown shows how a novelist trying to make his form embody the idea that “everywhere” is “a part of everywhere else” may be forced to devise shortcuts through most of his essential tasks—the creation of character, setting, mood, and emotion. Even a writer as prodigiously well informed as Rushdie is unlikely to know intimately all the many places and people he writes about; and even a much bigger book might not give him enough space to place them securely in the reader’s imagination.
Rushdie occasionally tries to pin down the essential character of the many settings in his novel with a few adjectives and nouns. Los Angeles, despite being perennially sunny, is “all treachery, all deception, a quick-change, quicksand metropolis”—the conventional description of the noir—while Paris, “that innocent-uninnocent city was a prostitute, was a gigolo, was sophisticated infidelity in the guilty-unguilty afternoons,” which seems a hasty digest of Balzac. He uses the tourist brochure word “charming” frequently to describe Strasbourg.
His observation breaks up into unsustainable generality when he aims to summarize whole races and continents. “He stared with undisguised European pleasure at the jogger’s American breasts in their sports bra.” In a chapter summing up Max Ophuls’s life in Strasbourg, another place presented in the novel as a hybrid and multicultural Eden, Rushdie introduces about three dozen characters in as many pages, not counting such famous people as De Gaulle. They remain hazy for the most part, their characterization ranging from “short, stocky” and “immense personal charm and physical appeal” to Indian-accented speech (“She is askin’ sir, where the fuck you gone? Hokay? Wery good, sir! Hurray!”).