I had not intended to make Kashmir a stop on my trip around the world. I was just listening to this book as a side read, but I have decided that Shalimar the Clown needs to be an official stop on my journey. This book is a tragic love story, at several levels. It is the tale of tragic love between individual men and women, but it is also a tragic tale of the love of a community of people for a place and culture that are largely destroyed by the greater powers nearby who fight over its both its land and soul. After struggling through Satanic Verses late last year, I was a little afraid to start another Rushdie novel, even though I had absolutely loved everything else of his that I had read. I needn’t have worried. In this novel, I found the Rushdie I remembered and loved, not the one who frustrated me and made me feel a bit stupid through most of Satanic Verses. I am very glad to find that he is back.
I returned to my food quest for this book, eating a delicious lunch at a restaurant called Kashmir Garden. Hesitant to raise thorny political issues, I did not tell the chef at the restaurant, who came to say hello while I ate in the early afternoon, that I was reading Shalimar the Clown. If I had told him, I would have wanted to know if the Kashmiri feasts of “36 courses minimum” or “60 courses maximum” that are prepared by the villagers in Rushdie’s novel were just a piece of his magic, or whether these menus really existed. If they still exist somewhere, I would love to travel there to enjoy them, since such a generous array of dishes of the cuisines of this region (see, now I am not comfortable calling this Indian food!), would be my idea of heaven on earth.
So here is my review of the novel. It will be followed by the material about the book from Goodreads.
The tragedy that is Kashmir is portrayed beautifully in this novel. Early in the novel, a Jewish Alsatian-born American former-Ambassador to India is murdered by his chauffeur, who goes by the name Shalimar. The murder leaves the ambassador’s daughter India to reconstruct the reason for his death and to figure out how to cope with his loss and the complexities of her own history. We are transported back in time to the start of the Ambassador’s career when he was an economics student and a fighter in the French Resistance. We learn of his marriage to a British resistance hero and his eventual fateful assignment to the post in Delhi. Similarly, we are given a window into the quiet days spent by Shalimar learning to walk a tightrope as part of his Muslim father’s acrobatic troupe and watch his village embrace his marriage to his childhood love, a dancing beauty from a Hindu family in the same village. Then we watch in horror as their personal lives unravel while at the same time the battle between Pakistan and India for Kashmir changes the village from a place of beauty, culture, and mutual respect to a place of devastation, intolerance, and hatred.
This novel made me grieve for a place that no longer survives, except perhaps in the memories of a few who survived the physical and cultural ravages of a region, while at the same time keeping me completely engaged in the personal tragedies of people for whom the political context provides a backdrop, but not a complete explanation, for the decimation of personal relationships and individual lives. This is not a happy novel, but it is a beautiful one, and I am very glad to have read it. The magical realism for which Rushdie is known is present in this novel, as in his others, but it is present in manageable doses which enhance rather than obscure the narrative. Likewise, the movements backward and forward in time fuel curiosity and interest in the tale, rather than creating confusion. Unlike my recent experience of reading The Satanic Verses, during which I was frustrated and confused by the plethora of characters, the leaps in time and into and out of dreams and movie plots, and the extensive use of the magical at the expense of the realistic, my experience in reading this book was one of interest, emotional connection, appreciation of Rushdie’s craft, and deep satisfaction at my decision to reengage with the work of an author who remains one of my favorites. Repeated attempts to get into and through Satanic Verses kept me stalled in Rushdie’s oeuvre for too long. Now I am eager to read his other books that are waiting for me on my shelves.
And from Goodreads:
“Dazzling . . . Modern thriller, Ramayan epic, courtroom drama, slapstick comedy, wartime adventure, political satire, village legend–they’re all blended here magnificently.”
–The Washington Post Book World
This is the story of Maximilian Ophuls, America’s counterterrorism chief, one of the makers of the modern world; his Kashmiri Muslim driver and subsequent killer, a mysterious figure who calls himself Shalimar the clown; Max’s illegitimate daughter India; and a woman who links them, whose revelation finally explains them all. It is an epic narrative that moves from California to Kashmir, France, and England, and back to California again. Along the way there are tales of princesses lured from their homes by demons, legends of kings forced to defend their kingdoms against evil. And there is always love, gained and lost, uncommonly beautiful and mortally dangerous.
“A commanding story . . . [a] harrowing climax . . . Revenge is an ancient and powerful engine of narrative.”
–The New York Times Book Review
“Absorbing . . . Everywhere [Rushdie] takes us there is both love and war, in strange and terrifying combinations, painted in swaying, swirling, world-eating prose that annihilates the borders between East and West, love and hate, private lives and the history they make.”
“A vast, richly peopled, beautiful and deeply rageful book that serves as a profound and disturbing artifact of our times.”
–San Francisco Chronicle
“Marvelous . . . brilliant . . . a story worthy of [Rushdie’s] genius.”
–Detroit Free Press
ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
– The Washington Post Book World –Los Angeles Times Book Review –St. Louis Post-Dispatch –Rocky Mountain News
ONE OF THE BEST NOVELS OF THE YEAR
–Time –Chicago Tribune –The Christian Science Monitor