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!”).
Rushdie’s tone also changes with bewildering frequency, from the solemn and portentous to the flippant. A couple of characters, barely named, lapse into long rants, remarkable only because of the generous use of the word “fuck,” and then disappear. Arcane information often replaces evocation. In the most moving and accomplished scene in the novel, Boonyi returns to her village after being abandoned by Max Ophuls. Snow is falling; and for more than ten pages Rushdie holds the reader’s attention with prose relatively free of proper nouns before breaking the spell with some irrelevant information: “She picked bunches of krats, which could be eaten as a vegetable and was good for the eyes.”
Rushdie barely lingers over the inner lives of his characters, or the everyday experiences that might constitute his basic material. Traveling through many airports as a terrorist, Shalimar does not ever suffer the problems with immigration authorities that most people with non-Western passports commonly face. Rushdie gives his characters colorfully hybrid backgrounds. But such characters as Ophuls often appear unable to emerge from the textual and historical references they are burdened with.
Rushdie seems as aware as any writer of fiction that much of his task is to create and sustain an illusion of reality through well-chosen details. But his own details, partly chosen for their historical and literary resonance, often have the unexpected effect of thwarting belief in his characters and situations. Max Ophuls seems to share not much more than a hybrid European background with his namesake, the French-German film director. Rushdie’s references to Warren Beatty, Susan Sontag, and Norman Mailer further muddy rather than vivify Ophuls in the reader’s mind.
It is likely that Rushdie is making in-jokes or inviting readers to consider, in the playful, postmodern way, the porous boundaries between fact and fiction. As he wrote, defending The Satanic Verses, where a character based on the Prophet Muhammad said and did things many Muslims considered historically untrue and offensive:
Fiction uses facts as a starting-place and then spirals away to explore its real concerns, which are only tangentially historical. Not to see this, to treat fiction as if it were fact, is to make a serious mistake of categories.
This sounds persuasive. But Rushdie is avowedly a political novelist, trying to make, as he once put it, “as big a fuss, as noisy a complaint about the world as is humanly possible.” The concerns of his fiction do not seem “only tangentially historical,” especially when Rushdie repeatedly invokes well-known historical figures, events, and texts.
However, these references do make reading what he calls “a de-centered, transnational, interlingual, cross-cultural novel” a complicated affair. Writing in these pages, J.M. Coetzee remarked on how “the wealth of religious and cultural reference” uncovered by close readers of The Satanic Verses have “demonstrated how superficial a non-Muslim reading of that book must be.”* Coetzee added that Rushdie’s references to Indian history and myth reduce his non-Indian reader to an “overhearing role.” But many readers in India may not know what to make of Rushdie’s portrait of New York in Fury, and are likely to take as authentic what the critic James Wood described, in a severe review of the novel, as its “cartoonish” reality. Rushdie’s recent fictions seem to be most persuasive precisely where their subject matter is least understood.
The fictional world created by Shalimar the Clown also often resembles the slick, swift virtual reality of a video game or TV commercial. Nevertheless, Rushdie’s political engagement with his material keeps open the possibility of more intellectual satisfactions. As he said in a recent interview, he is determined to make his fiction do “something that newspapers can’t do, which is to allow the reader to enter imaginatively into realities that would otherwise be alien to them.”
In Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie undertakes this important task with Kashmir, which provokes international attention only when India and Pakistan slip, as they did in 2001, toward the brink of nuclear war. Rushdie’s ancestors were Kashmiris; he writes with feeling about Kashmir’s landscape. He evokes with impressive precision the brutality with which half a million Indian soldiers fight Muslim guerrillas that they see as proxies for Pakistan. For the Indian General Kachhwaha, who lusts unsuccessfully after Boonyi, “the idea of violence” has “a velvet softness”:
One took off one’s gloves and smelled the sweet fragrance of necessity. Bullets entered flesh like music, the pounding of clubs was the rhythm of life.
