Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown

You can’t have too much of a good thing, the adage goes. Rushdie’s latest novel, Shalimar the Clown [1] is strong evidence that maybe, just maybe, you can.

We all know Rushdie is a writer of prodigious talent. His gifts are many: an incredible ear for dialogue, an unequalled talent for allegory, a fertile and dramatic imagination, a keen, living wit, a mastery of magic realism and an uncanny ability to write deft, sizzling, over-the-top prose. Where these gifts come together (as they did in Midnight’s Children, as they did in Shame) the effect is, for want of a better word, devastating. It’s like being strapped to giant firecracker and sent whooshing into a stratosphere of delight to explode in a million pieces. No other writer still living can write the way Rushdie, at his best, does.

These unique gifts of his are all on display in Shalimar the Clown and there are many, many parts of the book where Rushdie is at his familiar best – exhilarating descriptions of the characters that make up the tiny Kashmiri hamlet of Pachigam; the introduction of an iron mullah, a religious zealot made up of spare parts; the story of Max Ophuls, the young French Resistance fighter – all this is vintage Rushdie. That Shalimar the Clown is in many ways a return to form following the indifferent Ground Beneath her Feet and the disastrous Fury is undeniable, but it’s far from being a complete return to form. Shalimar the Clown reads like the work of a man possessed by the demons of his own talent, a man trying simply to dump all his inspiration straight on to the page, without taking the trouble to fit it together – as though Rushdie had simply opened up his bag of goodies and dumped them carelessly at our feet. There is a sloppiness here, a sense of neglect, and it makes Shalimar the Clown an ultimately unconvincing book.

Take an example – early on in the book, as Boonyi, a young village girl, plans a midnight tryst with her to be lover, Noman, she thinks about the story of Sita being abducted by Ravana. Her interpretation of this episode from the Ramayana is that Sita went out to meet Ravana because she recognised that desire, in the shape of Ravana, would always be out there waiting, and it was better to face him and get it over with than to try to hide from him in vain. This is a fascinating take on the old story, but in the context of the larger plot at this point it feels phony, tacked on, as if Rushdie had put the thought into Boonyi’s head more because he wanted to say it himself, even though it didn’t really belong there.

This is not to say that Shalimar the Clown is not a good book. Rushdie, even when disappointing, is a better than average writer, and Shalimar the Clown is one of those books that, if it had been written by pretty much anyone else, would have been hailed as a major achievement – it’s only in comparison to Rushdie himself that it suffers. The example above notwithstanding, most of the ‘Boonyi’ section of the book is superbly written, as is the first half of the ‘Max’ section. Rushdie’s greatest gift – his talent as a myth maker – is alive and well, and the stories in these sections with their quirky, nuanced characters, their evocation of place and time, their almost poetic mixing of personal made allegorical, hums with the feel of legend.

It’s only as the story continues, grows darker, that the internal contradictions of the book (which in some sense are metaphors for the contradictions of the world Rushdie is trying to describe) begin to tear Rushdie’s genius apart. Much of the latter half of the book seems too heavily laid on – the seriousness of the plot and the characters weighing down the lightness of Rushdie’s style. At their best, Rushdie’s novels are fantasies – works of desperate lightness where the deftness of Rushdie’s writing lifts even the seriousness of the events he describes into a magical twilight where they become reflections of reality without becoming reality themselves (remember the mercurochrome of Jallianwala Bagh?) . In Shalimar the Clown the weight of his story proves too much for Rushdie, and the fact that he situates his characters in the specific, in the here and now, makes his subsequent fantasies about them seem foolish and false. The second half of this book deserves a starker realism – one that Rushdie does not manage to provide.

Two things keep Shalimar the Clown from being as good a book as it could be. First, it is a desperately self-conscious novel. This is not entirely a bad thing. Perhaps the neatest trick in the whole book is the central conceit: the fact that killing of Max Ophuls (the event that the book starts with) which may initially seem like a political matter is actually driven by a personal vendetta, though of course, the personal vendetta itself is an allegory for a larger political message. Only Rushdie could pull off so elaborate and ironic a switchback.

The trouble is that again and again in the book you have the sense of Rushdie trying to be, well, Rushdie – metaphors and connections forced onto the plot even though they don’t really seem to fit; long, glowing descriptions given where a few simple words would have been so much more effective. The end result is a novel that is a stunning read from page to page, but that comes across as being ultimately overdone. It’s all very well for one or two characters in a book to be possessed of the gift of second sight, for example, but when every major character in the book seems capable of prophecy, you start to wonder if Rushdie isn’t trying too hard.

The second, though related, problem with the book is that Rushdie is trying to say a little too much with it. One of his recurrent themes through the book is that ‘everywhere has become like everywhere else’. This feels more like a cheap PR trick than a serious point of view – and it leads Rushdie down some ludicrously wrong paths. At one point in the book he actually compares the rioting in LA to the problem in Kashmir, a comparison entirely unworthy of someone who, if the rest of the book is to be taken as evidence, has a fairly nuanced and objective understanding of the Kashmir issue. Decades of foreign-sponsored militant activity and state-backed military atrocity is hardly the same thing as a one-off bout of rioting. This central claim of Rushdie’s novel – that acts of violence in one place are mirrors of acts of violence in another – is, in my opinion, a misleading and dangerous one. Certainly there are similarities between terrorists groups across the world, but it is the differences that I feel we need to pay attention to. To assume that we can understand the terrorist ‘psyche’ by understanding the story of one terrorist movement in one place is to lose sight of the specificity of the issues underlying each militant organisation, and the history of support and opposition that have gone to the making of such violence. To capture them all in one broad stroke may be a legitimate tactic for the kind of expressionist fiction that Rushdie is writing, but it is hardly good politics.

Bottomline: Shalimar the Clown is a highly rewarding read, if in many ways a flawed one. It is a disappointing book simply because there is so much in it that is superb, so much in it that is classic Rushdie. If one of the goals of literature is to be a mirror to the times it is written in, then this is a service Rushdie is performing admirably, because the crisis in his writing so perfectly reflects the crisis of the world’s conscience, of the world’s understanding of itself. In Fury, this crisis manifested itself in an almost uncompromising darkness, an overwhelming sense of disquiet. In Shalimar the Clown, we see the weight lifting, we see the struggle of a writer trying to regain the voice he once had, but the darkness is still present and co-exists awkwardly with the magic.

Towards the end of the novel, Max Ophuls’ daughter, India, finds love in an unexpected place, is shown an Eden that she may have a chance to return to. Before she makes the journey back, however, she must slay her father’s killer, the demon who continues to torment her. It is only when the past has been laid to rest that the future can begin. We can only hope that Rushdie can find the means and the strength to kill his own demons, so that he may return to us the writer we remember and love, and the world may be whole again.

[1] Yes, I finally read it.