Never enough

by Tze Ming Mok / 15 October, 2005

Rushdie's back and he's not so bad. After the widely slated Fury, his new novel Shalimar the Clown retreats to familiar ground - disputed, bloody ground. Wedged between the exploded India of Midnight's Children and the white-hot sins of Shame's Peccavistan is Salman Rushdie's personal Garden of Eden: Kashmir of the snow-capped mountains, land of his grandparents.

His novel starts, as usual, at the end. A Kashmiri assassin, Noman Sher Noman (okay, we get it) aka Shalimar the Clown, heads to Hollywood to claim the head of former Ambassador to India Max Ophuls (yes, you heard correctly), an ageing US counterterror tsar, World War II resistance hero, architect of the postwar economic order and international playboy. What sins is Shalimar the Clown avenging? And where is the missing mother of Ophuls's intolerably named but steely-eyed illegitimate daughter India?

There is a growing consistency to the post-fatwa Rushdie novel. In Shalimar the Clown, the inexhaustible proliferations and interconnections of myth and history are again relentlessly plotted (practically with the aid of diagrams at times). Rushdie's endless anecdotal inventiveness still entrances, and his earthy matriarchs and endlessly philosophising patriarchs are unforgettable as usual. There are still sustained passages of rhetorical brilliance, which alone are worth the price of admission, and even a Kavalier & Clay flight to freedom from the Nazis in a prototype Bugatti Racer. The scenery is impressive. But as in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the strangely unengaging protagonist-lovers define Rushdie's current weakness. The explanation of their actions and character via fate and mythic archetype are just a shortcut too far. They are painted thus: in a sleepy Kashmiri village voracious dancer Boonyi, daughter of the Hindu pandit, loves gentle dreamer Shalimar the Clown, master of the tightrope and son of the Muslim sarpanch. Their interfaith idyll is undone when Boonyi's wild lust for freedom leads her to seduce the American Ambassador and shatter Shalimar's heart, turning him instantly into a bloodthirsty vengeful maniac and professional jihadist.

Magic or pure pulp?

Magic does hold sway over the village of Pachigam, Rushdie's creation-myth of pluralism, and the heart and soul of the novel. In this village of travelling players and acrobats the eerie calm of a post-partition Kashmir is lovingly counted out. A weighty medieval richness infuses a pre modern postmodern faerieland of goats, hermit soothsayers, saffron, honey, woodland lovers' trysts, flying, feasting, Muslims, Hindus, blond descendants of Alexander the Great, Gujars of old Georgia, blue-eyed-green-eyed women who "scorned the veil", "even one family of dancing Jews". Kashmiriyat, Rushdie's gloss on blended co-existence and fierce mountain independence, is the glue holding it together. It is his ideal of opposition to Pakistan's pak; yet if this is the inverse of purity, it's the cleanest dirt you'll ever see. Pachigam comes from a sentimental Rushdie, without any wisecracking narrator or Bombay hustle. It has to come to an end. Did it ever exist?

Darkness will fall over the Shalimar Gardens, and the borders will strain and fray. The births of Boonyi and Shalimar the Clown herald an age of mutual assured destruction. The radical female explosiveness of Shame repeats in Shalimar, although here female sexuality is so reductively implicated at the core of this Paradise Lost that the treatment seems inadequate. Similarly, while there is an excess of detail, the novel's portraits of the Kashmiri liberation movement and of global Islamic terror networks also seem at times reductive and too convenient. This time, a telepathic love-story may not suffice. As a novel, it becomes emotionally fundamentalist, politically inadequate and, most important,

artistically unsatisfying.

Rushdie, our King of Excess, seems to despair in one or two passages that crack open the heart of his personal history that he simply cannot deliver enough. "Why is that why is that why is that," he asks in the face of unspeakable acts, the flow of his rhetoric stumbling to a halt. What do his entwined myths and talking ghosts proclaim? That it's the time for these things. That the world has become evil, it is an age of fury, the time of demons. That's it. It's not enough and maybe he knows it, at points where, rather then endlessly expanding, the lexical riffing winnows away uselessly to the starkness of a shot in the dark. "There are things that must be looked at indirectly because they would blind you if you looked them in the face, like the fire of the sun," he writes at the tail end of a massacre, then issues a previously unthinkable request for Rushdie: "Imagine it for yourself."

SHALIMAR THE CLOWN, by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, $59.95).


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