Author: Salman Rushdie
Details: (c) Salman Rushdie 2005; Pub Vintage 2006; ISBN 0-099-42188-7
Verdict: Shalimar the clown is powerfully written but depressing.
Reasons for reading it: I'm a big fan of Rushdie anyway, and this book got some good press when it came out.
How it came into my hands: Useful Cambridge charity shops. And it turns out the copy I picked up is signed, which isn't a big deal, but rather pleasing to have a book signed by an author I so admire.
I was going to describe Shalimar the clown as a tragedy, since the out of chronological order in which the story is told makes every pleasant thing that happens a foreshadowing of the depressing outcome. But then I read this post of truepenny's and decided it's actually almost a revenge tragedy. The personal tragedy of the murder of Max Ophuls which opens the book, and all the other deaths of everyone connected to Shalimar, is intertwined very skillfully with the political tragedy of the destruction of the paradise of Kashmir as it becomes caught up in the power struggle between India and Pakistan. The characterization is absolutely beautiful, and the book as a whole is almost unbearably poignant.
The narrative voice seems to refrain from judging any of the characters; it's a book about people who do any number of terrible things from infidelity to genocide, yet everybody is portrayed with such sympathy that you feel as if you can almost understand their motivations. Even the bellicose, ludicrous General Kachhwaha seems like a real person, not just a personification of why war is evil. At the same time, the book is absolutely relentless in conveying the human suffering that results from military repression and terrorism.
So it's an extremely painful book to read, however much the skill is admirable. In some ways it feels similar in tone to Midnight's children, though the magic realism / surreality is a more minor note and I found the book as a whole much more comprehensible. And there's all kinds of clever stories within stories and playing with Hindu mythology and allusions (I'm sure I'm missing most of them) and various plot arcs connected to make a multi-faceted whole. There's even a little bit of Holocaust stuff, with the death of Ophuls' parents in Nazi occupied France. I'm not quite sure whether that section enhances the book or not; perhaps it is meant to connect the distant, almost "exotic" tragedy of Kashmir with something more familiar and resonant for a European audience? The ending manages to be satisfying, even cathartic, in spite of the devastation portrayed (which it doesn't try to redeem with false optimism).
I think StC comes close to being the literary equivalent of Guernica, acutally. The prose is incredibly effective, often sexy, and there's all this skill to build up a picture of emotional, visceral horror.
While I'm on the subject, can somebody explain to me why the media (not just the mainstream US media, but most of the world media that's on my radar, and most of the so-called independent media and blogs) is devoting so much verbiage to gosspping about the Palin family soap opera, and paying almost no attention to the sudden upswing in American military action in Pakistan? Priorities!