Thursday, 5 October 2006

Shalimar the Clown bookcover; Jonathan CapeReview: Shalimar the Clown: A Novel, Salman Rushdie (2005)

This book starts slowly, as if the importance of the subject in the author's mind was a burden, making his imagination clumsy and his wit slow. It only really gets going around page 100 when Boonyi tells the Tortoise to fuck off.

There's something of the children's adventure story about the Kashmiri episodes: a multicultural Eden surrounded by the strains of thunder, the roar of fighter jets and the sterility of realpolitik. That old, neat-o magical realism kicks in, I suppose. But the cosiness that characterises the episode that opens the book — California circa 1990 — also seeps into Kashmir circa 1960.

Strasbourg circa 1940 is an entirely different place. Stuff happens, and some of it is pretty ugly. I wonder how many of the historically myopic Iranian mullahs will read this book and choke on their ugly pronouncements. Rushdie clearly has these people, like Iranian President Ahmadinejad, in his sights.

How much does Rushdie hate them, the people who have screwed him over since 1989? Going by the evidence in this book, he's still got some things to say about fundamentalism and those who practice it. There are some very unpleasant people in there.

He found a bottle of cognac that had somehow been spared. It lay unbroken in a corner next to a chaise between blowing curtains. He pulled out the cork and drank. Time passed. No, it did not pass. Time stood still. Beauty passed, love passed, bloody-mindedness and mulishness passed. Time stood still with its hands up. Stubborn bastards faded away.

The character of Shalimar is slightly confounding, as he starts out as a love-sick adolescent pining for the favours of his heart's desire. But Kashmir loses its innocence, and when Boonyi suddenly decides to change her trajectory, Shalimar the clown is shattered. Like a stubborn child, he lashes out at the world and his subsequent actions jar heavily when the novel moves from Asia to the more parochial surrounds of California, where the final chapters play out. Notions of honour that are valued as noble and right in Kashmir suddenly look distinctly low-rent when they are transmuted into crime amid the moral tonalities of the West.

Boonyi is a Promethean figure who aims higher than those around her, those who are simply not up to her standards. Her subsequent decline and fall seem symptomatic of a culture wherein women are perpetually relegated to second-class status.

Innocence is lost and all hell breaks loose, in this massive creation of one man's busy mind. Watching from the wings we sense that things in the region that have gone badly for so long are likely to continue to go badly for some time yet. Even in the hearts of innocent young men, age-old prejudices and constraints are so deeply ingrained that we can imagine change happening only after successive shocks to the entire fabric of society.

My Pakistani workmate said to me the other day that if you say to a Pakistani that he is a 'bastard' he'll try to kill you. But if you say he is a cheat, he'll just say: 'isn't everyone?' The opposite holds true in Australia.


R H said...

Dean, you're right. As someone in the business, I can testify that a lot of people collect antiques here, but only because it's the 'done thing'. They do actually dislike them.

Dean said...

You mean in Japan? When you say 'here' I presume you mean in Japan.

R H said...

Australia is where I mean. I made that comment in response to a sarcastic remark made to you elsewhere. I don't know the situation in Japan, but after nine years there you'd know what you're talking about. So I accept your view that the Japanese don't value their past as much as they should. And nor do we, but we have far less to value. I'm surprised by the whole thing, it seems the antique racket is no good way to make dough in Japan. It does good business here, but a lot of it is just vogue, not a true regard for history at all.

Dean said...

I love old Japanese pottery. I bought a pickle jar, or 'tsubo', when I lived there, after I had split from my family and before going into hospital. I paid I think six thousand yen for it. I also bought an old cupboard. When my wife came to empty out my apartment, because I was still in the ward, she threw away these lovely things without a second thought. I'd spent hours sanding back the varnish from the cupboard, too. It's such a shame. They have lots of old stuff, but like everything else there it just gets chucked out with the garbage.