Salman the Clown

Salman Rushdie. Shalimar the Clown. Random House. September 2005.

A new novel by Salman Rushdie is not a quiet thing, to be taken up in a moment of intimacy in which the reader reciprocates the labor of the writer, the private act of reading reflecting back the solitary task of writing. The Rushdie novel appears in a convoy, behind barricades and police lines, with outriders and bodyguards, its image controlled by public relations handlers, its message broadcast over loudspeakers. Each new novel by Rushdie, no matter how significant or trivial as a literary object, brings with it other narratives: the fatwa imposed by the ayatollah; the cover photo of Rushdie with Bono; copies of The Satanic Verses being burned in nameless third-world countries; Rushdie threatening a New York journalist with a baseball bat. A Rushdie novel, like its author, is a public figure, its thingness easy to lose in the sound and the fury. It takes an effort of will, therefore, to step back from the roar, to think of the books, and recall the early intimations of the wrong turn taken by this once talented writer, to remember the pointless controversy that consumed people who had more crucial battles to fight.

For me the transformation of Rushdie’s work from a promising group of early books—Midnight’s Children, Shame, and his first collection of essays, Imaginary Homelands—into a succession of hectic events began two decades ago, in a Calcutta kebab shop, where I met a man who detested Rushdie without having read a word of him. He was a daily wage worker, a small man with a pockmarked face who asked me if I’d heard about the author who had written a book insulting Islam. I am not a Muslim, but the worker didn’t seem particularly interested in my religion. He could tell I was a college student, someone who had a relationship with books and the English language, and who therefore shared an affinity with the man against whom he would demonstrate that evening outside the British Consulate. He was curious to know my interpretation of Rushdie, even if it wasn’t likely to accord with his own. “Why demonstrate against Rushdie?” I asked the man. “Our mullah asked us to,” he said. “This man Rushdie insulted the prophet.”

It was the kind of scenario later to send neocons into a frenzy. They would have been even more impressed by the surroundings in which our conversation took place. The kebab shop was in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood, a place of twisting alleyways and low houses where great slabs of beef hung from hooks in butchers’ shops across from the restaurants. I lived in a hostel nearby and came to the neighborhood for its cheap meals, often walking past a small group of men prostrating themselves on the narrow lane as they went through their afternoon or evening prayers. Two years later, when the Gulf War broke out, the streets of the neighborhood would be festooned with pictures of Saddam Hussein. But these impressions present only a partial picture. The neighborhood was near College Street, the busiest stretch of bookstalls in Calcutta. If the kebab shops fed my body, the College Street bookstalls—many of them run by Muslims—supported my reading habits. And the Muslim neighborhood was capable of containing other identities: there was the Hindu dairy stall where I got my mug of evening milk, the Hindu charity with a hearse that was sent out periodically to perform cremation rites for people who had no family to consign them to the flames. The neighborhood offered, in other words, the kind of cosmopolitan cultural mix often cited by Rushdie as inspiration for his omnivorous style. An early example is the self-conscious pronouncement of Saleem Sinai, the protagonist of Midnight’s Children:

Note that, despite my Muslim background, I’m enough of a Bombayite to be well up in Hindu stories, and I’m very fond of the image of trunk-nosed, flap-eared Ganesh solemnly taking dictation!

This was the idea of Rushdie I had in those days: an engaged, irreverent writer who took his material from all traditions and set his work against authoritarianism. Needless to say, I hadn’t read The Satanic Verses myself—no copies were to be found in the shops, and the book was soon to be banned by the Indian government because of fears that it would lead to rioting—but I didn’t consider this a problem. I had read and admired Rushdie’s earlier novels and possessed a certain understanding of literature, of its work of resistance against tyranny and dogma; I had a specific sense of Rushdie as a man determined to write from the margins. In those days, Rushdie’s books appeared to be books, not events, and appeared to stand at an angle to the history they were narrating, inserting new registers and ideas about the third world into the homogeneous body of novels in English.

