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Thoughts on Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown [Nov. 7th, 2005|07:08 pm]
Literary Fiction Lovers


The thing that immediately strikes me about this novel is how wide-ranging it is, both chronologically and geographically. Rushdie also seems comfortable embodying the thoughts of men and women of numerous ages and races. I find this kind of ambition quite laudable, and if the execution leaves a bit to be desired, maybe it's partly because the task that Rushdie has set for himself is quite daunting.

It's hard to talk about this book because of its range and its numerous subplots, but the two main threads are the personal story of Shalimar the Clown, a Muslim, falling in love with Boonyi, a Hindu, when they are both 14-years-old. They make love and are eventually found out, but are treated with tolerance by both their parents and their village of Pachigam, which specializes in staging theatrical work that features Shalimar on the tightrope and Boonyi as its main dancer. On a visit to Pachigam, Boonyi becomes involved with Max Ophuls, the married ambassador to India, and runs off with him as Shalimar vows revenge.

This story is set in the backdrop of the Muslim-Hindu struggle in India. Shalimar thus becomes a terrorist who eventually kills Max Ophuls and engages in a struggle with Max and Boonyi's daughter, India, which is what propels the end of the book.

While I appreciate this blending of domestic and political themes, I did find at times that it becomes difficult to follow the characters' motivations, or at least that somehow, it becomes a bit petty to think that while everyone around him is fighting for religion and a way of life, Shalimar is obsessed with exacting revenge for being cuckolded. Maybe this is why an anticipated controversy over a book that probes the mind of a terrorist didn't arise, because this particular terrorist is a romantic among zealots. And even that view of romance seems oddly simplistic: my wife leaves me so I am going to spend decades finding a way to kill not just her lover but also my wife, and the child they bore together. For Shalimar, and on the whole for all the characters, there doesn't seem to be a psychological journey, and I find that aspect of the novel disappointing.

And yet Rushdie writers with such grace and charm. A bit overdone sometimes, show-offy, but I still find myself cradled by the confidence of his prose. He reminds me of Dickens here, as he sets up such a long parade of amazingly drawn characters that one doesn't realize that they don't have a life outside of the novel, that they exist largely to serve the author's master plan. If Shalimar is a clown, Rushdie is certainly a master puppeteer. I do wish though that his characters exhibited more recognizable human qualities.