Rushdie’s ‘Clown’ No Laughing Matter

“Shalimar the Clown : A Novel,” by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2005).

Salman Rushdie is at Disney Hall, addressing a near-capacity audience as part of the Music Center’s 2006 Speaker Series. He has come this March 1 evening to talk about politics and art, truth and tyranny, free and forbidden speech. He has come, also, to promote his newest book.

“Shalimar the Clown” tells the story of an 80-year-old French-born Jewish American diplomat who is murdered by his Kashmiri driver. Max Ophuls (he shares the name with the early 20th century Jewish German film director) lost both parents in the Holocaust, and fought in the French Resistance during World War II. Later, he met and was seduced by Boonyi Kaul, a beautiful Kashmiri woman who happens to be the wife of a high-wire circus performer, Shalimar the Clown, who has sworn to kill any man, and the children of any man, who dares touch his wife. Together, Ophuls and Boonyi conceive a daughter, India, who is whisked away at birth and ends up living an empty, privileged life in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, a combination of suppressed sexual rage and religious pride has transformed Shalimar into a terrorist, intent on hunting down and avenging himself against Max Ophuls.

If this sounds a lot like the plot of an over-the-top Bollywood film, it’s because it is.

Like most of Rushdie’s other works, “Shalimar the Clown” is concerned with the political and cultural plight of migrants, the legacy of colonialism, the meeting points between East and West, of modernity and tradition, the role of frontiers in our lives. Los Angeles and Bombay. New York and Kashmir — it deals with the nature of memory, the role of family, the legacy of secrets. The book displays both the author’s discerning eye and gift for lyricism (“According to one report she sounded guttural … as if she were speaking Arabic. Night-Arabian, she thought, the dream-tongue of Scheherazade.”) and his inclination toward the pedestrian and the banal (“Another version described her words as science-fictional … Like Sigourney Weaver channeling a demon in ‘Ghostbusters.'”).

Like most of his other works, “Shalimar the Clown” gives the impression of a novel yet to be edited and rewritten, pared down and freed from often overreaching and careless prose (“Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else.”) that conveys little meaning. The book reads more like a political allegory than great literature, it preaches rather than allows the reader to arrive at her own truth.

To his credit, Rushdie has never shied away from the difficult, the controversial, and the taboo. “Satanic Verses” (1988) is his most famous example, but his other novels, too, consistently push at the limits and question long-standing beliefs: “Shame” (1983), is about the concept of honor — men’s — in Islam, and the shame that results from any real or perceived breach of that honor; “The Moor’s Last Sigh” (1996) warns of the dire consequences of militant religion for the moderates who do not challenge it; “Midnight’s Children” (1981), perhaps the most admired of his works, is about the loss of ideals, betrayal, and corruption in post-colonial India.

Worthy subjects, indeed, and Rushdie has the gift and the insight to make them real and comprehensible. So it’s a wonder that he resorts, in creating his plots, to such cumbersome narrative devices as a dream within a dream, a novel within the novel, a character that is born to four mothers at once, a poor boy who is switched at birth with a rich man’s son….

And yet, there is something unique about Salman Rushdie’s writing, something so daring and defiant and enduring that it nearly transcends the usual concerns of craftsmanship and literature. It is true that he is not big on subtlety and restraint, that his over-the-top, mad-about-fame-and-movies-and-rock-‘n’-roll style can easily put off the reader; that he force-feeds his politics and puts his prose at the service of his message; that his writing is so inconsistent, one critic has called him a “not-quite novelist.”

But it is also true that he has kept on writing, held on to his beliefs, preached his politics even after it nearly cost him his life; that he continues to define himself primarily as a storyteller, even after he has achieved film-celebrity status; that he acts, and writes, as if truth still matters in politics and in the arts.

At the Disney Hall, Rushdie wastes no time heaping scorn on George Bush for his “Weapons of Mass Deception,” or criticizing Western leaders and media for being intimidated into withholding publication of speech that may be deemed offensive. He has no time for authors who write fictitious memoirs just to make their lives sound more interesting, or publishers and public figures (“Take away the first three letters of Winfrey,” he remarks, “and what you’re left with is Frey.”) who can’t tell the difference. Mostly, however, he concerns himself with fundamentalist Muslims who wish to control what the rest of the world says, writes, or reads. A decade and a half after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie for writing “Satanic Verses,” he says, millions of Muslims are still ready to take offense at books they have not read and cartoons they have not seen. Millions more non-radical Muslims fail to criticize the actions of radicals. The press is afraid to speak up.

“The battle against totalitarian religion,” Rushdie says, “is the battle of our time.”

As a result of Khomeini’s fatwa in 1989, Rushdie’s book was banned in India, South Africa, and all through the Muslim world. Rushdie himself spent nine years in hiding, his Japanese translator was killed on the campus of the university where he taught (Japanese Muslims openly applauded the killing), and his Italian and Norwegian translators were seriously wounded in knife assaults. In Pakistan, a court sentenced to death a Christian man who had been accused by his Muslim neighbor of inviting him to read “Satanic Verses.” In Turkey, a mob attacked the site of a conference where a Turkish poet had spoken out against the fatwa and killed 37 conference participants. The government of Turkey promptly accused the poet of acting “provocatively,” and blamed him for the deaths.

