Rushdie Returns to Form— But His Epic Falls Short

“Injustice rules,” cries the Random House flier. No, they’re not vexed by the spreading loom of terror, the unhappy history of Kashmir or even the legal process in California (all of which figure in Shalimar the Clown). The publisher’s alarm is more local: “The Swedes won’t dare to offend Islam by giving Rushdie the Nobel Prize he deserves more than any other living writer.” To which, I fear, the response is as irresistible as a counterpunch to Mike Tyson’s head: For the moment, Mr. Rushdie is letting nervous Nobel off lightly. His new novel comes off far more as a plan for acquiring the Nobel than the kind of sweeping, overwhelming modern narrative that “the Swedes” would say they’re looking for.

The outline of Shalimar the Clown is awesome and very promising. In Beverly Hills, a man named Max Ophuls is murdered by his own chauffeur. Ophuls was Alsatian, from Strasbourg, where he’d been a dashing hero in the French Resistance. His valor swept him to America and won him an appointment as U.S. ambassador to India (he succeeded John Kenneth Galbraith). It was in that capacity that he paid a visit of inspection to troubled Kashmir and saw a dance performed by the lustrously beautiful and sensual Boonyi Kaul. Boonyi was married to Shalimar, an acrobat and a clown, but she couldn’t resist the ambassador’s lust or his vague promise that by being his mistress, she might become a star. Ophuls was married already (to the Grey Rat, an Englishwoman worn ragged in the Resistance), but he kept Boonyi for years and in the end she gave birth to his daughter—a child named India, wise and tender, sexy and a kick-boxer. Shalimar—always a Muslim but now a terrorist, too—came to Los Angeles on a belated mission of vengeance, entered service with Ophuls, then killed him.

I’m not betraying the story with this information: Mr. Rushdie has Ophuls murdered in the novel’s opening section—which evades the challenge of ordinary suspense and gives up the ghost on making Shalimar himself complex or interesting. So here are two early roadblocks in an epic novel: Shalimar is no more than outlined as a figure; his grievance is clear, his magical skill as a tightrope walker is prettily expressed, but his clownishness, his humor is nowhere, and nothing is as depleting in this book as the endless, destined solemnity. Shalimar needs to be a rascal angel, a trickster, the life and soul of 400 pages, but he remains a pit of gloom, visible only in outline.

The picaresque (Mr. Rushdie’s preferred form) requires so much more surprise. We know that Mr. Rushdie is a very funny writer when he allows it in himself. But in this book, he seems to have determined that the Gestapo in World War II and the oppression in Kashmir are too awful to be treated lightly. Still, novelists should recall that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (which failed to impress the Swedes) was hideous and delightful exactly because of the hilarity that reigned as chaos in the midst of a war story.

My next complaint is “Max Ophuls.” No, I’m not upset by the film director of that name. I believe he was a genius and a gentleman (a rare package in cinema), and I suspect that Rushdie shares those feelings (this is an author who’s been a hostage to VCR movie history). So why call the ambassador by this vaunted name, especially since he’s inherited neither the real Max’s whimsical nature nor the tragic attitude of his films?

Max is as hollow as Shalimar, and a fatal sign of Mr. Rushdie’s uneasiness with male characters when they’re meant to carry a great deal of narrative energy. And here’s something of undermining importance. Mr. Rushdie is a magical writer: I say that not just in easy reference to the boisterous gaiety of his surrealism, but because of the enormous sprightliness of his language. Ask him to notice the light in the trees, the dimple on a pretty woman or the spurt of natural humor, and Mr. Rushdie is worthy of Nobel. There are renderings here of Kashmir (Mr. Rushdie’s homeland) so tender and fond that the eventual disappearance of hallowed villages amounts to genuine tragedy. There are women—beauties, crones, goddesses—off whom one can sniff the fragrance and quirks of life. As for humor, try this small talk between Shalimar and Boonyi when they first get hot for each other and she has drugged herself for deflowering:

“‘Boonyi, Boonyi,’ he mourned, ‘you’ve burdened me with a responsibility I don’t know how to discharge. Let’s, you know, caress each other in five places and kiss in seven ways and make out in nine positions, but let’s not get carried away.’ In reply, Boonyi pulled her phiran and shirt off over her head and stood before him naked except for the little pot of fire hanging low, below her belly, heating further what was already hot. ‘Don’t treat me like a child,’ she said in a throaty voice that proved she had been unsparing in her drug abuse. ‘You think I went to all this trouble just for a kiddie-style session of lick and suck?’“

There, and in so many other places, one revels at Mr. Rushdie’s conjuring up of people who owe as much to heat and dust as to Indian mythology, but who have the sharp tongues and impatient appetites of people raised on Hollywood movies and rock ’n’ roll. That’s not just the strongest and most appealing part of this novel; it also suggests that no one’s better equipped to describe the crucial lives of modern Indians—Hindu, Muslim, whatever—who may be living in the West.

In contrast, Max Ophuls is painfully like someone out of a Thomas Mann novel—or even Irwin Shaw. He’s indicated. He speaks his set speeches. But he has no life, warmth, wit or juice. He’s the kind of person one might expect as an ambassador. And thus the failure of the book’s central challenge: to make Strasbourg in the early 40’s and Kashmir since 1947 seem like broken halves of one world—to leave us believing that those who crave iron in their soul (Gestapo leaders or bloodthirsty mullahs) may turn into men of nothing but scorched metal.

It may be impertinent to ask Mr. Rushdie to see the funny side of everything. After all, he has lost the Kashmir where he was raised and now seems to share Mercutio’s urge to curse both sides in these endless quarrels. He’s also a man who lost a part of his own life because of anger in those he’d teased. Still, Shalimar the Clown is a fatally organized novel, riding high in the oratorical sky no matter that its author’s great passion and drive are for the slapstick and the wit that thrive in the down-and-dirty undergrowth.

A great comedy about terrorism and its world may be an immense challenge. But as you finish this oddly aborted epic, you cannot give up on the feeling that Salman Rushdie could carry it off. If Shalimar the assassin were also a true clown, then even finger-crossing Swedes would be lining up for a prize-giving.

David Thomson, author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf), reviews books regularly for The Observer. Rushdie Returns to Form— But His Epic Falls Short