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The destruction of paradise

Shalimar the Clown A Novel Salman Rushdie Random House: 400 pp., $25.95

September 04, 2005|Jonathan Levi | Jonathan Levi is a founding editor of Granta magazine and the author of the novel "A Guide for the Perplexed." He is former director of the Bard Performing Arts Center.

ON a frozen November Saturday in 1963, shortly before the Kennedy assassination, I walked into the cinema of New York's American Museum of Natural History, an 8-year-old armed with the birthday present of membership, and discovered paradise. Floating houseboats on an endless lake, flocks of sheep at the foot of impossible mountains, brilliant purples of saffron fields outside Srinagar. I don't remember any of the other movies in that winter series, but the documentary on Kashmir filled me with a talismanic longing that continues to warm me.

More than 40 years later, I despair of ever visiting the Hindu temple of Shankaracharya, the Muslim mosque of Hazaratbal with its icon of a single hair from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad or the Mughal garden of Shalimar above Dal Lake.

The last four decades have seen Kashmir caught between "the rock of India and the hard place of Pakistan," as Salman Rushdie wrote in 1999 in the New York Times. Caught in an ill-defined limbo after partition in 1947, with a largely Muslim population and a maharajah who had thrown in his lot with India, Kashmir became a militarized Verona of warring factions. "A plague on both their houses," Rushdie wrote in 1999. Six years later, Mercutio's curse serves as an epigraph to "Shalimar the Clown," Rushdie's greatest novel since "The Satanic Verses."

Rushdie's Edenic Verona is the village of Pachigam, a shtetl of Hindu and Muslim actors and cooks, who stage a kind of Kashmiri dinner party featuring "the legendary wazwaan, the Banquet of the Thirty-Six Courses Minimum.... " "Here in Kashmir," says the Hindu pandit, or wise man, Pyarelal Kaul, "our stories sit happily side by side on the same double bill, we eat from the same dishes, we laugh at the same jokes."

The Juliet of Rushdie's novel is the pandit's daughter, the preternaturally sensuous Boonyi. Her Romeo is a boy named Noman, the son of the Muslim headman. In his childhood, Noman was the double-threat star of Pachigam's troupe, a genius of both comedy and the high wire, who traded the anonymity of his birth name for the nom de guerre Shalimar the Clown. In prelapsarian Pachigam, no one told Shalimar or Boonyi that they could not fall in love and no one told their fathers that, after making a few changes to the wedding customs for Hindus and Muslims, their children could not marry. In Pachigam, if the stars do not cross it is because they have better things to do.

But the snake of art is more lethal to romance than any constellation. Boonyi joins the troupe and makes her mark with a seductive dance that draws the attention of the local Indian Gauleiter. More dangerous still, it draws the patronage of the truly star-crossed star of Pachigam, a man who is not a Kashmiri at all, but an American and a Jew. He is Maximilian Ophuls, born into the haute Strasbourgeoisie of pre-World War II France, scion of a proud family of art book printers, hero of the Resistance, historian and strategist in the mold of George Kennan, spy and lover in the mold of Graham Greene.

More important, during the early 1960s Max is "America's best-loved, and then most scandalous, ambassador to India." Like the great knights of Kennedy's Camelot, an era in which politics was still attractive to men with brains, Max has a shield whose quadrants are emblazoned with equal parts charm and wit. "India is chaos making sense," is his most famous epigram. "Freedom is not a tea party. Freedom is a war," is another. He was "the Rudyard Kipling of ambassadors," one beautiful Indian actress tells Max. Yet for all his brains and sophistication, this circumcised Ubermensch cannot keep his head. Boonyi dances, Max beckons, Shalimar sulks, a daughter is born, paradise fractures.

Rushdie warns us from the beginning that this is no mere love triangle. On Page 4, Shalimar decapitates Max on the doorstep of his daughter's apartment in Los Angeles, "like a halal chicken dinner." Evoking a novella by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or a movie by Quentin Tarantino or a tragedy, say, by Shakespeare, "Shalimar the Clown" is a chronicle of an assassination foretold. The story of the crime follows its solution. How can this possibly hold a reader for 400 pages? "The impossible is what people pay to see," Shalimar's father tells his performers in one pre-show pep talk. "Always do something impossible right at the beginning of the show.... Swallow a sword, tie yourself in a knot, defy gravity. Do what the audience knows it could never do no matter how hard it tries. After that you'll have them eating out of your hand."

There are few writers who can pull off such an act. But Rushdie defies gravity and dispatches his characters on journeys leading up to the assassination, leading away from the assassination, entertaining and dazzling, but all the while guiding us on an examination of this precarious high wire we find ourselves walking in the 21st century.

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