Monday, December 26, 2005

Book Report: "Shalmar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie

The friend who recommended this book for our reading group said that he knew everything that was going to happen before it happened, but nevertheless it was not predictable. Now I know what he meant. The American Counter-Terrorism Czar, former Ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, is murdered in the first chapter by Shalimar the Clown, a terrorist from Kashmir. Very soon we learn the motivation for the murder, Shalimar's wife, Boonyi, was seduced by Ophuls and left Shalimar many years ago.

But the devil is in the details, to coin a phrase, and the details of what happened provide for an engrossing 398 pages. Rushdie, as everyone probably remembers, is a Muslim Indian, who was educated and lived in England many years. He was put under a "fatwa," a sentence of death by Middle Eastern Muslims in 1988 because of his book "Satanic Verses," which offended some Muslims. Rushdie lived in hidding for about 10 years before the "fatwa" was lifted, miraculously escaping with his life.

One can see a lot of Rushdie in this novel, although its primary setting is Kashmir, while Rushdie was born in Delhi and grew up in Bombay, in south India. He paints Kashmir as a Garden of Eden with Muslims and Hindis living side by side peacefully, and even, in the case of Shalimar and his wife, intermarrying, before politics intervened to devastate the region and the villages within it.

There seem to be several levels to the novel, with the personal story being an allegory for the region. In fact, Ophuls's illegitimate daughter is called first "India," and then she changes her name to "Kashmiri." However, it is not a difficult book to read and follow. At first, the excessive use of Hindi words without translation is irritating, but by and large, the meanings can be approximated through the context.

Rushdie uses magic realism, a style of which I am not generally a fan, but it is not overly intrusive. Thus Shalimar, whose village specializes in entertainment, becomes a tight rope walker who gets so good that he eventually walks on air, but the magic is muted, he might just be imagining walking on air. Ghosts appear and talk with mortals, but, then again, it might just be their imaginations.

I was going to give the book five stars, my highest rating, until the Hollywood-like ending in the last 10 pages knocked it back down to four stars. Rushdie is an important contemporary writer, and everyone should read at least one of his books, just for the education. This is a highly readable book for the Rushdie part of your education.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the recommendation and I understand the problem so common in novels, that of the ending going "south" (why did that become a negative reference anyway?) I have seen it over and over again, including the Kite Runner.

As far as reading Rushdie, I haven't been inclined but this may do it.

Thanks, Becky

Amishlaw said...

I agree with you completely about Kite Runner (and a lot of other books.) Many times it feels like the ending is tacked on, with little relationship to the rest of the book. I am curious whether it is a result of the marketing departments of major publishers, or whether some writers are just trying too hard to get the financial windfalls of having their books made into movies. If I was back in college, it would be an interesting subject to research.

Anonymous said...

It must be combination. I find it insulting to the imaginative reader's mind when things are all pulled together quickly and all too unrealistically. A novel should end with the "suggestion" of what happens beyond the final sentence for those who need something finite but with endless possbilities for the reader whose mind may wish for other outcomes. Am I making myself understood or asking too much? I find that a good novel that has drawn me in can end in a way that allows me to think beyond that last page. Happy New Year and good reading in 2006 ! Did you complete the 52 in 05? Becky