Exuberance is what most characterizes the bizarre but often intoxicating novels of Salman Rushdie. In them, words shoot out as if from a geyser. Exclamations, slang, acronyms, statistics, invective -- all jostle together, crowding the page. Extended dialogue or the slow build-up of character is rare (Rushdie is no Vikram Seth). Instead, fantastic images hurtle
towards you, and you're challenged to accept what you're being offered or write yourself off as a fool. You imagine the books being dictated at speed in a state of exultation, then keyed in by a team of probably uncomprehending scribes. Yet Rushie's self-presentation as a jester with a serious message easily persuades readers to take him for a master. And sometimes he is -- but only sometimes.
A new novel from Rushdie is nonetheless an important event. With the death threats that followed The Satanic Verses behind him, and Midnight's Children voted the best Booker winner in the prize's 25 years, he stands ready to assume the mantle of a modern writer of Tolstoyan stature.
Shalimar the Clown certainly has an Olympian feel about it. Rushdie surveys the world situation from a lofty viewpoint, shifting continents around his board like pawns in a titanic chess game. Kashmir, India, post-Sept. 11 America, continental Europe, the UK -- all are brought into play, put to one side, then recalled as Rushdie switches the direction of his god-like spotlight. With the world as his palette, he paints in confident strokes, effortlessly displaying extended exercises in contrasting writing styles.
This time Kashmir, home of two of Rushdie's grandparents, is the crucible. First, though, the novel's focus falls on Maximilian Ophuls, Strasbourg-born Jewish American, World War II Resistance hero, ace airman and writer on economics who, in the mid-1960s, is appointed US Ambassador to India. Once there, though married to a wartime love, he falls for a young Kashmiri dancer, Boonyi. She too is married, in her case to a Kashmiri, Shalimar, high-wire-artist and clown in a theater troupe.
The case leads to Ophuls' temporary downfall. But by 1991 he is reinstated in government service as a counter-terrorism supremo, with Shalimar as his driver. Back in Kashmir Shalimar has already killed his faithless wife, and at the end of the novel's opening section he stabs Ophuls to death as well, outside the house of India, Ophuls' and Boonyi's sophisticated, puzzled, and by now adult daughter.
This is a global, East-meets-West novel with a vengeance. Almost everything about it is symbolic. Strasbourg -- today a French city, but German from 1870 to 1918, and again during World War II -- can be paralleled with Kashmir, sacrificial pawn caught between Pakistan and India. That their off-spring should meet and collide in the US is symbolic again, this time of a globalized, post-Sept. 11 world. Shalimar, a Kashmiri and a Muslim, with his sense of past insults and injustices, is now poised to set this world aflame.
The novel is structured in five massive blocks, entitled India, Boonyi, Max, Shalimar the Clown, and Kashmira (India's new name for herself after she revisits her mother's homeland). The first section is packed with local detail of Los Angeles in 1991. The second, describing Boonyi and Shalimar's adolescence and set in the era of the creation of India and Pakistan, is entirely in the style of the traditional stories of the sub-continent, complete with gods and magical happenings. The third is Max's life story from wartime Strasbourg up to his departure from India in 1968. The fourth takes place after this date in a war-ravaged Kashmir. The fifth is set in the years after 1991, and wherever India/Kashmira happens to be, usually California.