Flame-Broiled Whopper

Theo Tait

  • Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
    Cape, 398 pp, £17.99, September 2005, ISBN 0 224 06161 5

With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable (especially when British writers imitated South Americans, as they often used to do in the 1980s and 1990s). Julian Barnes skewered this ‘package-tour baroque’ in Flaubert’s Parrot:

Ah, the propinquity of cheap life and expensive principles, of religion and banditry, of surprising honour and random cruelty. Ah, the daiquiri bird which incubates its eggs on the wing; ah, the fredonna tree whose roots grow at the tips of its branches, and whose fibres assist the hunchback to impregnate by telepathy the haughty wife of the hacienda owner; ah, the opera house now overgrown by jungle.

The other problem with the style is its tendency to degenerate into a cosy and narrowly illustrative form of fiction, full of operatic clichés: passionate lovers, wise old women, tyrannical patriarchs – a sort of politically correct fairytale. Again, this is especially true of its anglophone variants: see the tedious fables of Jeanette Winterson, or the eccentric but warm-hearted villagers of Louis de Bernières.

These days, magic realism is deservedly out of fashion. But it’s worth remembering that it has been one of the great styles of the last fifty years. When executed with intelligence, subtlety and invention, it allowed writers to create a new form of national allegory or myth; to phrase the large movements of social history and political ideas, as in the microcosmic Colombia of Márquez’s Macondo, or the Germany of The Tin Drum. And, when it’s done properly, it isn’t simplistic or merely exemplary. V.S. Pritchett pointed out that One Hundred Years of Solitude performs its own kind of complex mimesis. Fabulous things happen – two characters fight a four-day eating duel, everyone in the town loses their memory – but the incidents are ‘singular in the way ordinary things are’, filled out with detail about manners, idiosyncrasies, patterns of speech. ‘Almost every sentence is a surprise and the surprise is, in general, really an extension of our knowledge or feeling about life, and not simply a trick.’

Salman Rushdie’s two best books manage both these things – the big political picture and the telling individual detail – in different quantities. Midnight’s Children (1981) is a family story first and a political allegory about India second: a glorious reinvention of the Bombay of Rushdie’s childhood, of his own family stories (‘autobiography re-experienced as fairytale’, as Ian Hamilton put it). The exaggerations and magical touches are rooted in the characters and the story. Shame (1983), a savage satire about Pakistan, is a less personal and less peopled work, with a clear political message at its heart. But both, although baggy and prodigious, were anchored in subjects Rushdie knew intimately. Character and subject, like design and detail, were closely fused and passionately, originally imagined: they created something that could never be broken down into a mere message.

Perhaps understandably, these two great novels seem to have inspired Rushdie with a form of artistic megalomania. Since then, he has roved more freely, played faster and looser, written about anything and everything, and the results have never been as impressive. The Satanic Verses (1988), an interesting book with some brilliant passages, suffered from his belief that he could incorporate everything – from channel-hopping to the Prophet Muhammad’s flight to Medina, from advertising to race relations in Britain, from mountain-climbing to the nature of religious belief – into one all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza. The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), which was based more squarely in Bombay, was better. And it’s surely no coincidence that his truly terrible last novel, Fury (2001), was an outsider’s view of New York – which begins in superficial imitation of Saul Bellow (ex-wives, big ideas, trying to read the city and the times) and ends in God knows what (serial killers, puppets, ethnic strife in the South Pacific etc).

Even Rushdie’s best work has always divided its readers. Like Rashid Khalifa, the storyteller in Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), he is for some a glorious ‘Ocean of Notions’, while for others he’s ‘the Shah of Blah’. On the upside, there’s the intricate tapestry of the stories, the ingenious conceits that sprout on nearly every page, the verbal exuberance, the garish humour, the willingness to tap deep themes, and the prescience of his political concerns. On the other hand, there are the exhaustingly long sentences, the stylistic arabesques, the suspicious exoticism, the dense and sometimes superficial thickets of reference, the cartoonishness of some of his characters – and the unmistakable mood of self-congratulation. There’s also the fact that Rushdie has never mastered one of the most basic elements of storytelling, how to orient and grip an audience. The Satanic Verses was often accused, along with everything else, of being unreadable, something which seemed to rankle particularly with the author.

In Shalimar the Clown the ambition remains unchecked. It is a post-9/11 novel (another one!) which aims to describe the mind of a terrorist, as well as one of the most intractable territorial disputes in recent history: Kashmir. But that isn’t all, as Rushdie makes clear in an editorial-style insert about globalisation: ‘Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people. There were collisions and explosions. The world was no longer calm.’

Shalimar the Clown is the story of everywhere: California, India, France, Britain, Pakistan, Algeria, the Philippines. It takes place over fifty years, and features Osama bin Laden, Heinrich Himmler, Rodney King and Lord Lucan too. It also represents, in a rather eccentric way, an attempt to write a more fast-moving and easily-consumed story. The sentences, by Rushdie’s standards, are short; there are fewer bells and whistles (although, by normal standards, there are still a lot of bells and whistles). He even tries to generate tension. The result is very peculiar: a cross between a piece of magic realism which displays all the worst vices of the style, and the contemporary international thriller. It is passionate, well-informed and sometimes interesting; but also hackneyed, simplistic and often very, very silly.

