Love Under Siege

Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, September 11, 2005


By Salman Rushdie

Random House. 398 pp. $25.95

Salman Rushdie began his career by writing advertisements, but his life has been a deadly test of the old adage that "All publicity is good publicity." A half-dozen international bestsellers, a Booker Prize and serious attention from every important literary journal in the world may never eclipse the most infamous negative review of the 20th century: the death sentence issued to him by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989.

With a $5 million bounty on his head, the author of The Satanic Verses entered the age of terror before the rest of us -- having to worry about being murdered in his home, gunned down on the street, blown up on the subway. Sixteen years ago, it seemed bizarre that a man should have to live under the threat of Islamist terrorists on the other side of the globe, but now we all live that way, and Rushdie greets us with a dazzling new novel about the roots of extremism, the fragile beauty of religious harmony and the twisted strands of personal and political motives. Unlike his previous novel -- the acerbic Fury , which, in an eerie coincidence, was released on Sept. 11, 2001 -- Shalimar the Clown seems to have allowed Rushdie the time and space to sublimate his terrors into a story of deep humanity and unsettling insight.

Speaking at the Paraty Literary Festival in Brazil this summer, he told the Christian Science Monitor that the events of Sept. 11 "showed me that the stories of the world are hopelessly entwined with each other." Shalimar the Clown exemplifies that entanglement with its vast geographical scope, moving from Kashmir to France to America, and from present to ancient days. A subtler expression of the world's integrated condition, though, is Rushdie's literary dexterity, his ability to cast sections of this novel as different genres. Modern thriller, Ramayan epic, courtroom drama, slapstick comedy, wartime adventure, political satire, village legend -- they're all blended here magnificently.

The story opens with the gruesome murder of an elderly, international celebrity named Maximilian Ophuls, a man who combines the political gravitas of Henry Kissinger with the sex appeal of Ricardo Montalban. He's standing outside his daughter's L.A. apartment when his chauffeur, Shalimar, slits Max's throat and runs away. Investigators initially conclude that it's a political hit: Just the day before, Max, a retired U.S. ambassador to India, had emerged from a long public silence to deliver a diatribe on the destruction of Kashmir. Shalimar, it's soon revealed, is an international terrorist, born and trained in Kashmir. But Max's daughter discovers that the motive behind her father's murder is far more personal and frightening than it first appears.

At this point, the novel shifts back to the little Kashmiri village of Pachigam, where the 14-year-old Shalimar fell deeply in love with Boonyi, a Hindu girl. They were both born in 1947, the same year Pakistan and India were carved from the British raj, and Kashmir -- "a tasty green sweetmeat caught in a giant's teeth" -- began its tragic decline from what Rushdie paints as an ecumenical paradise to a sectarian hell. Shalimar's family manages a group of traveling performers, and Boonyi is one of the most beautiful dancers. "The words Hindu and Muslim had no place in their story," Shalimar thinks in love-struck reverie. "In the valley these words were merely descriptions, not divisions. The frontiers between the words, their hard edges, had grown smudged and blurred. This was how things had to be. This was Kashmir."

Nevertheless, when their relationship is exposed, it's a test of the villagers' tolerance. Stern voices on both sides condemn the teens' impure mingling of faiths, but the parents agree to a marriage ceremony that includes both Hindu and Muslim customs. "To be a Kashmiri," Rushdie writes in his own love-struck reverie, "to have received so incomparable a divine gift, was to value what was shared far more highly than what divided." 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.

Trouble slithers into this "heaven inside a heaven" from all sides. Muslim radicals, epitomized by a mullah literally made of iron, preach a doctrine of strict separation that quickly slides into acts of terror, not just against the Hindu residents but against Muslims who try to live in peace with them. On the other side stands an Indian colonel who justifies increasingly brutal measures of civil control with bureaucratic language that Rushdie satirizes to a crisp: "The legal position was that the Indian military presence in Kashmir had the full support of the population, and to say otherwise was to break the law." Echoing the theme of Louis de Bernières's Birds Without Wings , Rushdie implies that people are entirely capable of working out even the sharpest ethnic and religious conflicts if they're left alone. But once outside ideologues and zealots enter the fray, they fatally disrupt that delicate process. In some of the novel's most moving passages, Rushdie captures this tragedy with rolling, rhythmic paragraphs that come as close to a wail as prose can.

But even before Muslim rebels and Indian soldiers -- "the two devils tormenting the valley" -- have ground the village of Pachigam to dust, Boonyi betrays her devoted Shalimar by offering herself to Max during the ambassador's visit to Kashmir. It's a heartless grasp for a way out of her dull life, and it sets Shalimar on a tragic course. "Panting for joy," he had warned her the very first night they made love: "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." But Boonyi heard only the voice of his devotion: " 'What a romantic you are,' she replied carelessly. 'You say the sweetest things.' " 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. All politics, we're reminded again, is local.

Everyone here springs to life in stories with their own particular melody. A section about Max's work in the French Resistance reads like a ripping spy thriller; Shalimar and Boonyi's early life is told through village legends with touches of comedy and magical realism; we read about Max's California daughter in sharp chapters bristling with irony and studded with pop culture references.

The terrorist motivated by a doctrine of incomprehensible hatred who rises up only as a blurry face on the evening news becomes in these pages our sweet Shalimar, twisted by a girl's betrayal and an imam's exploitation into something monstrous and unreachable. He's no less terrifying for that background, but he's vastly more complex.

This sympathetic portrayal isn't what we might have expected from Rushdie, given his threatening experience with Islamist assassins or his fiery public statements after the July London subway bombings. In England and America he published an essay that condemned "literalist Islamofascists" who have failed to uproot the "narrow dogmatisms that plague present-day Muslim thinking." But despite frightening glimpses of murderous imams and atrocities committed by mujaheddin, Shalimar the Clown isn't an indictment of Muslim extremist pathology, as is Nadeem Aslam's recent Maps for Lost Lovers . Nor does it fit with the growing body of Sept. 11 stories like Ian McEwan's Saturday , Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Chris Cleave's Incendiary , which seem encased in a horrible historical moment. Yes, Rushdie has written an intensely political novel, infused with recent events, but its 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. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company