Rushdie’s new novel, Shalimar the Clown, demonstrates pitilessly how wrong this idea was. This novel stands not at an angle to history but at the center of it. A paean to hybridity, it nevertheless subjugates all its material identically to the empty bustle of Rushdie’s later style: E Pluribus Unum, as it says on the dollar. And it treats the bloody fastnesses of Kashmir as a kind of outpost of Hollywood; there too money and looks and spectacular ass-kicking are the overriding values.

Midnight’s Children and Shame both gave the impression that Rushdie cared about history and the way it both liberates and oppresses. In the earlier novel especially, Rushdie created a protagonist whose fortunes mirrored the condition of a nation coming into its historical own. Saleem Sinai—born, like independent India, at the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947—may have been an exaggerated metaphor, but it was his metaphorical nature that gave him an urgent sense of selfhood. His body breaking up as he narrated the sundering of India, Sinai was a character being destroyed by the very history that had formed him and endowed him with promise. His dilemma rang true to people like me, who had grown up in the ’80s and known the Indian state as a far more authoritarian entity than the newly liberated nation recalled by our parents. As for Rushdie himself, a Londoner who left the Indian subcontinent as a child and had little direct experience of the place, his claims to what he called an “imaginary homeland,” a nation-state of the mind, were easy to accept.

But it is hard these days to sense Rushdie’s involvement in the material he chooses. Readers who have followed his trajectory—his roles as radical third-worldist, Muslim apostate, aspiring rocker, cosmopolitan New Yorker, and neocon arguing in favor of intervention in Iraq—will share my hesitation at accepting Rushdie’s latest manifestation as a voice for the cause of Kashmiri liberation.

The cause itself is just, and perhaps Rushdie is doing no more than returning to his early role as a critic of authoritarian states. But how did Rushdie get back here? What drove him to take up a people damaged by colonial policies and the postcolonial Indian state’s brutality while withholding the same empathy from Iraqis subject to an imperial American project? In such paradoxes, Rushdie resembles his friend Christopher Hitchens (to whom Rushdie’s last collection of essays, Step Across This Line, was dedicated), except that Hitchens’s case is simpler, consisting of a quick crossing over from resistance into power, from struggling in a woolly way for a utopian future to basking in the hegemonic present. If Rushdie’s transformations seem more puzzling, it is because he, unlike Hitchens, worked with the imagination. Nor was he, at least when he started out, a jaded Englishman.

Rushdie provides an answer of some sort to such questions in Shalimar the Clown. Because subtlety is not one of his preferred modes, he presents his case before the novel has actually begun, in a dedication made out to his “Kashmiri” grandparents and in two epigraphs: one a quote from Kashmiri-American poet Agha Shahid Ali, the other from Romeo and Juliet wishing “A plague on both their houses.” The houses of course are India and Pakistan, and the sentiment would ring true if it had come from Shahid Ali, who until his death in 2001 produced a powerful and melancholic body of work around the brutalization of Kashmir. From Rushdie, however, such a reaction is overkill, especially since the terrain of the novel is not so much a hard and actual Kashmir as that of his simultaneously overheated and undercooked imagination:

At twenty-four the ambassador’s daughter slept badly through the warm, unsurprising nights. She woke up frequently and even when sleep did come her body was rarely at rest, thrashing and flailing as if trying to break free of dreadful invisible manacles. At times she cried out in a language she did not speak. Men had told her this, nervously. Not many men had ever been permitted to be present while she slept. The evidence for this was therefore limited, lacking consensus; however, a pattern emerged. According to one report she sounded guttural, glottal-stoppy, as if she were speaking Arabic. Night-Arabian, she thought, the dreamtongue of Scheherazade. Another version described her words as science-fictional, like Klingon, like a throat being cleared in a galaxy far, far away. Like Sigourney Weaver channeling a demon in Ghostbusters.

