Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
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"Shalimar the Clown" by Salman Rushdie; Random House ($25.95)
After two rambling novels ("The Ground Beneath Her Feet," "Fury") in which he got two infatuations (rock `n' roll, pre- 9/11 New York City) out of his system, Salman Rushdie has snapped back into shape and delivered the strongest, tautest novel of his career.
"Shalimar the Clown" is a masterpiece - a beautiful, painful, terrifying book, both fantastical and harshly realistic, filled with complex and memorable characters, and completely unpredictable in its blend of political thriller, folktale, melodrama, reportage and even science fiction.
Its humor moves from gentle to cruel, as Rushdie portrays Kashmiri village rivalries with a wry, light touch, then moves on to Indian army agendas as surreal and lethal as anything out of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." ("If we get protected by this army for much longer," one character complains, "we're going to be ruined for good.")
The book is topical in its focus on how countries can go from bickering tolerance to violent ethnic conflict within a generation. Yet it's rooted in myth as well - or in telltale distortions of myth, as Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and the Indian epic "The Ramayana" are turned inside out by Rushdie.
The wide-ranging settings - Los Angeles, New Delhi, World War II Strasbourg, strife-torn Kashmir - are impeccably rendered. Best of all, Rushdie is working with a disciplined plot, a story of love and revenge that lets him show off all his talents for wordplay and imaginative flight without ever lapsing into self-indulgence.
The action opens in 1989 Los Angeles with a killing that at first seems purely political. Veteran American ambassador and one-time French-Jewish World War II Resistance hero Max Ophuls (Rushdie's borrowing the name from the famous film director is the novel's one false step) has been murdered by his Kashmiri chauffeur, Shalimar, a Muslim professional assassin who somehow slipped through the ambassador's security net.
Max's 24-year-old daughter is knocked sideways by his murder. But it will take close to 300 pages before she begins to understand the real story behind her charming, philandering father's death and the truth of her own identity. In the meantime, the reader is whisked into the world of early 1960s Kashmir, a place where, some believe, the words "Hindu" and "Muslim" are "merely descriptions, not divisions."
In the village of Pachigam, two 14-year-olds, Hindu dancer Boonyi and Muslim "comedian of the high-wire" Shalimar, fall for each other. After much fuss and negotiation, the village rallies behind their marriage. But Boonyi, by the time she's 18, is hungry for the outside world. When she sees her chance to escape Pachigam, she takes it - and, in doing so, brings down disaster on the couple's families.
While the families try to take this in stride, implacable political forces gather against Kashmir, as India and Pakistan vie for control of the region. Between the Indian army and Pakistan-backed Muslim insurgents, poor Kashmir becomes a living hell. And the book, dedicated to Rushdie's Kashmiri grandparents, becomes a loving tribute to how ordinary Muslim and Hindu villagers endured or were destroyed by that hell.
Rushdie comes at his characters and their political factions from all angles.
Take Strasbourg-born Max, whose loss of his home and family to Nazi terror led him to become an eloquent defender of human rights and dignities. Yet at key points in the novel, he's the villain of the piece-for what sort of man in his 50s takes up with another man's 18-year-old wife?
Shalimar himself is a complex piece of work: beautiful in both his youth and later years, a gifted comic performer, yet someone who is "young enough to be prepared to erase himself in a cause" after Boonyi and Max have done their damage to him.
The book's minor characters - Shalimar's parents, Boonyi's friends - are as vivid as its main players. And even its most ominous figures capture your imagination. A literally "iron mullah," for instance, who directs terrorist attacks from the icy Himalayas. Or an increasingly ruthless Indian army colonel whose senses grow scrambled under battlefield pressures: "He saw sounds nowadays. He heard colors."
Rushdie has, of course, stood in the cross hairs of the fanatic mind-set, after his novel "The Satanic Verses" earned him a death sentence from Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini.
Yet the powerful feelings energizing the novel are anything but partisan. Instead they are, at their most explicit, a more general indictment of "an age of interminable slaughter, a primitive age in which hard-won ideas, the sovereignty of the individual, the sanctity of life, were dying beneath the piles of bodies, buried beneath the lies of warlords and priests."
There's an undeniable despair driving the plot of "Shalimar the Clown." But there's a spirit of resilience in it, too, even as it tells us more than we may want to know about how "true believers, those nightmarish dreamers" are created.
(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.