Author: Salman Rushdie
Publishing Date: 2006
Number of Pages: 649 pages
Genre: Mystery, Historical
Los Angeles, 1991. Maximilian Ophuls is knifed to death on the doorstep of his illegitimate daughter India, slaughtered by his Kashmiri driver, a mysterious figure who calls himself Shalimar the Clown. The dead man is a World War II Resistance hero, a man of formidable intellectual ability and much erotic appeal, a former United States ambassador to India, and subsequently America’s counter-terrorism chief. The murder looks at first like a political assassination but turns out to be passionately personal.
This is the story of Max, his killer, and his daughter – and of a fourth character, the woman who links them all. The story of a deep love gone fatally wrong, destroyed by a shallow affair, it is an epic narrative that moves from California to France, England, and above all, Kashmir: a ruined paradise, not so much lost as smashed.
Salman Rushdie is one of the most recommended authors. I have encountered a lot of his books on his most must-read-books. Some of these books are Satanic Verses, The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and Midnight’s Children. I have already read The Ground Beneath Her Feet and it made a positive impression on me that I made a resolve to read his other works. So here I am, doing a review for Shalimar the Clown.
The book is divided in five parts. The first part is set in Los Angeles where India Ophuls, Max Ophuls’ daughter was celebrating her birthday. Unfortunately, her father was gruesomely murdered on his way to meeting her. The first part is an elaborate narrative about the present and the persons involved in the story. The murderer is identified but his motives were unclear. Then everything starts shaping up.
From Los Angeles, the setting is moved to the other side of the world, in Pachigam, Kashmir, India where the love story of Bhoomi Kaul and Noman Sher Noman blossomed, only to be ruined by Bhoomi’s grand ambitions. From Kashmir, the reader is transported yet again to another place, in another era. The third part of the book opened in the Pre-War France where Max Ophuls began his ascent to a storied career as a soldier. The story then returns to Kashmir before finally concluding in present-day Los Angeles.
In the book, there are quite a few things that stood out for me. The first thing that stood out the most is Salman Rushdie’s incomparable writing skills. In the second part of the story, when it moved from LA to Pachigam, Rushdie showcased the entire extent of his writing repertoire, intricately painting a wonderful picture of Pachigam, and of Kashmir. Through his words, I felt like I was in Kashmir, bathing in its streams, scaling its mountains, and breathing its air. Please note that Pachigam is just a fictional place.
To give everyone a background, Kashmir is part of Jammu and Kashmir state in India which is being disputed by Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Rushdie created a powerful background story about the place which really got me hooked up. I nearly forgot about what the real story is. Salman Rushdie has that uncanny skill for describing that I fell in love with Kashmir valley although I’ve never been there. The way Rushdie painted an image of Kashmir is somehow reminiscent of how Khaled Hosseini painted a great picture of Afghanistan, taking both the good and the bad side. This is one aspect of the novel that worked.
The second thing that characterized the book are the numerous conflicts and wars that abound from the start until the end of the story. Among the numerous conflicts in the story are the conflicts between Max Ophuls and Shalimar the Clown, India Ophuls and the heritage of her name, Max Ophuls and her first wife, Bhoomi Kaul and Noman Sher Noman, Bhoomi Kaul and her father, Noman Sher Noman and his father and father-in-law. Then there are the wars. First, there’s the war between the Muslims and Hindus which is colorfully described in the parts about Kashmir. Then there’s the Second World War where Max Ophuls began his long journey to becoming a counter-terrorism czar.
One of the most ironic things in the book is that Shalimar trained with terrorists while Max Ophuls got assigned as United States’ counter-terrorism chief. But in the end, it was the “terrorist” who got the “counter-terrorist”. What goes up must come down they say. Shalimar even trained with Filipino terrorists in the South Philippines. By describing the roots of the Filipino insurgent group, one can just marvel at the extent of research that Rushdie did in order to write this book. His grasp of the details is simply impeccable.
Aside from the conflicts and wars, one thing that characterized the book is death. From the synopsis alone one would grasp that it is about a death. But Max Ophuls’s murder is just a foreshadowing as all over the book are numerous deaths. The characters didn’t just die simply, most had to endure horrible deaths. A shining example would be Bhoomi Kaul who was beheaded by no less than her husband.
Lastly, the book leaves you hanging as it didn’t properly conclude. The reader is left to picture how it ended. Will Shalimar the Clown fulfill what he has began or will fate intercede? That would be something you have to think about at the end of t story.
Shalimar the Clown, in spite the labyrinthine narrative that Salman Rushdie weaved, is simply a dark book about conflicts, wars, death and ultimately, revenge. What’s ironic is that the motives for these conflicts were mostly shallow. It is not for the faint of heart but somehow Rushdie’s enormous talent made him temper the violence by countering it with a great picture of Kashmir.
Rushdie, as I’ve previously mentioned, painted a great picture of Kashmir that made me want to go there and explore. However, when one magnifies the story, it didn’t seem to work out. The story is mostly centered on the characters and their backstories. It’s not really a bad thing but it made muddled the story too many details competing with the book’s theme. Nonetheless, it is a great book for one who indulges in history and places.
Overall, the book worked for me only because of Rushdie’s knack for painting a great picture of place through words and his ability to transport the readers to where he wants them to be. Secondly, there a substantial amount of history in his works. As much as I liked the picture of Kashmir, I also enjoyed learning about its history. Lastly, the cultural aspect also astounded me. As much as I enjoy history, I also love learning about a place’s culture.
About the Author
Sir Ahmad Salman Rushdie is a British Indian novelist and essayist renowned for his works which are mostly set on the Indian subcontinent. Combining magical realism and historical fiction, he was able to write major award-winning works.
Among the accolades he received is for his second novel, Midnight’s Children which won the the 1981 Booker Prize and was later adjudged as the “Booker of Bookers”. He also won the European Union’s Aristeion Prize for Literature for The Moor’s Last Sigh.