The novel begins with an assassination, and then circles back through time before ending near its beginning. The book is divided into five movements, each named after one of the main characters. One of these is called Max Ophuls, and the circular narrative structure broadly recalls the films of his namesake; two characters meet in the first section, the second meets another, and so on, until a chain of causality has been sketched out. The story begins in Los Angeles in 1991, where we meet the preposterously slinky and glamorous India Ophuls. She is 24, ‘a proficient athlete and a brilliant student’, who is planning a snazzy psycho-geographic documentary about LA. Her ‘spare-time pursuits’ include weekly boxing sessions, training in the ‘close-combat martial art of Wing Chun’ and small arms target practice – but the arrow is her ‘weapon of choice’. She is beautiful, of course; she sometimes has sex with a ‘super-averagely attractive’ male model whose name she can’t be bothered to remember; she watches pornography to help her sleep.

However, in slinkiness and glamour her ‘brilliant, cosmopolitan father’, ‘a man of movie-star good looks’, puts her to shame. He, ‘the Resistance hero, the philosopher prince, the billionaire power-broker’, escaped from Occupied France in time to mastermind the Bretton Woods Agreement, then became a celebrated academic who foretold the end of the Cold War and the rise of the Third World’s economic powerhouses, before serving for years as the US ‘counterterrorism chief’. Along the way, Ophuls found time to go to India as the US ambassador, and conceived his daughter there. He told her nothing about her mother, preferring to deliver to the young child ‘homilies such as Sun Tzu the philosopher of war might have delivered to his offspring’. As an old man, he appears in the media to make grand political statements ‘in the florid language of a fading age’. Even in his seventies, he romances the hottest stars of Hollywood, Bollywood and adult entertainment in the penthouse suite he maintains ‘in one of the city’s best hotels’.

It’s hard to know what exactly is going on here. My guess is that Rush-die is partly labouring under the strong and difficult influence of Don DeLillo. He exhibits a DeLillo-ish concern with the limousine-borne power-brokers who shape our world, and the secret networks that underlie it. Like many of DeLillo’s characters, Max is given to essayistic fugues on modern America, uttered in a spirit of ‘half-humorous perversity’: ‘with no apparent irony he celebrated the junk food of America and waxed lyrical about the new banality of diet cola . . . he admired the strip malls for their neon and the chain stores for their ubiquity.’ Rushdie tries to copy DeLillo’s hard-edged but casual prose: ‘She didn’t know what she wanted. She wanted lunch.’ (Compare to this, from Cosmopolis, DeLillo’s last novel: ‘He didn’t know what he want-ed. Then he knew. He wanted to get a haircut.’) Rushdie produces some very odd effects here, because the style runs against his messy effusiveness, his fondness for hyperbole, and his ever-growing obsession with glamour. Max and India may have started out as cool and conceptual, but they end as a fantasy of sophistication and omni-competence that would make Ian Fleming blush.

Their gilded world is about to be rudely invaded, however: the ambassador is slaughtered on his daughter’s doorstep ‘like a halal chicken dinner’ (with ‘one of his own Sabatier kitchen knives’, I’m afraid – the sort of detail that seems very important to this section of the story). The culprit is his Kashmiri driver, a man called Shalimar: the name of the great Mughal garden in Srinagar. By way of explanation, the second section flashes back to more traditional Rushdie territory: Pachigam in Kashmir, a village of chefs and actors who perform the bhand pather, clown stories, the traditional plays of the valley.

Noman Sher Noman, ‘also known as Shalimar the clown, the most beautiful boy in the world’, is a performer and tightrope walker whose father is the Muslim headman and the leader of the players. Bhoomi Kaul, known as Boonyi, also beautiful, is a dancer and the daughter of a Hindu pandit and chef. They are 14, and united in a great love, which Boonyi demands that they consummate. Afterwards, panting with joy, Noman says: ‘Don’t 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.’

Around the basic plot, which inevitably follows this curse, Rushdie tells a bigger story, turning this section of the novel into a magic realist crash-course on the history of Kashmir since Partition. Noman and Boonyi are both born in the Shalimar gardens, where their parents are cooking and performing for the maharajah, on a night in October 1947. This is the night when the news of the invasion of the Kabailis (Pakistan-backed tribal irregulars) reaches the capital. This invasion precipitated the maharajah’s decision to accede to India, in return for military assistance, which led to the de facto partition of the state, and its role as the flashpoint between India and Pakistan: ‘The time of the demons had begun.’

