Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown

I do a fair bit of reading while riding the ferry to town in the morning and back home in the evening, even carrying a small light in my bag against the dark of winter nights and unlit ferries. Indeed, I almost always have a book with me for those inevitable moments waiting, those in-between minutes that add up to a potential chapter or two -- visiting a different time or place or character or worldview wards off impatience enjoyably, even productively. But what invites impatience are the inevitable questions and comments by those who are not so prepared to entertain themselves, those who clearly intend me to help them pass the time, who seem to see that as my responsibility. They ask questions such as "What are you reading?" and "Is that a good book?" and make comments such as "I used to read a lot, but I just don't have time anymore" (to which I darkly mutter inside my head, "you might if you'd only stop using it to pester me!")

Subjected to these questions and comments a few weeks ago while reading Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, I struggled more than usual with a response. This is definitely a "good" book, but it's a commitment. Or should that be "and it's a commitment" -- there shouldn't be a contradiction between a "good" book requiring work. Nor should a "good" book need to be "relatable" -- to use that horrid word that my students rely on far too much. Certainly, there were no characters that I could easily relate to in Shalimar. Rushdie's too-clever-by-half writing can sketch amusing or fascinating or compelling or grotesque or stunning or pathetic characters, but I've never felt particularly moved by any one of them. His plots, similarly, generally exhaust rather than intrigue me. He pulls together cultural and historical references on an encyclopedic, global scale that daunts rather than challenges -- arcane comic books jumbled together with descriptions of centuries-old Mughal paintings overlaying pop music from the 50s and 60s side-by-side with early cinema pastiched with real-and-apocryphal political figures and intrigues.

And he breaks down the walls between East and West that we didn't even realize were so firmly constructed in our mental armatures, obliquely ridicules the distinctions we've made between cultures, retells histories from perspectives that we acknowledge, grudgingly perhaps, make as much sense as those we learned in school. . .

Faith and love, heroism, terrorism, the various causes for which we (whoever we might be) fight. . . and somehow, steadfastness . . . I don't know, really, why that should be the word that floats to mind as I try to reduce this novel to a silly brief review, but it does. The word never occurred to me while I was reading the book, but it's there now. . . and perhaps you will concur when you read of two fathers, especially, and their daughters. What deserves this steadfastness? Why is it honourable in some cases and tragically foolish in others? How can it sit alongside compassion so impressively when its near-cousin, faith, obsessively distorts itself too often into hatred and destruction?

A few superficial comments, too many unanswered questions . . . my response to this book isn't much better than those questions and comments directed at my ferry-reading, is it? And if you haven't yet read Rushdie, I doubt I'll draw you to his challenging pages. But to give you an idea of what you're missing, of the stylistic power he wields, the witnessing he insists on, here's a passage that describes a once-beautiful Kashmiri village, Pachigam, caught up in military-political-religious struggle despite the villagers' best attempts to get along with those not of their faith:
Who lit that fire? Who burned that orchard? Who shot those brothers who laughed their whole lives long? Who killed the sarpanch? Who broke his hands? Who broke his arms? Who broke his ancient neck? Who shackled those men? Who made those men disappear? Who shot those boys? Who shot those girls? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? Who smashed that house? Who killed that youth? Who clubbed that grandmother? Who knifed that aunt? Who broke that old man's nose? Who broke that young girl's heart? Who killed that lover? Who shot his fiancée? Who burned the costumes? Who broke the swords? Who burned the library? Who burned the saffron field? Who slaughtered the animals? Who burned the beehives? Who poisoned the paddies? Who killed the children? Who whipped the parents? Who raped that lazy-eyed woman? Who raped that grey-haired lazy-eyed woman as she screamed about snake vengeance? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that woman again? Who raped that dead woman? Who raped that dead woman again?

Relatable? Thank God, not really. A "good" book? Not if you mean an easily-consumable page-turner. Worth the time it took me to read? Worth the disturbance?

I think so. Let me know if you do. . .


  1. I haven't read Rushdie in a while - I loved his earlier work (Shame and Midnight's Children in particular) but got a little overwhelmed/exhausted with the last one I started. Shalimar sounds as though it's closer to his earlier work in some ways - would you agree? If so, it will go on my list for sure.

    And I laughed when you were complaining about people asking you about your reading. Spouse always asks (as we're both reading in bed) 'What's your book about?', 'Is it good?'. He doesn't read much fiction, so I guess the 'about' question makes sense to him but it drives me nuts.

  2. In retrospect, it's so hard to see how he managed Shame, cramming so much into a slimmer novel than any of the following ones. Both it and MC I've read a few times (as with SV) and written about a bit, and I haven't reached that closeness with any of the others, but I loved The Moor's Last Sigh, and much of The Enchantress . . . He always stuns me with style and intimidates and overwhelms me with an always-politicized historicized, encyclopedic, apocryphal landscape! (How's that for an evaluation?!)

    And if we had a dollar for every time we readers were asked that "What's your book about?" -- we'd have even bigger libraries and the library ladders we all secretly crave, no?