Rushdie uses magical realist techniques effectively to describe the arrival and growing influence in the valley of a fanatical “iron Mullah,” whose body apparently is made of scrap metal, and who precedes the jihadis of today. Rushdie also eloquently describes how Kashmiris resent the Islam imposed upon them by Pakistan-trained extremists:
“How can a woman’s face be the enemy of Islam?” she asked angrily. Anees took her hands in his. “For these idiots it’s all about sex, maej, excuse me. They think it is a scientific fact that a woman’s hair emits rays that arouse men to deeds of sexual depravity. They think that if a woman’s bare legs rub together, even under a floor-length robe, the friction of her thighs will generate sexual heat which will be transmitted through her eyes into the eyes of men and will inflame them in an unholy way.”
The presence of sexually repressed Indians and Pakistanis in Kashmir does not, however, go very far in explaining why, after years of sporadic protests, Kashmiri Muslims erupted into armed revolt against Indian rule in 1990. It may be more fruitful to look at the Kashmiris themselves, the history of their dreams, aspirations, and frustrations: how for decades a Hindu maharajah and a Hindu ruling class held down the valley’s overwhelmingly Muslim majority; how extreme poverty forced tens of thousands of Muslims to work as menial laborers in India; how the controversial decision by the Hindu maharajah to accede to India during the bloody partition of the subcontinent led to the long reign of corrupt satraps imposed by the Indian government in New Delhi; how an educated, largely secular class of Muslims agitating for democracy, employment, and an end to corruption arose in the 1970s and 1980s; and how they turned to political Islam after being brutally suppressed by Hindu politicians whose excuses were secular and nationalist.
There is much material here for a novelist interested in exploring why many Muslims on the threshold of the modern world embrace ideological violence. Instead, Rushdie places his Kashmiri characters in a pastoral idyll. In his fictional village, people appear to do little more than cook thirty-six-course banquets and put on plays and dances. Wearing their hybridity on their sleeves, they often sound like professors in American cultural studies departments. As Boonyi’s Hindu father puts it,
Today our Muslim village, in the service of our Hindu maharaja, will cook and act in a Mughal—that is to say Muslim—garden, to celebrate the anniversary of the day on which Ram marched against Ravan to rescue Sita…. Who tonight are the Hindus? Who are the Muslims? Here in Kashmir, our stories sit happily side by side on the same double bill, we can eat from the same dishes, we laugh at the same jokes.
Strangely, Boonyi’s father evokes this politically correct Kashmir in 1947—the year in which the maharajah launched a harsh crackdown on a Muslim-led opposition, and his Hindu police massacred thousands of Muslims to the south of the Kashmir valley. None of Rushdie’s Kashmiri characters seems to be aware of these tumultuous events, although Boonyi’s mother can speak of “sexual politics” and the “emancipation of women” and Shalimar in his Kashmiri village appears to be as enraged as a character in a Godard film by the American bombing of Vietnam. More puzzlingly, although Rushdie makes much of Kashmir’s “merging of faiths,” his Muslim-dominated village has no mosque, and though Muslims revere Hindu gods, neither they nor their Hindu compatriots spare any time for Allah.
This indifference to the small but important details of Kashmiri life weakens Rushdie’s attempt to take his reader beyond newspaper headlines. Here is his attempt to explain why the Kashmiris demanded freedom from Indian rule:
In those days before the crazies got into the act…azadi was the universal cry. Freedom!… Freedom to be meat-eating Brahmins or saint-worshipping Muslims, to make pilgrimages to the ice-lingam high in the melting snows…to listen to the santoor and drink salty tea…to make honey and carve walnut into animal and boat shapes and to watch the mountains push their way, inch by inch, century by century, further up into the sky.
The problem with this vision is not so much that it evokes the idle, lazy natives found in nineteenth-century European Orientalist narratives about Kashmir as that it almost wholly misrepresents the Kashmiri struggle for azadi. Most Kashmiri Muslims demanded freedom from Indian rule not because they wanted to return to a pre-modern, multicultural paradise but because they felt they had been denied democracy and economic development by successive Indian governments. The anti-India insurgency largely grew out of the thwarted Kashmiri desire to embrace “the modern”—what Rushdie himself exhorts Muslims around the world to do in his frequent articles and speeches—and was not dominated by jihadi Islamists until the mid-1990s.
