When Maximilian Ophuls is murdered outside his daughter's home by his Kashmiri Muslim driver, it appears to be a political killing. Ophuls is the former U.S. Ambassador to India and America's leading figure in counter-terrorism. But there is much more to Ophuls and his assassin, a mysterious man calling himself "Shalimar the Clown," than meets the eye. One woman is at the center of their shared history--a history of betrayal and deception that moves from World War II Europe to the troubled Kashmir region to contemporary America.
One obstacle to easy reading is the names of the characters, which are hard for the western reader to keep straight. Another is the background cultural information used throughout the book. Certainly this is a complicated work and one that requires effort on the part of the reader, but one which will repay the careful reader for a long time.
The themes of revenge and of hidden secrets soon to be revealed guides this novel, and compels you to keep on reading.
This story takes four or five morally compromised characters and shuttles them through the warp of modern political history, from the beginning of World War II to the mid-90s. Several of them move in the political sphere, and all of struggle to control (or reinvent) their identities, changing direction as they do so. It sprawls a bit, but most of the bits that seem colorful tangents end up reinforcing the narrative. There are a few moments when his invention flags, particularly towards the end, but I don't want to quibble: as soon as I finished it I read the first fifty pages all over again, and you will too.
this one I'm keeping, but I very highly recommend it. In fact, it should be one of those books you must not miss and should likely be in everyone's collection. After a slow start (for me, only because I didn't know what was coming), it got to where I could not put this book down and sat in one spot reading until I finished.
Shalimar the Clown was the husband of Boonyi Noman, who was a Pandit dancer in a small village of Kashmir (where the novel's core takes place, beginning in the 1960s). Max Ophuls, who wance served in the French Resistance against the Nazis, and who moved up the ladder of power in the United States ultimately serving as the American Ambassador to India during the time of Indira Ghandi. To be very brief, a whirlwind of power politicking brings Max, his wife Peggy and the entourage to Kashmir, where Max, in a nostalgic moment, has arranged for a traditional dance to be done by the Pandit actors and dancers. The lead dancer is Boonyi, who had to settle for her marriage to Shalimar earlier, and while she loves him, knows that she's only got one chance in life, and judging by the look on the face of the American Ambassador watching her dance, knows that this is it. She decides to go off with Max, and in doing so, as the author notes on page 194, "...that was how ic came about that a faithless wife from the village of the bhand pather beggan to influence, to complicate and even so shape, American diplomatic activity regarding the vexed matter of Kashmir." It is with Max's murder on the doorstep of his daughter India's apartment that the novel begins; and throughout the story we learn of a single-minded obsession on the part of Shalimar to avenge the wrong that was done to him.
What sets this book apart is the look at the politics & circumstances of the demise of Kashmir, from the points of view of the villagers, the "freedom" fighters, the resistance, the generals. It is a marvelous insight to the forces that shaped Taliban and extremist rule, and the violence which shapes our world even now.
Give it a read and go slowly; it is truly a book you'll want to savor.
It took me the longest time to get into this book. I was well past the half-way point when I started being interested in what was to happen. The story seemed awfully banal, and it really gained life in the second part.
The characters that we are introduced to in the first chapters of the novel seem unemotional, detached from each other and remote to the reader, even though the story itself is familiar to a Western reader and takes place mainly in California, and then in a flashback, in Europe during the Second World War. It’s only in the further chapters that the setting, Kashmir, becomes more exotic and well drawn at the same time, and the characters are more colourful and passionate. Rushdie’s writing gets more flare and the story itself is more reminiscent of Midnight’s Children- the only book by him that I finished and enjoyed.
The style seemed a bit choppy, but still epigrammatic at the beginning, and improved when Rushdie entered settings and issues that he seemed to be passionate about. The style changed from a thriller-like dry and sensational and became a blend of magical realism, heroic tales with bits of comedy and farce in-between.
Since a lot of the book examines the life, motives and workings of the mind of an ordinary sensitive man turned professional killer-terrorist and the feelings of his victims, I am sure a lot there comes from Rushdie’s own feelings and thoughts in the matter, and a lot of it examines the causes and motives of the 9/11 world.
