Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

The Rascal and the Clown

Is Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown “too much”? Or is that why it’s worth reading?

Salman Rushdie is a rascal.

The author of such epic and misunderstood works as Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses displays all the symptoms of literary Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. On the page, he refuses to sit still, his mind and pen flitting from subject to subject, inventing a logic and ethos all unto their own. In the words of legendary author and critic John Updike, Rushdie’s plots can often “proceed by verbal connection and elaboration as much as by character interaction.”

Reviewing Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown in the September 9 issue of the New Yorker, Updike bewails the fact the author has named one of his major characters Maximilian Ophuls. Max Ophuls was a well-known German actor and director (whose real surname was in fact Oppenheimer). By laying the name of a film pioneer over that of his fictional creation, Updike believes Rushdie has robbed his work of its potential power.

“Why,” he moans, “has Rushdie attached a gaudy celebrity name to a different sort of celebrity, preventing the Ambassador from coming into sharp, living focus on his own?” After exhausting and disregarding all potential links between the two Maxes, Updike concludes that the name choice reflects “characteristic Rushdie overflow.”

Flipping through Shalimar the Clown again the other day, I stumbled upon a passage where the Max in question makes a daring airborne escape from Strasbourg. After his safe landing in the bosom of a sympathetic university, a professor castigates Ophuls for choosing such an obvious pseudonym on his forged identity papers. The name Max chose was that of a fifteenth century Strasbourgeois satirist, Sebastian Brant, who is famous for writing Stultifera Navis (Ship of Fools)—also called Das Narrenschiff—in 1494. Faced with the professor’s words, Max Ophuls has no choice but to “spread his hands apologetically: yes, it was true, he had made an idiotic choice.”

There it is, imbedded in the text, as though Rushdie were waiting for Updike to scold him in a similar fashion. But why? Just so he could later point out, as he did recently in New York, that “I'm sure there's a pedophile in Iowa called John Updike”? Why doesn’t Rushdie understand when enough self-reflexive trickery is enough?

You could ask the same about a great deal that finds its way into Rushdie’s fiction. Like the works that have preceded it, Shalimar the Clown teems with tangents, anecdotes, jokes, literary allusions, thinly veiled jokes and facts piled on facts. This is the crux of Updike’s critique. Updike is a craftsman who has polished his art by writing short fiction. He’s disciplined, Rushdie isn’t. The short stories in East, West, Rushdie’s lone stab at the form, prove he’s uncomfortable without the elbow room the novel provides.

Rushdie likes to joke and play, and the anti-authoritarian game isn’t fun unless none are spared. Midnight’s Children played with the national narrative of his native India, recasting it as a tale of denial—the original pluralist dream born on the midnight of independence dissolves under Indira Gandhi’s “Emergency,” as the magical children born at the stroke are robbed of their powers.

The Satanic Versesplayed the same audacious games with the history of Islam. Refusing to accept that Mohammed’s recitations somehow took place outside of history, Rushdie playfully riffed on the moment of contact between the prophet and the angel Gabriel. As he did so, the source of Muslim doctrine was suddenly corrupted with questions about who Mohammed was, what he wanted and why humans submit to the idea of a singular truth. Later in the novel, Rushdie caricatured extreme and paternalistic interpretations of Islam through the character of Imam, who hides from the bustling, sick and decadent streets of London and, later, in a dream, devours his followers in an apocalyptic orgasm of monomaniacal gluttony. Many readers found it all too much—there were so many voices that the central plot seemed overwhelmed.

Rushdie has always argued the role of the novel was to pursue a secular sublime. In an essay titled “Is Nothing Sacred?” he writes, “Whereas religion seeks to privilege one language above all others, one set of values above all others, one text above all others, the novel has always been about the way in which different languages, values and narratives quarrel, and about the shifting relations between them, which are relations of power.”

Shalimar the Clownsucceeds because it portrays the division and destruction of the Kashmir Valley as the fall of man. In so doing, it serves as a hymn to “too muchness,” to excessive play.

From the moment advanced proofs went into circulation, critics have been quick to point out that Shalimar is about a terrorist act. The first section of the novel describes the assassination of American counterterrorism chief Max Ophuls at the hands of his valet, Shalimar the Clown, a Kashmiri who once fought with Pakistani forces and a former mujahedeen. The reader’s expectations are thus set up, only to be knocked down in the book’s next section. Shalimar, we soon learn, was once a young lover in paradise—the gorgeous, mountain village of Pashigam. Shalimar is a magnetically handsome tightrope-walking clown, the inheritor of a rich theatrical tradition who, as a young man, falls under the spell of Boonyi, the daughter of the local pandit.

Shalimar and Boonyi’s passionate young love becomes a metonymic stand-in for all that is precious in the Kashmiri region: its aesthetic majesty, its pluralistic ethos. When Shalimar and Boonyi’s affair comes to the attention of those who object to the unsanctioned sexual union of a Muslim and a Hindu, the boy’s father, Abdullah Noman, invokes the notion of kashmiriyat, “the belief that at the heart of Kashmiri culture there [is] a bond that transcend[s] all other differences.” As long as the children are bound together by love, the region remains free of internal divisions and folk tradition remains vigorous and intact.

But the bonds ultimately break. Young Boonyi begins to feel trapped. When the liberal but tragically red-blooded American ambassador arrives, Boonyi senses an opportunity and offers him her body in exchange for escape. With that, chaos and division are loosed upon the world: a line of control cleaves the region. As the Pachigam band plays its final performance, Shalimar’s father, Abdullah, imagines that the sound of their performance is wholly drowned out by the “the noises of troop transports, Jeeps and tanks, of booted feet marching in step.” As their once-pristine environment is despoiled, the entire notion of the Kashmiriyat begins to pull apart. When Boonyi returns, Shalimar cannot stop himself from killing her. Then he sets out to murder the ambassador and the grown-up child of Boonyi’s sin.

Yes, Rushdie is guilty of Updike’s charge of “verbal hyperactivity.” Yes, it often seems that his plots proceed “by verbal connection and elaboration as much as by character interaction.” But it’s not entirely necessary to see this as a bad thing. Rushdie has always worked to forge a literary aesthetic specific to his theme. This aesthetic is based on the notion that any art seeking to celebrate the pluralistic and explode the monochromatic must, by necessity, teem with voices and ideas.

Updike might think Rushdie’s writing “stultifying,” but I find it sublime. The effort reflects a desire to let in as much as possible, to hold together that which has lost cohesion. This is, in a sense, a desire to reflect the lost innocence of the village of Pachigam at the level of the written word. When, on occasion, he seems to have done too much, I excuse him. When he pulls it off, I stand and applaud.

Rushdie is a rascal. He won’t play by the rules. Yes, the self-conscious reference to his use of Max Ophuls’s name represents the postmodern ethos at its most cloying, but to focus on this one issue is to overlook that, with Shalimar the Clown, Rushdie has written a structurally focussed and beautiful novel. The rascal has made his play sublimely moving.

Paul Matthews is a Toronto-based writer currently interning at Saturday Night magazine.