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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, September 25th, 2005


 

Shalimar the Clown: A Novel

by Salman Rushdie

Give the people what they want

A review by Marco Roth

Salman Rushdie's new novel begins in Los Angeles:

"the beautiful came to this city in huge pathetic herds, to suffer, to be humiliated, to see the powerful currency of their beauty de-valued like the Russian rouble or Argentine peso; to work as bellhops, as bar hostesses, as garbage collectors, as maids."

So far, so good. A fair observation enhanced by a sharp simile about the ravages of the free market in the age of globalization leads to a melancholy awareness of a local injustice, even if it is only about beautiful people. We can forgive the slight redundancy of the "huge herds" and the transferred "pathetic" as part of a gregarious narrator's excitement at the spectacle of so much beauty undone. But he goes on: "The city was a cliff and they were its stampeding lemmings. At the foot of the cliff was the valley of the broken dolls". Apparently LA has an equally inflationary effect on prose. The mash of analogies seems a high price to pay for an allusion to Jacqueline Susann's novel (or the 1967 cult film starring Sharon Tate, or maybe Russ Meyer and Roger Ebert's camp remake of 1970, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls). But if you have never heard of any of these, or even if you have, you are left with nothing but a good paragraph gone bad.

Are these representative lines just lazy writing, or ought we to see this as a willed style? Isn't the deliberate artificiality, the indiscriminate blend of hyperbole, political events and late-night satellite films what "stream of consciousness" sounds like nowadays? We are no longer shocked to learn that writers think about sex and toilets, like everyone else; now they must admit that they spend as much time in the media saturation bathroom as everyone else. Anything less, it seems, would be snobbery.

But is there a connection between these populist antics and Rushdie's politics? Everyone knows that Rushdie is also a political novelist, an early veteran of the current clash between Islam and the West, and it was as a public figure that he was asked to comment on the elusive connections between the art of the novel and our latest war. Over the course of his Tanner lectures at Yale University in 2002 (published in Step Across This Line), Rushdie could be heard arguing with himself about the responsibilities of a novelist to newly vulnerable and frightened audiences eager for consolation: "Is it time, instead of endlessly pushing the envelope, stepping into forbidden territory and generally causing trouble, to start discovering what frontiers might be necessary to art rather than an affront to it?". Unsurprisingly, Rushdie's stated answer was no, though his defence of the transgressive value of art was surprisingly muted, echoing Auden's defensive despair. "Artworks, unlike terrorists, change nothing", he concluded, thereby serving notice that he would not be changing anything any time soon.

If Rushdie really believes that novels make nothing happen, he concedes far too much for the sake of his own freedom. True, a work of art does not become valuably subversive simply by trying to be so, but novelists may change our lives and this isn't just humanist bromide: Azar Nafisi's recent memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), shows how a Muslim woman in Iran can find reading Nabokov and Henry James as valuable, liberating and counter-cultural an experience as reading The Satanic Verses.

In any case, the whole canting cult of pre-and post-9/11 novels could be said to spring from one odd misreading of Virginia Woolf's remark about human nature changing on or about December 1910. If some human consciousnesses have changed in the interim, it is thanks to Woolf and not to terrorists. Their weapons of fear, surprise and fanatical belief in whatever they happen to believe have remained fairly constant from Gavrilo Princip to Osama bin Laden. Rushdie's defensiveness, in Step Across This Line, is a symptom of a confusion that also mars Shalimar the Clown.

On one side is the author as the knight of free speech, someone whose style, by its very audacity, makes tyrants quake and makes critics, those petty tyrants of the literary world, pound their keyboards in envious frustration. On the other, stands the novelist as a chronicler of injustice, a person whose heroic status derives from an ability to make us feel and understand the distress of people who are too far away or too hidden from our everyday life. Regardless of the proliferation of news reports, or even because of it, the novel has a role to play in enlarging our awareness of suffering and its causes. These two roles for authors are not necessarily incompatible, but, in Rushdie's case, they have become so. We may blame the effects of the fatwa, or the premature canonization of Rushdie's style by university academics as a revolutionary performance of anti-nationalist, anti-fundamentalist, counter-hegemonic "hybridity", though the flaw may have been there from the beginning, a frayed rope straining to cross an abyss between pleasure and responsibility.

That Rushdie now prefers the pursuit of a signature style to tragedy is itself a kind of tragedy. Shalimar the Clown is nearly that much needed thing: a tragic novel about the growth of a terrorist's mind in one of those rogue regions of the world. Wasn't it supposed to bring us the news about the fate of Kashmir, the origins of global Islamic terrorism and the resentments caused by the careless lust and greed of great powers? We find it so hard to grasp the motives for suicidal violence that any attempt to imagine them would be welcome. Instead, the novel is by turns satire, old- fashioned revenge romance and Hollywood action movie, and it seems to flaunt its determination to put as much padding as possible between readers and feelings.