But the more lasting, and tragic, result of the Rushdie affair was that it set a precedent for other fatwas to be issued by Muslim leaders against other free-thinking individuals who criticize thousand-year-old conventions and oppressive beliefs. In the years that have followed the edict, writers, journalists and university professors have been condemned — or put to death — in Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, United Arab Emirates and Bangladesh. (One notorious example was Bengali physician Taslima Nasrin, who had more than one fatwa issued against her for criticizing Islam’s treatment of women.)

For better or for worse, the fatwa made Rushdie more than an author under siege by powerful censors; it made him a metaphor for the clash between proponents of free speech and those who seek to silence it. It is to Rushdie’s credit that he continues to fight and to use stories as the weapon with which to do so.

“It is only through fiction that we learn to tell the truth,” he says.

In the first book he wrote after he was driven into hiding, “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” Rushdie tells of “a sad city … a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish.”

Here, a tyrant named Khattam-Shud has forbidden everyone to speak. He is the “arch-enemy of all stories, even of language itself.” His followers have sworn a vow of silence, and are determined to poison the Sea of Stories, rendering the land into “a place of shadows, of books that wear padlocks and tongues torn out.”

Haroun, who thinks “stories are fun,” asks the tyrant why he hates stories.

“The world,” the tyrant replies, “is not for fun. The world is for controlling. And inside every single story, inside every stream in the ocean, there lies a world, a story world, that I cannot rule at all.”

If this is true, then Salman Rushdie — imperfect novels and all — has triumphed over the tyrant.

His most enduring legacy will not be great literature; it will be that he has proven, with his stories, the importance of words — the power they hold and which so terrifies tyrants they tear out the storytellers’ tongues and put padlocks on their books.

“What the arts do at their best is try to increase the sum total of what we know and are,” Rushdie says at Disney Hall. “To do that, you have to push against the limits of what is safe. In spite of the dangers involved, that is the work.”

Gina Nahai is the author of several novels. Her new book, “Dreams of a Caspian Rain,” will be published later this year.

“Max” excerpt from “Shalimar the Clown,” by Salman Rushdie (Pages 142-143)

The university was moving to Clermont-Ferrand in the Zone Sud, outside the area of German occupation, and vice-chancellor Danjon urged his budding young economics genius to accompany them. But Max the younger would not leave unless he could get his parents to a place of safety as well. He tried hard to persuade them to join the evacuation. Wiry, graceful, their white hair cropped short, their hands the hands of pianists, not printers, their bodies leaning intently forward to listen to their son’s absurd proposition, Max, senior and his wife, Anya, looked more like identical twins than a married couple. Life had made them into each other’s mirrors. … Max took a deep breath and launched into his prepared speech. The situation was desperate, he said. It was only a matter of time before the German army attacked France and if the border country should go the way of Poland the family’s German name would not protect them. Theirs was a well-known Jewish household in a strongly Jewish neighborhood; the risk of informers was real and had to be faced up to. Max senior and Anya should go away to their good friends the Sauerweins’ place near Cro-Magnon. He himself would go to Clermont-Ferrand and teach. They would have to lock and seal the Strasbourg house and the printings works and simply hope for the best. Was that agreed?

His parents smiled at their son the lawyer and his skillfully marshaled arguments and these were identical smiles, cocked up to the left a little, smiles affording no glimpses of aging teeth. They put down their utensils in unison and clasped their pianist hands in their laps. Max senior gave a little glance at Anya and Anya gave a little glance back, offering each other the right of first reply. “Son,” Max senior finally began, pursing his lips, “one never knows the answer to the questions of life until one is asked.” Max was familiar with his father’s circumlocutory philosophizing and waited for the point to arrive. “You know what he means, Maxi,” his mother took over. “Until you have back pain you don’t know your tolerance for back pain. How you’re going to tolerate not being so young anymore, you won’t know until you grow old. And until danger comes a person doesn’t know for sure how a person’s going to think about danger.” Max senior picked up a breadstick and bit it in half; it broke with a loud crack. “So now this question of peril has been posed,” he said, pointing the remaining half of the stick at his son and narrowing his eyes, “and so now I know my answer.”

Anya Ophuls drew herself up in a rare show of disunity. “It’s my answer also, Maximilian,” she corrected her husband mildly. “I think this slipped your mind a moment.” Max senior frowned. “Sure, sure,” he said. “Her answer as well, I know her answer as well as I know my own, and my mind, excuse me, nothing slips it. My mind, excuse me, is a fist of steel.” Max junior thought it was time to press a little. “And what is that answer?” He asked as delicately as possible, and his father with a loud short laugh forgot his irritation and smacked his palms together as hard as he could. “I discover that I am a stubborn bastard!” He cried, coughing hard. “I discover bloody-mindedness in myself, and mulishness to boot. I will not be chased from my home and my business! I will not go to Sauerwein’s and be made to look at his trembling old man’s paintings and eat quenelles of pike. I will stay in my house and run my factory and face the enemy down. Who do they think they are dealing with here? Some common inky-fingered ragamuffin from the streets? Maybe I’m on my last legs, young fellow, but I stand for something in this town.

Excerpted from “Shalimar the Clown” by Salman Rushdie. Copyright (c) 2006 by Salman Rushdie. Reprinted by arrangement with The Random House Publishing Group.