Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Shalimar the Clown - Salman Rushdie

Read: September 2005

Shalimar the Clown in one tweet sized chunk:
At its best Shalimar the Clown is a stunning feet of literary wizardry, but too often becomes lost in strange and complex sub-plot.

When former American ambassador and counter terrorism chief Maximillian Ophuls is murdered by his chauffeur, a man known only as Shalimar the Clown, it appears at first glance to be an act of international terrorism. But as we delve back into the past, it becomes clear that this is actually a deeply personal crime, committed in revenge for a shallow affair in a far off land, many years ago.

Shalimar the Clown has all the elements you expect from a Rushdie novel. It is a globetrotting, high-wire balancing, historically astute, passionately personal, effervescently written journey across the world and into the past. At its heart, it is the story of Kashmir, an earthly paradise ripped apart by powerful outside forces, and ripping itself apart with bitter internal divisions. It is the amazing story of Max Ophuls, who treats Kashmir like his private playground and eventually pays the ultimate price. But it is also the story of his killer, his illegitimate daughter, and the woman who links them all. Lives converge, names change repeatedly, love is won and lost, and wars play out to their conclusions. This is classic Rushdie terrain.

One of the things which sets him apart from his contemporaries is his ability to bring Kashmir to life, complete with its peach orchards and honey bees, its mountains and lakes, its green-eyed women and gargantuan feasts. These simple everyday experiences are imbued with a sense of wondrous excitement and romanticism. The reader can shut their eyes and believe they are right there in the middle of the action. In Midnight’s Children the abiding sense was that of smell, of all the scents that suffused the novel, and here this feat is repeated gastronomically. I read Shalimar the Clown three years ago and still the great feasts of Kashmiri tradition make my mouth water and my mind salivate.

Put simply, Rushdie is a great writer. He is somehow able to combine his colloquial, almost verbal prose, with high intellectualism and make it read like a fairytale. Kashmir could be a magical kingdom somewhere far away, the characters are kings and queens of yore, seeking fame and fortune and love even amidst their meagre real lives. At times Rushdie's prose takes my breath away.

“Time passed. No, it did not pass. Time stood still. Beauty passed, love passed, bloody-mindedness and mulishness passed. Time stood still with its hands up. Stubborn bastards faded away.”

This is one of my favourite passages from any book ever, so beautifully capturing a sense of futile loss and powerlessness in the face of overwhelming might. You can open a Rushdie novel to any page and find a story within a story to read or a phrase like this to admire.

However, that is not always a good thing. Perhaps because he can conjure vivid set-pieces at will, there is often an over-indulgence within a Rushdie novel, a need to throw in extra, flourishing touches which, charming short stories though they may be, break up the atmosphere and disrupt the overall flow of the plot. Indeed, Shalimar the Clown is far from perfect. Structured around the lives of the four main characters, there are times when the plot becomes bogged down in the intricacies of daily life. While Max Ophuls escape through occupied France is a glorious adventure culminating in a wonderfully expressive aerial departure, there are times in Kashmir which slow the pace down too much. After Max’s murder in the opening chapter, we are instantly transported back into the past, to a Kashmir which at first glance appears to have very little to do with what has happened. It is a long time before the links begin to make themselves clear. If you like vivid, slowly evolving exploration of cause and effect, then this is well worth reading. Hell, any Rushdie novel, even a mediocre one, is likely to beat the socks off most of its competition. But perhaps more than many of his other novels, this is not for those who like a fast burning plot.

As you can probably tell, Salman Rushdie is my favourite author. Since I first read The Ground Beneath Her Feet on my honeymoon in Barcelona, sitting down with a new Rushdie novel has offered a rich and enthralling literary treat. Shalimar the Clown was only the second of his books I read, and for me it is one of his least special. It has neither the focused brilliance of Midnight's Children, the accessibility of Fury, or the epic storytelling prowess of The Enchantress of Florence. It is perhaps best compared to The Satanic Verses in that, at its best it is a stunning feet of literary wizardry, but too often becomes lost in strange and complex sub-plot.

7 out of 10

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