It circumnavigates the globe and the last half of the 20th century like a hyperactive satellite, but Salman Rushdie's rich and restless new novel, "Shalimar the Clown" (Random House) has an ominous stillness at its center. Its title character is a dangerous cipher. We are supposed to believe that he is driven to homicidal monomania by romantic betrayal, but the heart of this Muslim Kashmiri is opaque.
"Shalimar the Clown" makes vivid stopovers in 1990s Los Angeles and resistance-era France, but the novel's true home is the gorgeous, viciously contested land of Kashmir. Squeezed between India and Pakistan as if in a vise, Kashmir is a terrestrial paradise when the novel begins, shortly after the 1947 Indian partition.
In the actors' village Pachigam, Shalimar's home, Hindus and Muslims live as affectionate neighbors, "not connected by blood or faith," Rushdie writes, but by the "deeper ties" of their shared land and history: "The words Hindu and Muslim had no place in their story. ... The frontiers between the words, their hard edges, had grown smudged and blurred. This was how things had to be. This was Kashmir."
In harmoniously multicultural Pachigam, Shalimar, a daring young tightrope walker, falls in love with Boonyi Kaul. He is Muslim, she Hindu; he is sweet, she reckless. Yet on the night they become lovers, Shalimar voices a strange pledge for such a gentle boy: to murder her if she ever leaves him. "You say the sweetest things," Boonyi replies. By the time they are married in a succession of festive Hindu and Muslim weddings, however, Boonyi has had an attack of claustrophobia. Her "ravenous longing for something she could not yet name," Rushdie writes, sets the wheels in motion toward the realization that Shalimar has been dead serious.
Enter Max Ophuls, naturalized American turned ambassador to India. Max reaches India as U.S. ambassador in the mid-1960s after stints in England and New York, trailing myths and legends behind him. An inveterate womanizer, Max catches an intoxicating glimpse of Boonyi and spirits her away to install her in India as his mistress. This earns him, Boonyi, and the child they eventually bear Shalimar's silent vow of vengeance and launches the spurned Kashmiri's career as a jihadist.
The most puzzling aspect of Rushdie's novel is Shalimar himself: How does this sweet-natured clown become a killer? The metamorphosis occurs off-stage while the novel tells of Max's history and Boonyi's fall from grace. When the story returns to Pachigam, Shalimar is unrecognizable. How heavily do personal and political motivations weigh in the making of a terrorist? These are mysteries the novel gives life to, but wisely declines to solve.
- Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She blogs about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.