The demons are handily personified. One is Colonel Hammirdev Suryavans Kachhwaha, a ‘swaggering Rajput’ officer representing the Indian army’s unpopular and increasingly brutal presence in the valley. There are occasional flashes of the old Rushdie here. Kachhwaha’s camp is called Elasticnagar ‘because of its well-established tendency to stretch’ as the soldiers flood in, requisitioning more land, and filling the valley with barracks and military hardware. This influx leads to the creation of the other demon: the Islamic radicalisation of Kashmir. The Indian army has left heaps of discarded military hardware rotting in junkyards: ‘Then one day by the grace of God the junk began to stir. The men who were miraculously born from these rusting war metals, who went out into the valley to preach resistance and revenge, were saints of an entirely new kind. They were the iron mullahs.’

Shalimar the clown and Boonyi find themselves caught in the crossfire. An informer sent by Colonel Kachhwaha spies on them, posing as a schoolteacher, and – himself besotted with Boonyi – reports their illicit love to the village council. The children are duly censored for their ‘rash’ behaviour, but the families bless the marriage. Abdullah Noman invokes the concept of Kashmiriyat, ‘the belief that at the heart of Kashmiri culture there was a common bond that transcended all differences’, and proclaims: ‘There is no Hindu-Muslim issue. Two Kashmiri – two Pachigami – youngsters wish to marry, that’s all. A love match is acceptable to both families and so marriage there will be; both Hindu and Muslim customs will be observed.’ But their troubles don’t end there: both soldiers and mullahs look askance at their ‘shameless intermarriage’.

In The Moor’s Last Sigh, Rushdie used Moorish Andalucia as ‘a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation’. Here, Pachigam is not a romantic myth, but a comic-book version of tolerance and racial diversity, a multicultural paradise of sex, food and art, in which Muslims sit around discussing Hindu philosophy in flower-strewn meadows, and grown-ups indulgently chide their youngsters. ‘Come on, you stupid oversexed child,’ Noman’s mother says to Boonyi, like a caricature of a Californian liberal, after their liaison has been exposed. There is no room for any ambiguity or depth, or, indeed, for characterisation.

Here, as elsewhere, Rushdie papers over the lack of depth with tired magic realist tropes. The growing ominousness of Noman/ Shalimar, for instance, is expressed precisely in the form of omens: although he appears to be a sweet boy, he unaccountably scares his mother. Rushdie seems completely uninterested in the central love story. The love of Boonyi and Shalimar is meant to be a powerful force, and their marriage is treated as a glorious event. But soon afterwards, we are told that she is ‘overwhelm-ed by claustrophobia’, and has come to the conclusion that life in Pachigam ‘was not remotely enough for her, didn’t begin to satisfy her hunger, her ravenous longing for something she could not yet name’. And when the American ambassador Max Ophuls, on a visit to Kashmir, is entranced by her dancing, she sees her chance, and takes it.

There is much, much more to come, many rivers and oceans to cross. We must flash back to Max’s early life in ‘charming’ Strasbourg, follow his equally charming adventures with La Résistance, tweaking Jerry’s nose and romancing a beautiful if perfunctorily characterised English spy, while an authorial voice like a bad film voiceover fills in the background: ‘Four years after that the tide of history would have turned and the Normandy landings would begin, but those four years would be a century long.’ We must follow Max and Boonyi’s cursory romance; see what happened to the child, named first Kashmira and then taken from her mother and renamed India; see the betrayal turn Shalimar the clown from a pleasant empty vessel into a murderous one; see him ‘become death’ in the form of an al-Qaida assassin; see his own turn to violence mirrored by the insurgency in Kashmir; see Rushdie gruesomely wipe out the jolly nonentities he has created. Finally, we must return to California, to discover whether Shalimar can fulfil the terms of his curse; watch Los Angeles burn in the 1992 riots; hear Rushdie’s crass and boring riffs on modern America (‘LA was a flame-broiled Whopper that night’); see Shalimar be imprisoned and then, as if by magic, escape and enter a finale based on the end of The Silence of the Lambs, complete with blades, arrows and night-vision goggles.

Write what you know, goes the old advice to writers. Rushdie’s argument has always been that what we know, or ought to, is broader than many versions of the novel would have it. And it’s true that the wide-ranging novel, written in a virtuoso patchwork of styles, is often more interesting and often feels more necessary than, say, the Hampstead adultery novel. But it’s also true that the wider and thinner Rushdie spreads himself, the more everything is reduced to cliché, précis, gobbet. His new novel does many things, in many styles, and ultimately it does few of them well. It is readable, but it coarsens itself in straining to be so. It is exotic, but as a result it is peopled with ethnic stereotypes of every possible stripe, from English aristo to Indian landlady to African-American gang member. Rushdie has made all the world seem equally glamorous, equally violent, and equally stereotyped. Shalimar the Clown will tell many readers that the recent history of Kashmir is a both a terrible tragedy and a fault-line in the modern world, which we ought to know about. This must be a good thing. But it is also a powerful testament to something completely different: the great sillinesses that are perpetrated in the name of quality fiction.