||Clowning about the Big Picture
by Michael Harris
Salman Rushdie's new novel falls under the ties-that-bind rubric. Set in Kashmir and the United States, Shalimar the Clown is about the connections we presume exist within families, and those other, mysterious and invisible connections, that link us to strangers.
Much has been made, for example, of Rushdie's character Max Ophnls, and the fact that he shares a name with the real-life Ophnls, a film director (Letter from an Unknown Woman, Liebelei). The critics are worried: What profound connection are we meant to divine?
John Updike, in his New Yorker review of the novel, begins by wailing "Why, oh why . . . ", then moans on about the mysterious connection for a hundred words before concluding that "the two have no connection save the name and a peripatetic life." Meanwhile, the slightly more industrious Annabel Lyon argued in the Globe & Mail that, indeed, the fictional Ophnls and his historical counterpart do overlay one another: both are Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany; both spend large portions of their lives in California and France; plus (Lyon misses this one), both have children who grow up to become documentary filmmakers.
The rub, one suspects, comes of our struggle to make connections between seemingly disparate souls. Yet the saving grace in Rushdie's politically vehement and volatile world (and the saving grace in his fiction and his lived experience) must be our capacity for crossing borders, for breaking taboos, for unabashedly marrying contrary, incompatible characters.
And so it comes to pass that a pair of star-crossed lovers-the Muslim Shalimar the Clown and his moxie-fueled Hindu girlfriend Boonyi-wrestle with the political forces that plague their homeland, Kashmir. Rushdie's stomach-turning description of the destruction of Kashmir at the hands of the Indian army and Islamic separatists is worth the read alone.
At first, though, it's all rainbows and puppy dogs: "There is no Hindu-Muslim issue," declares Abdullah at a court case (the couple's love has been discovered and the community must respond to their unorthodox attachment). "Two Kashmiri-two Pachigami-youngsters wish to marry, that's all. A love match is acceptable to both families and so a marriage there will be; both Hindu and Muslim customs will be observed." Nearby, a man named Pyarelal chirps helpfully, "To defend their love is to defend what is finest in ourselves." General rejoicing ensues.
But this is not really Kashmir; this is Rushdie-land, so we know that muck and turmoil lies beneath their good intentions.
Busy with her own storyline in America, a young woman named India, daughter of the aforementioned troublesome character Max Ophnls, has a witch of a landlady whom Rushdie employs as a truth-teller. This landlady-an American immigrant, far from home and now at sea in a world of California condos-views life as a web of connections, for better or worse, and insists that we all spend the larger part of our lives navigating that web's precarious strands. "I live today neither in this world nor the last," she tells India. "Also I would add neither in this world nor the next . . . Between yesterday and tomorrow, in the country of lost happiness and peace, the place of mislaid calm. This is our fate." So much for happy cross-cultural relations.
When Shalimar and Boonyi, still adolescents, explore sex, it results in a shocking exclamation from the future clown: "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." A sweet talker he is not. Shalimar's passion, equally divided between erotic lust and a desire for cold-hearted revenge, easily serves as a model for the macro-political strife of the world around him. To this degree, Rushdie's latest offering comes off a little pat. We know that the personal and political cannot be separated. We know that global affairs effect the smallest of human interactions. But to use humans as metaphors for political positions, can sometimes deny those characters the complexity of their humanity.
People are not countries. As geo-political wrangling bring the affairs of nations increasingly in conflict with each other, it does not necessarily follow that everyone's life has become an exponent of some global chess game. But for Rushdie (and, presumably, anyone else living under a fatwa) dividing politics from the personal does not come so easily. "Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else," writes Rushdie. America and Kashmir, in the booming global village of the 1960s, collide so that neither place is its own anymore. Rushdie's two primary storylines-one in America where India and her father play out a murder-mystery and one in Kashmir where political strife batters the love of Shalimar and Boonyi-are intimately, but secretively entwined. These storylines dance against each other like the curves of a double-helix, obviously in sync but never touching-until, of course, Rushdie pulls the rope and raises the curtain.
And speaking of curtains, the circus life from which the title of Shalimar the Clown is derived, plays no little role in this encyclopaedic, rhapsodic drama. Is there a better stage for drawing the big picture than a circus, where the wonders of the world parade through a single, audience-stacked tent?
The clown is an important character in historical drama. Clowns import far more than a painted face and oversized shoes. Clowns are cultural misfits; they are the gadflies who, through satire and jest, are able to stab at hypocrisies no one else can reach. Some say this serious form of clowning is making a comeback. Is Rushdie himself playing the clown here? The shoe fits.
As the novel gains momentum and loose strands of narrative begin to coalesce, Rushdie's clown is revealed to be more than just a destabiliser. He is also, in a roundabout, unlikely way, the consoler.