Vintage Rushdie, in a sprawling story ripped from today’s—and, undoubtedly, tomorrow’s—headlines.
A presumably political assassination that’s in fact deeply “personal,” the separate histories of the disputed territories of Strasbourg and Kashmir, and the classical Indian epic Ramayana are all ingeniously conflated and reimagined in Rushdie’s dazzling ninth novel. It begins in 1993, when former U.S. Ambassador to India Maximilian Ophuls is murdered and nearly beheaded outside his Los Angeles home by his Muslim driver, who, the world will soon learn, is Kashmiri native Noman Sher Noman, a former traveling player and amateur acrobat known as “Shalimar the Clown.” In a masterly deployment of interconnected narratives spanning six decades, we learn of Noman’s youthful marriage to beautiful dancer “Boonyi” Kaul and her calculated dalliance with visiting diplomat Ophuls, who takes her (willingly) away, fathers her daughter and sorrowfully permits her disgraced return to Kashmir as Boonyi. Now grossly fat and guilt-ridden, she anticipates either her husband’s forgiveness or his righteous vengeance. One parallel story is an extended flashback detailing Max’s youth in war-torn Strasbourg, experiences as a Resistance hero and rise in the world of diplomacy. Other narratives recount Kashmir’s ongoing victimization by Pakistan and India (notably, stiff-necked military leader Hammirdev Kachhawa and fanatical “iron mullah” Bulbul Fakh). Rushdie introduces numerous vivid characters variously related to Noman and Boonyi and describes Noman’s training as a terrorist within an increasingly violent Kashmiri “liberation front.” The pattern of the Ramayana—which recalls a hero’s “war” waged against the “demon” who steals his beloved—is ingeniously reiterated when “Shalimar” fulfills his mission, eludes the sentence pronounced on him and confronts the woman who may or may not become his final victim. That the threat he incarnates will never go away, and we do not know our story’s ending, is unforgettably dramatized, in a magical-realist masterpiece that equals, and arguably surpasses, the achievements of Midnight’s Children, Shame and The Moor’s Last Sigh.
The Swedes won’t dare to offend Islam by giving Rushdie the Nobel Prize he deserves more than any other living writer. Injustice rules.