Tragic Realism

It breaks a village: In Rushdie's latest book, a cuckold turns to terrorism

If Salman Rushdie were a character in one of his own ornate epics, his rise to international notoriety as the target of a fatwa would be portrayed as his destiny. The events of Rushdie's life are allegory for the unavoidable world-historical collision between rootless cosmopolitanism and theocratic absolutism, between civilization (with its values of secularism, skepticism, and relativism) and the gathering forces of a new medievalism. His greatest novels—Midnight's Children, Shame, The Satanic Verses, and The Moor's Last Sigh—percolate around just this kind of conflict, as India, or some subset of the subcontinent, tears itself apart. Rushdie repeatedly returns to the primal scene of a paradise squandered.

In his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown, the lost Eden is Kashmir, that landlocked sliver of loveliness caught in a bloody geopolitical tug-of-war between Pakistan and India in the aftermath of independence from Britain in 1947. Intertwined with an overripe love story is another tale altogether: the history of a country corroded and soured by sectarian struggle, deteriorating from a lively playground of legends and folk art into a breeding ground for terrorism. The doomed lovers of the novel are named Boonyi and Shalimar. Boonyi is the daughter of a Hindu pandit; Shalimar's father is Muslim. But in their village of Pachigam, as in much of Kashmir at that time, the religions co-existed and even merged to an extent: Hindus adopted aspects of Muslim cuisine, and Muslims worshipped local Hindu saints and prayed at the same shrines. On the night of Boonyi and Shalimar's birth, their families are performing at a banquet laden with tradition and magic—an event that represents the high point of the region's syncretic cooperation. Then news comes that the Pakistani army has crossed into Kashmir, its murderous rampage signaling the end of an idyll.

Oblivious to politics, the two children grow into the village business, an ancient form of folk performance called clown stories. At 14, a lust-addled Boonyi decides to consummate her love for Shalimar, egged on by the ghost of her dead mother. Rather than reacting with outrage, the families bless their marriage in a poignant last gasp of Kashmiriyat, "the belief that at the heart of Kashmiri culture there was a common bond that transcended all other differences." But losing her virginity triggers something defiant and reckless in Boonyi that attracts the attentions of Max Ophuls (no relation to the director), a suave U.S. ambassador to India. Ophuls is an amusing Zelig figure, popping up all over history—as a French resistance hero, master forger, counter-terrorism expert, and Hollywood schmoozer. Their scandalous affair leaves Boonyi in disgrace and launches the cuckolded Shalimar on a journey into the darkest holes of the subcontinent, where he channels his rage by training as a terrorist.

The transformation of clown into jihadist assassin is the most vivid—and timely—section of the novel. This shy, romantic boy enraptured by myth becomes a cold-blooded warrior with a heart full of napalm. Most noxious of his many mentors in massacre is a character known as the Iron Mullah, a prophet rumored to be made of scrap metal. The Mullah riles up the peaceful village next door to Pachigam, inspiring its Muslims to build a mosque and coercing their women to wear burkas. Soon the community splits like skin sliced through by the rigid-as-steel Mullah and his followers. But metallurgy also provides Rushdie with a metaphor for human flexibility, our ability to adapt to circumstances and adopt supple modes of thought and behavior. One running theme is the donning of new identities. Ophuls spends his life metamorphosing and flying under the radar: "He felt he was also forging a new self, one that resisted, that pushed back against fate, rejecting inevitability, choosing to remake the world." Shalimar is a darker version of this human knack for self-reinvention. Only poor Boonyi lacks the ability to mutate. She's destined to be a tragic female figure whose desire and curiosity unleash a hell storm—not to mention a daughter, a dilettantish filmmaker who will eventually cross paths with Shalimar the assassin.

Rushdie heaps divinations and omens until the novel resembles a 10-prophecy pileup. Every bit player in this sprawling saga hauls his or her own intricate backstory onto the stage. James Wood once damned Rushdie's excesses as vulgar, but that playful garishness has always been one of his best qualities. Unfortunately, the usual glorious torrents of slanguage and gouts of Rabelaisian humor are largely missing in Shalimar the Clown. In Rushdie's South Asian version of magical realism, it's realism that dominates this time round. Depicting a program of ethnic cleansing against Kashmir's Hindu population, he dissolves in an uncharacteristic wail of anguish ("why was that why was that why was that why was that why was that") as his formidable imagination buckles under the pressure of too much reality.

At its best, Rushdie's fiction holds up a warped mirror to real life, in all its absurdity and awfulness. Shalimar the Clown does that to some extent, but feels not fully inflated. Even more than usual, the characters seem allegorical, passion-play placeholders for the grand ideas and currents buffeting the world. The result is an honorable failure, a garbled book for garbled times.

 
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