four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
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0

The novel opens with an assassination. In Los Angeles in 1991, a Muslim chauffeur named Shalimar stabs to death his Jewish employer, Max Ophuls, a former American ambassador to India. At first the act seems politically motivated. Instead, it turns out to be deeply personal.

Spanning six decades, Shalimar weaves together the lives of four people whose actions have global consequences. Shalimar is born in a small village in Kashmir. In this magical, artistic place, diverse cultures and faiths peacefully coexist. As a teenager, Shalimar, who plays the comic tightrope walker in traditional entertainments, falls in love with a ravishing Hindu dancer named Boonyi; they wed despite social customs. For "at the heart of Kashmiri culture," the village headman says, "there was a common bond that transcended all other differences." When Shalimar makes love to Boonyi for the first time, he warns her, "Don’t you leave me now, or I’ll never forgive you, and I’ll have my revenge, I’ll kill you and if you have any children by another man I’ll kill the children also." Though she brushes off these words, they return to haunt her and future generations.

When the partition of the Indian subcontinent and formation of India and Pakistan create conflicting claims on Kashmir, life changes. Islamic fundamentalism penetrates Shalimar’s village, and with these bloody, sectarian battles arrives Ambassador Ophuls, a former French World War II resistance fighter. Then he meets Boonyi, and they set in place a chain of events that extends their individual stories to epic proportions.

One world, 2005: In its broad geographical reach—from Kashmir to France to America, from modern jihadist training camps to San Quentin to Hollywood—Shalimar suggests that the world’s stories are intertwined. "Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete," writes Rushdie. Elsewhere he says, "Everywhere was a mirror of everywhere else. Executions, police brutality. . . . Los Angeles was beginning to look like wartime Strasbourg; like Kashmir." Some critics wholeheartedly accepted Rushdie’s claims, while admitting that ethnic strife rends the world’s unifying fabric. Others questioned Hollywood’s resemblance to Europe under Nazi siege or war-torn Kashmir.

Is the local global? On each page, Rushdie strives to make the point that all politics is local, that global events result from individual lives. The Washington Post noted how "brilliantly Rushdie choreographs the tragedy that spills from Shalimar’s unbridled love, tying a small, sad story of infidelity to the clashes ripping through contemporary history." But a few critics faulted the author’s local-global links, claiming that his "determination to graft huge political and cultural issues onto a flimsy soap opera plot" trivialized these larger issues (New York Times).

Straight to the heart: If critics disagreed about the vigor of Rushdie’s local-global connections, they concurred on one point. Shalimar is a tremendously political novel, starting with Boonyi’s betrayal of her husband and continuing with violent terrorist acts. Each act, no matter how big or small, reaches straight into the human heart. "[I]ts emotional scope reaches so far beyond our current crisis and its vision into the vagaries of the heart is so perceptive that one can imagine Shalimar the Clown being read long after this age of sacred terror has faded into history" (Washington Post).
Random House. 398 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0679463356

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Rushdie has snapped back into shape and delivered the strongest, tautest novel of his career. . . . Its humor moves from gentle to cruel, as Rushdie portrays Kashmiri village rivalries with a wry, light touch, then moves on to Indian army agendas as surreal and lethal as anything out of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22." Michael Upchurch

Detroit Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"Prepare for magic when reading Shalimar the Clown, the kind of magic that comes from a novelist weaving a story worthy of his genius—and the kind of magic that comes from a novel that opens you to seeing the world as you never supposed." Marta Salij

Houston Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Kashmir, at the border of India, Pakistan and China, is the most likely flashpoint on the planet for an exchange of nuclear missiles between countries, thus making Shalimar the Clown a brilliant work of political imagination." Edward Nawotke

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Evoking a novella by Gabriel García Márquez or a movie by Quentin Tarantino or a tragedy, say, by Shakespeare, Shalimar the Clown is a chronicle of an assassination foretold. The story of the crime follows its solution. . . . There are few writers who can pull off such an act." Jonathan Levi

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Both a haunting love song to the Kashmir that once was and a profile of the courage required of each of us if we are to continue on when paradise has been lost." Mike Fischer

Oregonian 4 of 5 Stars
". . . Rushdie’s best work in many years." Laila Lalami

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"What distinguishes Shalimar is his masterful and timely depiction of how closely aligned hatred and love can be, how both are animating forces, and how a desire for vengeance can be cultivated patiently, even reverently within a culture or an individual, making it all the more destructive and immutable." Tom Barbash

USA Today 4 of 5 Stars
"To inhale Salman Rushdie’s richly textured, exotic prose is to realize the insipid nature of most contemporary fiction." Deirdre Donahue

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"And so the union of these two young people becomes a symbol of the true Kashmiri spirit, which Rushdie polishes into a hauntingly beautiful—and it would seem, increasingly elusive—goal for the rest of the world." Ron Charles

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Much like Robin Williams, Rushdie cannot help himself: a frenzied torrent of ideas, scenes, and observations spill onto every page, leaving the reader either exhausted and exasperated or dizzy and delighted." Erik Spanberg

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
". . . a timely novel that tells us something about Kashmir, a distant valley that has been thrown into the limelight for the wrong reasons. It is also an important book about the world we all live and die in." Sudha Koul

Boston Globe 3 of 5 Stars
"Imagine if War and Peace spanned a few more continents and everyone’s name changed at least twice, and you can appreciate why a dramatis personae would have been helpful. . . . Shalimar the Clown is a book without a center; it is more like a dragon that consumes its tail as it proceeds forward." John Freeman

New Yorker 3 of 5 Stars
" The plot . . . beneath the tinsel and the outrage, the Hindu and Bollywood mythmaking, the jittery verbal razzmatazz, is as simple as a legend." John Updike

New York Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[T]his time, the author’s allegory-making machinery clanks and wheezes. . . . The main problem with this novel, however, is its title character, Shalimar—Boonyi’s cuckolded husband and Max’s assassin, who emerges as a thoroughly implausible, cartoonish figure . . ." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

Like some of the post-9/11 literature, Shalimar delves deep into the roots of terrorism and explores the turmoil generated by different faiths and cultures attempting to coexist. How can nations, Rushdie asks, go from near-peaceful ethnic and religious acceptance to violent conflict within a mere generation? Critics agree that Rushdie has brilliantly unraveled the construction of terrorists: some of them fight for ideas; others fight to fulfill vows or, if they are men, to reclaim their wives.

Shalimar is at once a political thriller, folk tale, slapstick comedy, wartime adventure, and work of science fiction, pop culture, and magical realism. In shimmering (if sometimes baroque) language, Rushdie invokes clever satire and imaginative wordplay. Yet, despite its diverse genres and styles, Shalimar is, at heart, a story of love, honor, and revenge—and the global consequences of such emotions and actions. Critics particularly praised Rushdie’s shocking description of Shalimar’s transformation into a cold-blooded Islamic terrorist, from his participation in training camps to forced humiliations before Taliban leaders. Similarly, wrenching descriptions of pre- and post-war Kashmir, his homage to a paradise lost, confirm Rushdie’s brilliant powers of observation and keen social insight. Some reviewers felt that some characters lacked psychological depth or complete plausibility, or were too allegorical, but most described Shalimar as convincingly real—too real, even.

In the 21st century, Shalimar’s painful, terrifying themes are both fantastical and devastatingly real. To evidence otherwise, Rushdie offers a note of cautious optimism: people can work out their differences if left alone by ideologues or fanatics. Shalimar provides a timely, ultimately idealistic, message for our times.