Jason Cowley
  From here to Kashmir

Shalimar the Clown
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape 17.99, pp398

The Observer, September 11th 2005

Moraes Zogoiby, the wandering, displaced, mixed race narrator of Salman Rushdie's novel The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), declared that "I was nobody from nowhere, like no-one, belonging to nothing." Max Ophuls, one of the three central characters in this new novel, is, by contrast, somebody from everywhere. Born in Strasbourg to a Jewish family and educated in Paris, Max is a polyglot cosmopolitan, a raconteur, scholar, traveller and adventurer. He moves across frontiers and through time zones, with insouciance and ease. "In civilisation there are no borderlines," his father tells him. If anything, Max is too at ease in the world - a kind of Peter Ustinov of the international dinner party circuit, with a clever gag to hand and a nubile woman in all the best cities. His complacency and confidence prove to be the death of him.

A resistance fighter and pioneering aviator during the war, Max gravitates towards America. In the mid-Sixties, he is appointed ambassador to India. As someone from the contested France-Germany borderlands, he tells Indians that he understands all about "shifting frontiers, upheavals and dislocations, flights and returns, conquests and reconquests". You see, he understands their history and their pain. The country embraces him. But he soon becomes enmeshed in scandal; a daughter is conceived from an adulterous relationship with a beautiful Hindu Kashmiri dancer called Boonyi whom he treats as a concubine but also, in spite of himself, loves. She is married to the eponymous Shalimar the clown, a Muslim from the valley of Kashmir whose rage at the loss of his young wife propels him into the embrace of radical Islam. He becomes a holy warrior.

All of this is told in elaborate flashback. The novel is nearly all backstory. Yet when we first encounter Shalimar, in mature adulthood, he is living in Los Angeles and working as a chauffeur for the aged Max Ophulus (Rushdie never explains why he has chosen to give his character the same name as the great German film director, which is odd in a book on more than nodding acquaintance with the fashionable names of Hollywood, past and present). Kashmir is now a valley in flames and a theatre of terrorism: one of the great unifying Muslim causes.

Max knows nothing of Shalimar's secret history nor does he care about what brought him to America. This is a mistake because one afternoon, shortly after Max has appeared on television to denounce the insurgency in Kashmir, Shalimar removes a knife from his pocket and slits the former ambassador's throat. The murder is witnessed by Max's adult daughter, India, and it becomes her mission to discover not only the truth about Shalimar but about her mother and her own strange story.

There was something hysterical and overlit about Rushdie's previous novel, Fury. Published in August 2001, it documented the last days of twentieth century Manhattan as the city went on one of the gaudiest spending sprees in its history and Rushdie reinvented himself as a style commentator and list-maker, a sort of Brett Easton Ellis for the post-colonial crowd - only he was older and with considerably less hair. Shalamar is an altogether different book: calmer, more compassionate, wiser. If Fury was about the end of so much - of a marriage, of the dotcom boom, of even sanity itself - Shalamar looks to several new beginnings: reflecting on what has been lost in Kashmir, it also looks forward to a time when the words Muslim and Hindu will once more be merely "descriptions" rather than "divisions". The book ends on a note of hope and reconciliation.

Rushdie writes here, as usual, in several different registers, combining the wonder of fairy tale with the grittiness of hard political realism. At times, especially in the long section recounting Max's wartime experiences in France, the novel reads as little more than reheated journalism: "On June 13 the government of France abandoned the capital to the aggressor. Outflanked and irrelevant, the French forces at the Maginot Line surrendered a few weeks later..."

Elsewhere, Rushdie riffs and he rants. His recent books have been thick with media chatter and the buzz of information and this one is no exception. He knows all about the latest brands, who lives where in Hollywood and who's in and out. And the obligatory literary allusions are embedded in the text, allusions to Kafka, Keats and Kierkegaard (and that's just the Ks).

Rushdie's natural idiom is hyperbole. Stories have always flowed into other stories in his fiction. If anything, he has too many stories to tell, his imagination is too alert, and his very style is overkill; his sentences can be like a river in spate: overflowing and often out of control. Yet the engine of this novel is not the usual comic exaggeration; it is sadness for the ideal that has been lost in Kashmir and in so many other parts of the Muslim world, the ideal of tolerance and secular pluralism.

Rushdie's critique is double-edged: the story of Max and Boonyi's doomed relationship can be read as a study in human vanity, selfishness and aggressive mutual need, but also as a parable of the carelessness of American intervention on the sub-continent and in Afghanistan. Beware the return of the repressed, he seems to be saying, in often unexpected and violent forms.

Shalimar the Clown is Rushdie's most engaging book since Midnight's Children (1981). It is a lament. It is a revenge story. It is a love story. And it is a warning - to Muslims and to secular pluralists alike. For so long a celebrant of post-colonial hybridity and diversity, of cultural fusion and mergings, Rushdie is here grappling imaginatively with the events of 11 September 2001 and the wars that have followed the shock of that world-historic moment. "Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else," he writes. "Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another's."

This fine book reminds us that we forget this at our peril.

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  Copyright Jason Cowley, All Rights Reserved.