Shalimar the Clown
By Salman Rushdie (Random House, 398 pages, $25.95)
"Everyone's story is now a part of everyone else's," claims an oft-repeated line in Salman Rushdie's latest novel, Shalimar the Clown. It's in this all-inclusive spirit that Shalimar wonderfully encompasses such heady topics as the oppression and colonization of Kashmir, the workings of international terrorism, and the drama of family life. But it's also in this spirit that the novel suffers from its own ambition, cracking under the weight of its attempt to mirror a complex political mess with soap-operatic melodrama.
At the forefront is former U.S. ambassador to India, Max Ophuls (who shares his name with the famous film director, who, like Rushdie's Ophuls, was a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany). Ophuls is killed by Shalimar the Clown, his Kashmiri chauffeur, right on the Los Angeles doorstep of Ophuls' daughter, India. Shalimar begins and ends on this leg of the plot in L.A.-everything in the East is mere backstory to murder.
While Rushdie's rendition of Los Angeles is lyrical and largely on-point, it's only when the story moves to the much-romanticized and embattled Kashmir-where the title character meets and marries his childhood love-that his stylistic bravado comes alive. Rushdie's penchant for spinning a magical-realist plot into effusively poetic passages makes his Kashmir worthy of any García Marquez or Grass comparisons, to say nothing of Scheherazade.
Sadly, this attempt to strike a mythological tone-plus the built-in excuse that "everyone's story is now a part of everyone else's"-apparently left Rushdie with the inability to edit himself or add humor. Somewhere within the unwieldy 400-page Shalimar is an exquisite 300-page novel. As it is, frequently beautifully wrought descriptions become lists, inconsequential characters merit entire life stories, and dialogue is largely heavy-handed and aphoristic: "Everything is politics right now." Shalimar's brothers began to tease him: "How about soup? Is your mother's chicken broth politicized too?"
According to Rushdie: why, yes. Despite this tendency for abundance, certain elements that seem like they should be part of the story are simply nonexistent, such as Shalimar's emotional transition from innocent boy to international, bloodthirsty terrorist. And despite the number of women in the book, few of them-with the exception of strong-willed tomboy India Ophuls, who emerges as the most complex character in the novel-are capable of anything but playing the role of passive observer.
Despite these misgivings, Shalimar's mythological underpinnings do present the occupation of Kashmir in both a classical and a timely manner. Besides, it's likely that Rushdie himself wouldn't classify this as an overly fabulist take on the tale. It's India Ophuls, after all, who says, "Lift the lid of any life and there's strangeness, bubbling away; behind every quiet domestic front door lurk the idiosyncratic and the weird. Normality, that's the myth."
Rushdie speaks Friday, Sept. 23, at First Unitarian Church, 1011 SW 12th Ave., 228-4651 (Powell's). 7:30 pm. Free.