All the signposts of Rushdie’s later style are present in the opening pages of the novel: the pedestrian sentences, the pop culture references lashed to orientalist imagery, the blocky characterization, the banality that assumes naming the protagonist “India” will achieve symbolic resonance. Because that is what the 24-year-old woman glottal-stopping through the night is called. India lives in Los Angeles, and the name is an overwriting of her original name Kashmira, an identity that she will reclaim by the end of the novel.

But she might as well be called Lara Croft:

These days she had herself firmly in hand. The problem child within her was sublimated into spare-time pursuits, the weekly boxing sessions at Jimmy Fish’s boxing club on Santa Monica and Vine where Tyson and Christy Martin were known to work out and where the cold fury of her hitting made the male boxers pause to watch, the biweekly training sessions with a Cloueseau-attacking Burt Kwouk look-alike who was a master of the close-combat martial art of Wing Chun, the sunbleached blackwalled solitude of Saltzman’s Moving Target shooting gallery out in the desert at 29 Palms, and, best of all, the archery sessions in downtown Los Angeles near the city’s birthplace in Elysian Park, where her new gifts of rigid self-control, which she had learned in order to survive, to defend herself, could be used to go on the attack.

I won’t profess to understand most of the references in this passage, but this much I get: besides kicking ass, India is rich and discontented. She is the illegitimate daughter of an American diplomat and a Kashmiri woman.

And she doesn’t know who she is. This affliction is shared in varying degrees by most of the principal figures in Shalimar the Clown. India’s father, Max Ophuls, is another Rushdie hybrid, a haute-culture Ashkenazi Jew from Strasbourg who starts out as a French Resistance fighter and then becomes an American diplomat and the head of US counterterrorism. By the time the novel begins, he is well past his prime. His role is confined to presenting India with an expensive car (I forget what make, though Rushdie expends reams of prose talking about it) and dying on his daughter’s doorstep, head nearly severed from his neck by his Kashmiri driver—the eponymous Shalimar the Clown.

Much of the novel, therefore, occurs as a flashback, retracing Max’s past. It takes us to a Kashmiri village, Pachigam, where India’s Hindu mother Boonyi frolics with Shalimar, a Muslim and son of the village headman, before they get married in the ecumenical tradition of Kashmiriyat—a blending of cultures and religions. The story then moves to the city of Strasbourg, where Max undergoes his initiation into the French Resistance. Happening to be “a man of movie-star good looks and polymathic accomplishment,” Max emigrates to the United States after the war, “choosing the burnished attractions of the New World over the damaged gentility of the Old.” Max is not immune to the attractions of old cultures, however; his posting to India produces an affair with Boonyi and an illegitimate child. Max’s British wife adopts the girl and heads back to England, Boonyi is dispatched to Kashmir, while Max himself returns to America and moves from the pleasantries of embassy cocktail parties to practicing a more sinewy form of diplomacy, supplying arms and cash to loyal friends of America, some of whom happen to be the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Rushdie passes over all this rather quickly. Having set his revenge plot in motion, he concentrates on Shalimar’s induction into a network of Islamist terror, which will eventually take him to Los Angeles to face Max and lead to a final encounter with Max’s bereaved and angry daughter.

There is no irony to the initial presentation of Max as a larger-than-life figure, the telescoping of his great courage, good looks, and tremendous learning. (In Rushdie’s scheme of things, one suspects, an individual’s participation in the Resistance would be much diminished if he or she were ugly, stupid, or rustic.) And because Rushdie starts out so admiring of his Max, it’s hard to understand the reasons for his fall, or what it means when Max then rises from disgrace in India to visions of a new world order as head of counterterrorism.

As with Max, so with the other principal characters. Boonyi is the most beautiful woman in the village, Shalimar the best performer of the traditional arts of comedy and tightrope walking, and India/Kashmira is played by Angelina Jolie. In this book, as in almost every Rushdie production from The Satanic Verses onward, all characters come in the size of Bollywood cutouts on a Bombay street. All actions take place on a world stage. Stardom infects every pore of the story.