Read from 27 Oct - 4 Nov 06
Rushdie once again displays his genius for weaving a tale that illuminates all aspects of human existence – love, revenge, politics, religion, war and violence. This is history painted with a broad lustrous sweep but never losing focus of the minutest sentiments of family and relationships that define the day to day essence of our humanity. At once sweet and humorous, cold and brutal, Shalimar represents the teeming mass of life itself. I’m exhausted from nights of staying up falling asleep and waking again to continue. I’ve grown sad from the terrible vendettas played out by men and women no different from myself. I am also fascinated by the many worlds and existences contained within these few hundred pages of wood-pulp and ink. What beautiful images are spun of Kashmir, the bhand pather performances, its natural icy scenery, its wild connection to the cosmic aspects of life. More so than the images of Agra, Bombay, Delhi etc, the hot crowded cities of Midnight’s Children, in Shalimar the mystic and sparse Kashmiri landscape comes alive in a compelling manner. What wondrous characters populate the book, and by extension the face of our earth. The heroic Abdullah Noman, de facto village headman and head artist of the performing troupe, his acid-tongued, warm-hearted wife Firdaus, the myriad village people, and of course Shalimar the clown and Bhoomi or Boonyi Kaul, our Kashmiri Romeo and Juliet brandishing their ill-fated love in an era of American Cold War politics, Indo-Pakistani conflict, vanishing indigenous arts and the golden age of the modern Western nation. Such are the stuffs from which the most magical tales are made.
I cannot rest my mind from it; cannot simply close the back cover and place the book away on a shelf and be done with it.
Can fiction be more real than fact? The tone of narrative authority, the uncompromising moral judgement made upon events and characters – nevertheless, made-up – that mirror current events and characters, place Shalimar above other works of fiction. The sense of authorial responsibility presses me to conclude that the creator of the novel must be driven by some larger motivation than the artist’s need to express himself through his craft. This is also a warning, a deeply passionate tale preached in the most elegant way possible such that it rings in the hearts of its readers and awakens their moral consciousness.
What a creator Rushdie is. In all his novels, never has there been the usual failures caused by ego, the boring sameness of style, the shallowness of character that is revealed after one has read the fourth, fifth specimen of the author’s product. Each novel is a new birth of ideas, carrying cultural, political, literary weight within their pages. Such endless production of quality works surely points to a creator whose sensibilities and intellect are immensely superior to the ordinary man. (Yes, even The Ground Beneath Her Feet was enthralling for me.)
Well, OK, there are the clear 'bad guys' in the novel, but a lot of bad things come from regular people with decent intentions. Things just went wrong...and can we really blame those individuals for the choices they made?
Compelling & magical. Complex, vast.
The only part that wasn't so satisfying was the end--it somehow felt anti-climactic (maybe also b/c I found India/Kashimira rather flat as a character), like it was tacked on quickly after an extremely thoughtful and laborious crafting of the rest of the tale.
The book ranges far and wide with many digressions. In a strange resonance with the previous book that I read the ambassador, Maximilian Ophuls, [why Rushdie chose for his character the name of a film director is somewhat obscure; to me at any rate] was a (Jewish) native of Alsace forced to flee, leaving the family printing business behind, after the Germans took over in 1940. He became a leading member of the French Resistance, was involved in US-French relations, emigrating to the US at the end of the war, and was appointed ambassador to India in the 1960s. This novel is not without incident.
The story arc of the book deals, though, with the relationship between Noman Sher Noman and Boonyi Kaul (both of whom, along with Max and his daughter are given sections of the book - I was going to say to themselves, but other characters pop up all the time all over the book, in typically Rushdiean profusion) and the two villages in Kashmir, Pachigam and Shirmal, where they grew up. It seems all of life is here; the picture of a community, a way of life, is detailed. The plot of the novel is almost buried at times – yet this is true of every section. And is the placid, comradely, nature of existence there before the tensions between India and Pakistan led to strife in the region a touch overplayed? Whatever, the growth of Islamic fundamentalist influence, the deterioration in the situation and the horror of communal conflict is well depicted. Neither the Pakistan backed Muslim terrorists nor the Indian Army are spared implicit criticism.
When Ophuls visits the villages Boonyi seizes her chance to escape, only to end up in a different kind of entrapment. Noman meanwhile burns for revenge. He is recruited as a terrorist and suppresses his character while training. In this context the use of his name (no man) as a signifier seemed perhaps a little trite.
A short review can only touch the surface of the myriad elements which go into a novel which, like this, tries to deal with a big issue. There has to be some kind of story on which to hang the subject matter but at times, here, the human dimension is lost in a surfeit of detail. Do we really, for example, need to know the history of the main characters’ parents? This is a trope which Rushdie has employed in previous books. (A similar trait annoyed me in Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead where, every time the author switched to a new viewpoint, we were treated to the character’s whole life story to that point, fatally interrupting the novel’s flow.) In Shalimar The Clown moreover, many passages are told rather in the style of a historical narration than a novel. I shall not reveal the true identity of Shalimar, even though it's not hard to guess.
While I could have done without the ascent into fantasy in the final section, Rushdie’s sympathies are always in the right place and, despite the various horrors the book describes, overall it is, as perhaps all fiction should be, life–enhancing. After Fury, it represents a return to form.