Rushdie spends many more pages on global jihadi networks that emerged in Afghanistan in the 1980s than on examining the social and political realities of Kashmir. He describes how Shalimar meets an Afghan resembling Mullah Omar, hangs out with a guerrilla from the Philippine Abu Sayyaf group, and helps carry out a terrorist attack in Algeria. These digressions on jihad turn out to be superfluous when at the end of the novel Rushdie appears keen to suggest that Shalimar is motivated by private revenge rather than ideology. Nevertheless, they seem useful to Rushdie. In his roll call of the jihadi jet set, the Taliban also makes an appearance, anachronistically, in the 1980s, inspiring Muslim fanatics in Kashmir to impose the veil upon women.
It may seem unfair to fault a writer of fiction for inaccurate or partial history, especially one engaged in creating a postmodern novel in which many different truths about the world can coexist. But it is clear from Rushdie’s omissions and emphases that he wants Shalimar the Clown to yield a particular truth about Kashmir and the world rather than talk about them “in every possible way.” As he describes it, Kashmir illustrates most vividly how the Muslim crazies of today, intoxicated on the “absolutism of the pure,” aim to destroy innocently hybrid societies.
In most of his recent writings Rushdie has tried to dramatize how people accustomed to living with multiple truths and identities are locked in conflict with political and religious zealots insisting on their one absolute truth. On examination, however, this conflict between hybridity and fundamentalism appears to be a form of intellectual mystification, very useful to poli-ticians, Op-Ed writers, and TV pundits who, when confronted with Muslim militants, seek to replace political analysis with psychoanalysis (“sexually repressed”; “they hate our freedoms”), pathology (“they are crazy”), and theology (“they are evil”).
Rushdie certainly has much to say on the subject of violence: “The cycle of violence 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.” Shalimar, who thinks that “an age of fury was dawning and only the enraged could shape it,” sends a telepathic message to Ophuls in Los Angeles: “I am killing because it is what I have become. I have become death.” Toward the end, Shalimar the Clown offers many apocalyptic visions, as though realizing the ominous craving of the narrator of the equally millenarian The Ground Beneath Her Feet, who “wants the dreadful, wants to stare down the human race’s worst-case scenarios.”
The novel’s major characters either kill themselves or are murdered, Kashmir undergoes ethnic cleansing, rapes, and massacres, racial riots erupt in Los Angeles, and a convict, abruptly introduced in the last pages, is executed at San Quentin prison, from which Shalimar, in a cinematic climax, escapes, only to be shot dead by an arrow fired by his stepdaughter India. As Rushdie writes,
Everywhere was a mirror of everywhere else. Executions, police brutality, explosions, riots: Los Angeles was beginning to look like wartime Strasbourg; like Kashmir.
This would appear to be saying a great deal; in fact it tells us very little. For a politically engaged novelist, Rushdie remains oddly indifferent to the specific political processes that grind down individuals in such places as Kashmir and provoke violent backlashes.
By now, such facile similes (one city is like another) and exaggerations (all these places reflect one another) seem inseparable from Rushdie’s vision of violence as an overwhelming reality in the world, requiring as little rational explanation as evil crazies—a metaphysical rather than political vision that makes one wonder whether the many mirrors Rushdie’s fiction holds up to an apparently universal mayhem really reflect insight or merely the widespread anxiety of living in a world growing small, crowded, and violent.
Again and again in Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie replays scenes of massacres, torture, suicide attacks, and beheadings familiar to us from our television screens. Like many politicians, TV analysts, security experts, and Op-Ed writers, Rushdie presses upon us a special claim of global understanding and wisdom. But aghast at the Islamist vision of “purity,” he ends up creating a sort of mirror image of it in his hybrid Kashmiri idyll. Simulating a history of pure innocence while speaking of the inevitability of violation, Shalimar the Clown enacts a commonplace intellectual and moral confusion, even as it offers a knowingness more comforting than knowledge.
October 6, 2005