When characterization fails, it is still possible for the other constituents of a novel to assert their strength: story, language, narrative technique, ideas, setting. Shalimar the Clown doesn’t do very well in these terms, although it is perhaps not quite as bad as The Satanic Verses, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Fury. This qualified success is due entirely to the sections set in Kashmir, where something of the horror of lives subject to state terror comes through. The background is real enough: the general discontent of the Kashmiris leading to an insurgency against the authoritarian Indian state in the late ’80s; the marginalization of the secular, nationalist, and largely indigenous Kashmiri groups by fundamentalist outfits controlled by Afghan and Pakistani jihadis; the forced expulsion of Kashmiri Hindus as the liberation movement became increasingly sectarian; and the presence of nearly half a million Indian troops who have killed, raped, and tortured their way through the mountain state often compared to paradise in Persian poetry.

But what Rushdie does with this material is unsatisfying. For him, Kashmir doesn’t seem to be particularly different from Los Angeles. In spite of a self-conscious narrator—Rushdie’s narrators are always self-conscious—there are no changes of register to indicate the shifts in time and place. Kashmir is as transparent as Los Angeles, Delhi in the ’60s is as open to the authorial gaze as Strasbourg in the ’40s. Rushdie sits at the center of the panopticon, with everything under survey.

This equal opportunity for place and time is by no means always an aesthetic fault; it is one of the central tenets of realism, which demands the even gaze and impassive control of material. But Rushdie isn’t a realist writer in most other ways: psychology, descriptive detail, or plot movement. He prefers heavy symbolism, slapstick comedy, authorial digressions, shapelessness—faults that have been covered up before Western eyes by his references to a putative subcontinental tradition of nonlinear storytelling.

But supposedly oriental forms won’t do as an explanation for the lazy expositions, the self-indulgent digressions, the increasingly mannered rendition of subcontinental linguistic habits, and the ridiculous metaphors. Consider this account of Max’s falling in and out of love with Boonyi, a liaison crucial to the story because it leads to India’s birth and Shalimar’s journey of revenge:

None of Max Ophuls’s amours ever lasted very long before he came to India. Boonyi had been different. This was “love,” and the nature of love was—was it not?—to endure. Or was that just one of the mistakes people made about love, Max got to wondering. Was he clothing an essentially savage, irrational thing in the garb of civilization, dolling it up in the dress shirt of endurance, the silk trousers of constancy, the frock coat of solicitude and the top hat of selflessness? Like Tarzan the ape man when he came to London or New York: the natural rendered unnatural. But under all the fancy apparel the untamable, unkind reality still remained, a feral thing more gorilla-like than human.

Something having less to do with sweetness and tenderness and caring and more to do with spoor and territory and grooming and domination and sex. Something provisional, no matter what sort of treaties you acceded to, signed marriage contracts or private statements of accord.

When he began to speak in this way the matador Edgar Wood understood that the bull was tiring and sent in the picadors, or to be precise, the picadoras. The beauties he aimed at Max were carefully selected from the upper echelons of Delhi and Bombay society to make Boonyi look bad.

One understands Rushdie’s infatuation with King Kong and Tarzan, but does Max share his love? We don’t know. As for the dress shirts, silk trousers, frock coats, and top hats—Rushdie’s heroic simile becomes more elaborate without growing in complexity. The passage is meant to be from Max’s point of view, but that matters little to Rushdie. He isn’t showing us how Max thinks, but how Rushdie thinks. And more and more, Rushdie thinks not by imagining things, but by accumulating names for them. Take the next paragraph, where you hear the author’s voice, unfettered by character: “[T]o be precise, the picadoras.” What such language achieves, ultimately, is a suffocation of the characters. When they need to breathe and find their lines—and of course they could have funny lines, full of puns and malapropisms, if it was in keeping with their personalities and situation—they find the author shoving them aside so that he can continue with his aggrandizing self-display. A gorilla becomes a bull in the space of a few lines, but Rushdie is always Rushdie.

