Salman Rushdie’s latest novel wants readers to fall in love with — or at least feel sympathy for — an Islamic militant.
“Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie. (Random House)
By Liza Weisstuch
For most, Salman Rushdie is a famous novelist simply because of the 1988 Fatwa the late Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary dictator and spiritual leader of Iran, slapped on the writer because of his supposedly ‘blasphemous’ novel “The Satanic Verses.” In “Shalimar the Clown” Rushdie shows that the experience as a wanted man has turned him into something more than a man of literature — he has become a geo-political strategist of letters. His expansive-as-ever prose style is at the service of deepening our understanding of the increasingly dangerous intersection of history, religion, and identity.
Rushdie has always been preoccupied with how individuals alter and/or transform their cultural identities, especially migrants. His mission is a tough one in this book: he wants readers to fall in love with — or at least feel sympathy or, better yet, empathy, for — an Islamic terrorist. A recent editorial Rushdie published in the “Times of London” provides a useful footnote to “Shalimar the Clown.” In it, Rushdie posed a challenge to radical Islamists: “What is needed is a move beyond tradition — nothing less than a reform movement to bring the core concepts of Islam into the modern age, a Muslim Reformation to combat not only the Jihadi ideologues but also the dusty, stifling seminaries of the traditionalists, throwing open the windows of the closed communities to let in much-needed fresh air.”
In the novel, Shalimar, a young Moslem boy in love, becomes ensnared in the oppressive geopolitical tangle around him. The story begins with Shalimar’s revenge killing of Max Ophuls, a former U.S. ambassador to India, as well as a Resistance hero, influential economist, bestselling author, lady-killer, etc. This is not giving anything away — Rushdie is not writing a conventional murder mystery. He moves back, chronologically, to delve into the ironic roots of violence.
The seeds for the murder were planted with Max’s first visit to Kashmir, when he seduced Shalimar’s Hindu wife and childhood sweetheart, Boonyi, who sensed the bleak, confining future of life for a woman in rural Kashmir. She enthusiastically jumps ship for America when the glamorous ambassador leaves the country. But Boonyi’s American existence turns out to be even more suffocating than life in the boondocks.
Shalimar pursues Max to L.A. from Kashmir, but after years of transformation. The guy moves from being a child star in a family of performers to becoming an ace assassin, the latter skills picked up during stints in a militant training camp for radical Islamists. Rushdie looks at Kashmir, his grandparents’ homeland, as a lyrical sanctuary, a place where Hindus and Muslims were once united by a belief that Kashmiri culture is a bond that transcends differences. But conflicts ultimately prevail, and the writer chronicles the uprooting of village life as Islam morphs from a mystical and artistic religion to a fundamentalists’ vehicle for militant terrorism and theological absolutism. That sumptuous landscape, a revelation-inspiring natural temple, is shattered.
A hefty portion of “Shalimar the Clown” is turned over to chronicling the wartime adventures of Max, who is a Jew from Strasbourg. Rushdie cleverly connects the ideals driving Max’s participation in the Resistance during World War II with those guiding Shalimar’s renegade path into terrorism. The comparison underscores the West’s inability to grasp that simple fact that oppression is oppression and will often trigger the same radical reaction. When Max joins a French student combat group involved in bombings and murders, he learns two crucial lessons: “that terrorism was thrilling and that, no matter how profoundly justified its cause, he personally could not get over the moral hurdles required to perform such acts on a regular basis.”
What fills the void when devotion to traditional values vanishes? Rushdie believes it is celebrity worship, an obsession with Hollywood fame and glamour by starry-eyed worshippers in grungy pockets of the Indian subcontinent. In his fiction, especially in the novels “Fury” and “The Ground beneath Her Feet,” the author spends a lot of time making fun of stars and the Hollywood fame machine. The catch is that he can be heavy-handed and a bit hypocritical about it — name-dropping in the name of satire. “Shalimar the Clown” suffers a bit from this glitzy sneakiness: it ends its melodramatic love stories, both Max’s and Shalimar’s, with car chases that could have been written with the silver screen in mind. Again, Rushdie wants to have it both ways: he jabs at easy pop culture targets yet writes something fast and glitzy that will draw in Western readers.
Still, “Shalimar the Clown” is compelling. Rushdie doesn’t stint on conveying the devastating effect his anti-hero’s rampages have on those close to his victims, but the writer also evokes sympathetic twangs for the scorned monster, who was once an innocent. Perhaps that is why Shalimar is regularly referred to as a ‘clown.’ The name is to remind us of his very human characteristics and, by default, his almost comic vulnerability.
At one point, Max may be speaking for Rushdie when, while admiring the sumptuousness of Shalimar’s homeland, the character thinks that “he had come a long way but perhaps not so very far. Could any two places have been more different, he asked himself; could any two places have been more the same? Human nature, the great constant, surely persisted in spite of all surface differences.” All of humanity, posits Rushdie in this fine novel, slips on the same banana peel.
Listen to Salman Rushdie talk about his new book with on WBUR’s On Point program.