In case you weren't already clued in by the title, or a foil to the character named "Max Ophuls" -- after the quirky director of self-aware films like Lola Montes and La Ronde and, in a bit of clever concealed doubling, a bit of an O'fool himself -- you, dear reader, have been taken to the many-ringed circus of Rushdie's imagination. The omniscient narrator plays the ringmaster and cracks the whip and the motley array sets off with trumpets blaring. Style is action and vice versa. The deliberate campiness and flight from character into archetype, which were so prominent in Rushdie's turn away from politics to beauty and talent in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) and Fury (2001), have intensified, as has his pursuit of that elusive beast, the great global novel. The quixotic quest for a new hybrid literary form seems to pit Rushdie in a rebellion against the history of the novel itself, a regression to Arthurian romance and staged melodramas that draw more from Dryden's The Indian Emperour and Aureng-Zebe than from any of his great nineteenth-century precursors: Dickens, Scott, or Thackeray. The global novel must appeal to the greatest number; the modern masses of Mumbai, New York, London and their provinces demand spectacle, so let us give the people what they want. Since they all seem to want to watch movies, novels should become as much like movies as possible, all the while winking in homage to the new master art form.

Rushdie's characters also compete with the gilded and glamorous. They are stars and they are described in breathless superlatives. No longer do they have personalities, they have resumes. In LA lives a beautiful young woman called India. In her spare time she watches pornography (to help her fall asleep), makes documentary films, and practises the arts of self-defence; not only does she box, she knows kung-fu, not only does she know kung-fu, she is a fair shot with the pistol, not only does she shoot guns, she is a regular Diana on the archery range. (We learn all this in a breathless paragraph.)

The young India was rescued from a wicked stepmother (Lord Lucan's neighbour, we discover in one of several improbable asides) and a one-paragraph self-destructive adolescence of attempted suicides, hallucinogens, heroin-addiction and prostitution under a Jamaican pimp with a white fedora. The rescuer, her father, is an odd blend of Henry Kissinger and Nabokov's Van Veen. Max Ophuls is aristocratic, impeccably mannered, with a weakness for beautiful women, and he is also a former American ambassador to India who helped arm the Taliban; before that he was an economist and one of the architects of the Bretton Woods agreement, and before that, a member of the French Resistance. Here is a list of his accomplishments in that line, the last three again from a single condensed paragraph: flying a plane across enemy lines to earn the sobriquet "the flying Jew", master forger of Old Master paintings and passports, rescuer of Jewish children, "but perhaps the greatest contribution Max Ophuls made to the resistance was sexual . . . . He was the man who seduced the Panther, Ursula Brandt". Pick any one of these accomplishments and you could still write a serious novel about self-creation in times of conflict, one of Rushdie's themes here, but multiplied to this extent you have something more like an index of possible plots, a satire which also repudiates any inner life. People are actors more than anything else, and it is only by their many deeds that they become fit subjects for Rushdie's fictions.

The gargantuan mode doesn't change much when the elderly Max's throat is cut on his daughter's doorstep, and the novel switches into a long retrospective account of how and why this powerful man came to be assassinated by an ex-tightrope walking Kashmiri acrobat, possibly acting in the name of some Islamic terrorist organization. The scene may be Kashmir or Occupied France during the Second World War, but the paragraphs remain jammed with all sorts of references to films, pop music, Erasmus, the Ship of Fools, Machiavelli and the Ramayana to list a few. There is even the Borscht-Belt humour of the concierge, Olga the Volga, the last potato witch of Astrakhan, a character who seems to have taken a wrong turn on her way to the latest Harry Potter novel.

The promised political dimension is present too, but it takes a wilfully sympathetic reader, such as Rushdie's friend Christopher Hitchens writing in the Atlantic Monthly, to make it stand out. Shalimar the Clown gives us a vivid, if not always realistic, picture of Kashmir. At first it appears as a kind of Cockaigne; Hindus and Muslims live in harmony, a tolerant tribalism ensures the marriage of the young lovers, Muslim Shalimar and beautiful Boonyi, the daughter of a Hindu pandit. When destructive, anti-social desires for sex, power and food arise, they are mediated by a ritual folk theatre and the elaborately managed banquets of "Thirty-Six-Courses-Minimum". All this is undone by the twin forces of nationalism and religious fundamentalism. As usual in Rushdie's novels, these forces are not the enemies of enlightenment as much as they are the enemies of freedom, and that means they are the enemies of the natural. Having shown us the first Kashmir, Rushdie must also destroy it. And when he writes about the destruction of Shalimar's native village of Pachigam in a reprisal action by the Indian Army, the sloppiness that characterizes the rest of the novel disappears into contained, channelled prose:

"Who lit that fire? Who burned that orchard? Who shot those brothers who laughed their whole lives long? Who killed the sarpanch? Who broke his hands? Who broke his arms? Who broke his ancient neck? Who shackled those men? Who made those men disappear? . . . Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house?"