This technique of digressions, authorial self-intrusions, and linguistic doodling began in Midnight’s Children, but there Rushdie was doing it for the first time. The anarchy of his voice worked in accord with his ambition in that novel: to create a kind of archive for experiences and stories that hadn’t been registered in the West. His language—crackling with puns, neologisms, Bollywood songs, advertising slogans, village proverbs, and drawing-room jokes—seemed a perfect match for the bewildering social world it was depicting. It worked because it was attached to character. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie used a narrator who was given to self-dramatization but also knew the limitations of the method and the pleasures of negative capability. When Saleem Sinai discovers his ability to get into people’s minds, he indulges himself fully, and then pauses:

Because the feeling had come upon me that I was somehow creating a world; that the thoughts I jumped inside were mine, that the bodies I occupied acted at my command; that, as current affairs, arts, sports, the whole rich variety of a first-class radio station poured into me, I was somehow making them happen . . . which is to say, I had entered into the illusion of the artist, and thought of the multitudinous realities of the land as the raw unshaped material of my gift. “I can find out any damn thing!” I triumphed, “There isn’t a thing I cannot know!”

Today, with the hindsight of the lost, spent years, I can say that the spirit of self-aggrandizement which seized me then was a reflex, born of an instinct for self-preservation.

The narratorial self-aggrandizement remains, but the talent for entering into other minds, on which the pride of self-aggrandizement was based, has vanished. So has the awareness that the multitudinous realities drawn upon by the author are not mere raw unshaped material, but possess an agency of their own.

No writer should assume that his or her language will be completely equal to the world being written down. One doesn’t have to be committed to realism to appreciate the Flaubertian sense of the novel as a place where the mot juste meets the sheer inadequacy of words. But Rushdie would disagree. To understand the inadequacy of words is to force oneself to work harder as a writer and to make oneself think with greater clarity about the material being used. The novel where it became obvious that Rushdie had exhausted his talents, that he had entered into the illusion that there wasn’t a damn thing he couldn’t know, makes this proposition in its opening pages: “Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?” The devil, came the answer, and it seems that the natural tendency of Rushdie’s devil is to riff, make lists, be clever; that, for him, is singing. We understand this much from The Satanic Verses, although little else is clear in that novel concerned largely with its own cleverness.

It is a safe bet that if the Islamists had left Rushdie alone, the book would have been forgotten. But the external events that menaced Rushdie himself—a fatwa, book burnings, and the very real physical attacks on publishers and translators—came to the rescue of the book. This might explain the sense of self-importance Rushdie has exhibited since then, believing that he is uniquely poised to interpret large world events and that he can render the trivial and banal significant by a sort of Midas’ touch. From The Satanic Verses onward the novels tend to run together, stylistically barren and superficial in the ideas they explore. In The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury, they are not so much ideas as a set of frantic gestures at the bigness, the fastness, the diversity of life in a capitalist metropolis. Rushdie appears to hope that if he points at enough objects, objects of enough variety, we won’t notice that he points and gapes the same way at them all.

Shalimar the Clown leaves one equally baffled about Kashmiris, Indians, and Americans, though it does tell us a lot about Rushdie. That Rushdie should have decided to write a novel about Kashmir and then reduced it to a kind of video-game climax in Los Angeles makes one suspect that he no longer knows what to do with the raw material he gathers. Shalimar the Clown will possibly be lauded—for its discussion of O. J. Simpson, for its description of (or list of words about) the San Quentin prison, for its seeming understanding of the “Kashmir problem,” and for its apparent grasp of the ways in which international terrorism functions. But that would be to accept the novel as an event; it would be tantamount to watching it go by in a motorcade, only to lose any sense of its importance as the taillights recede in the darkness.

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