From L.A. to Kashmir: A world gone mad

Salman Rushdie's latest is bold, noisy, and full of fury. His fans will be thrilled.

As Kashmir collapses into chaos, one beleaguered onlooker croaks, "We are no longer protagonists, only agonists." That bit of dialogue says much about Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie's new novel, a devastating if at times heavy-handed examination of a doomed love and doomed region.

Mr. Rushdie embraces big themes, endless allusions and puns, folklore, and anything else handy in his estimable arsenal while exploring everyone and everything from Clytemnestra and the Koran to Bretton Woods and Bugatti.

His style conjures up a blazing rock group, say, The Who, rather than contemporary novelists. Both eschew subtlety and display bold, powerful, noisy dexterity. Both are also prone to surfeits of ambition and look-at-me brio.

Verbal virtuosity never deserted Rushdie, but his latest work must be considered redemption after the tin ear displayed in his meditation on millennial New York, 2001's "Fury."

Released just as 9/11 arrived, it left behind the author's famed global pulse-taking in favor of middle-age rage, prompting worries of fecund fictions replaced by flaccid fame-mongering.

But reports of Rushdie's flickering flame, happy to say, were exaggerated.

"Shalimar the Clown" isn't a story. Rather, as the movie people describe such segments, it is back story.

Rushdie's cinematic tale begins where all movies begin: in Los Angeles. Max Ophuls, an octogenarian and legendary American ambassador, dies in a pool of blood below his illegitimate daughter's apartment, victim of assassination at the hands of his Kashmiri driver.

Everything else explains how Ophuls, his daughter India, and the assassin, Shalimar the Clown, converge in 1990s Los Angeles. Everything else consists, above all, of Kashmir.

That is where the former US ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, first spies Boonyi Kaul, the young, hip-swiveling Hindu wife of a Muslim high-wire performer known as Shalimar the Clown. Ophuls, a serial adulterer, strikes a bargain with Boonyi, exchanging her body for material excess, a city apartment, and dance lessons.

Her husband, now in the role of Shalimar the Cuckold, writes desperate letters to Boonyi, hoping her dancing days in Delhi don't signal the obvious abandonment - but of course they do.

Just as the ambassador prepares to dump the drug- and food-addicted, bloated Boonyi, she, much like India and Pakistan, goes nuclear, announcing, "I'm pregnant."

In the Kashmiri village where Shalimar waits in vain, the pandits declare Boonyi dead. Ophuls loses his ambassadorship.

And his chilly wife, a woman known as the "Grey Rat" in Britain during World War II, snatches Boonyi's baby girl days after birth, absconding to Europe with an adopted daughter who she rechristens as India.

All of which stokes a poisoned fury in Shalimar, sending him into the arms of nascent terrorists while vowing murderous revenge on the illicit lovers and their child.

Here the author dispenses with dispassionate third-person narration.

Even as he introduces the militant mullah, the mad military leader, and the rest of his motley wrecking crew - the Indian and Pakistani armies, the quickly quashed Kashmiri nationalists, and the legions of alphabet-soup liberation fronts and resistance groups - Rushdie can't keep his cool.

Crackdowns, beatings, humiliation: All the atrocities familiar to any reader of Abu Ghraib dispatches gain forceful momentum in the smaller-scale literary landscape created here.

Then, as Rushdie draws his lens wider, he condemns the Islamic fundamentalists fueled by Pakistani and Afghan and C.I.A. money and Allah knows what else, as well as the Indian Army on hand as ostensible protectors. Malign neglect runs rampant whenever open hatred and suppression take brief hiatus.

"There were six hundred thousand Indian troops in Kashmir but the pogrom of the pandits was not prevented, why was that," Rushdie writes, launching into a diatribe worthy of a UN field report. Cataloging rotting bodies, leaky tents, dengue fever, tuberculosis, and all the rest, Rushdie dissolves into outraged sobs: "why was that why was that why was that why was that why was that."

It would be easy to quibble with the messiness of "Shalimar the Clown" and all that Rushdie attempts to squeeze into 400 pages of prose and polemic.

Much like Robin Williams, Rushdie cannot help himself: a frenzied torrent of ideas, scenes, and observations spill onto every page, leaving the reader either exhausted and exasperated or dizzy and delighted.

Early in the novel, an unwitting description of Rushdie's approach appears: "Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another's, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people. There were collisions and explosions. The world was no longer calm."

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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