The litany continues, and the same speed that undermines our faith in Rushdie's seriousness elsewhere in the novel here helps him to develop a quasi-biblical intensity. We are made to feel his outrage that such a scene has to be described and that he must write it in order to bear witness to it. The intrusions of the narrator also become meaningful here, since there is, at last, a real tension between the narrator and his material. The style James Wood called "hysterical realism" finally has something worth becoming hysterical about.

Descriptions of violence and atrocity are one of Rushdie's strengths as a novelist. Few people in the West understood what Indira Gandhi's state of emergency was like until Rushdie brought it to life in Midnight's Children (1981); in Shame (1983) he created the powerful anti-Islamist cartoon of a female Jack the Ripper who roams Pakistan tearing the heads off men. It is a discomfiting gift, and Rushdie seems to have become less at ease with it over the years. Despite his breezy go-anywhere, say-anything narrative style, he turns shy after he has shown us the death of the village, blow by blow:

"There are things that must be looked at indirectly because they would blind you if you looked them in the face, like the fire of the sun. So, to repeat: there was no Pachigam any more. Pachigam was destroyed. Imagine it for yourself."

Of course he has just imagined it for us, and this aside seems dishonest. Is there anything for him to be ashamed of here?

We do need novelists to imagine such things for us if we are to understand the consequences of terror and its violent repression by the state. Long before anyone thought novelists should change because nineteen young men hijacked aeroplanes and crashed them into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, Rushdie was imagining what, in an essay in Step Across This Line, he calls "the unimaginable". He has always been aware of terrorism and never shied away from incorporating it into a plot. The hijacking and suicidal destruction of an airliner is part of the comic set piece that launches The Satanic Verses (1988). In The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), he blows up a Bombay version of the World Trade Center in order to bring poetic justice to the global capitalist and mob boss, Abraham Zogoiby:

"Tower workers started spilling madly into the street. Sixty seconds later, however, the great atrium at the top of Cashondeliveri Tower burst like a firework in the sky and a rain of glass knives began to fall, stabbing the running workers through the neck, the back, the thigh, spearing their dreams, their loves, their hope. And after the glass knives, further monsoon rains. Many workers had been trapped in the tower by the blast. Lifts were inoperative, stairwells had collapsed, there were fires and clouds of ravenous black smoke. There were those who despaired, who exploded from the windows and tumbled to their deaths."

Rushdie now would probably try to get away with the elegant sleight of hand by which the very victims of the bombs "exploded from windows" by fencing it with an allusion to Die Hard.

With the exception of the Pachigam action, almost all the violence in this very violent novel comes to us as a deja vu, safely buttressed by the same levels of cliche, mediation and distance that we find in our daily lives. Hence the offhand description of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles which are taking place just as India flies off in search of her Kashmiri roots: "L.A. was a flame-broiled Whopper that night". It is hardly shocking to turn a riot into a Burger King commercial. Indeed we have come to expect it.

In this way, Rushdie transforms his refusal to bow to the times into a capitulation to the voice of public opinion. Our larger culture exhibits a disturbingly split attitude to violence. We have a fascination with it. The twin industries of movies and video games make millions out of our desire to experience the horrible at a safe distance. And yet we still believe that there is something particularly awful about real violence; news organizations deem us too squeamish for photographs of real corpses or real torture, be it in Los Angeles, Kashmir, or Iraq, though we may turn on the television and see make-believe versions of them at any time. So we have a camp culture of violence that seeks to rationalize our obsession by emphasizing its safe unreality: gangster rap, John Woo's slow motion bullet ballets, action hero slogans like "hasta la vista baby" and "mission accomplished". Rather than explore the crossing points between Western civilization which aestheticizes violence and Islamic civilizations which sanctify it, Rushdie writes himself in on the side of the aestheticizers. Once we reach the novel's high-midnight showdown between the terrorist and the family of his victims -- after a briefly illuminating description of the private security systems of the rich and famous -- we wonder if all Rushdie's loud insistence on "a no limits position" for his own work is a mask for a world-weary conservatism: about suffering they were never wrong, the Hollywood Moguls.

Marco Roth is one of the founding editors of n + 1 magazine



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