Putting the story into history

Shalimar the Clown
by Salman Rushdie

This book is very much about its settings. The time and place of events is irrevocably linked to the story and I found that intriguing. It doesn’t hurt that I have a long-held fascination with India and it is India, perhaps unsurprisingly, that is depicted with the greatest affection.

I found the writing more accessible than I had expected, which was good because a lot of the story is set in war-torn Kashmir and I’m not a big fan of war stories (Yes they’re very important and the genre includes some genuinely great writing but sitting down day after day to read about military tactics and lots of people dying in gruesome ways? Not my cup of tea), so I needed something to keep me in.

Thankfully there’s a lot more to the novel than that. It centres around four characters: Max Ophuls – an aged ambassador for the US and World War II Resistance hero, his daughter India – named for the country of her birth though she has no memory of it, Max’s killer – an Indian chauffeur who calls himself Shalimar the Clown, and Boonyi – the Kashmiri beauty who links their lives.

The story begins with Max’s murder on India’s doorstep. It is bloody and calculated. We then go back to learn why it happened. What was it about Max’s past and Shalimar’s that led to this event?

This book isn’t about the plot twists or the ending. The plot is mostly given away from the start. I remember reading once that in India the endings of stories – books and films – are openly discussed without concern for who does or does not know the details already. That was my experience here and it’s a definite break from what I’m used to. Not only does this novel give away it’s own ending but it also discussed the endings of three or four major films.

What makes this book great is the depiction of moments in history from one or just a few people’s perspective. Max was a Jew in Strasbourg in the years leading up to and during World War II and there’s a lot of detail about the gradual change in daily life packed into a small number of pages. A later section is set in LA during the riots of 1992 and again there’s so much detail that the chapter could almost pass for a history essay, if there weren’t a few fictional characters mixed in there.

Boonyi’s Kashmir is described in adoring detail, from the earthly paradise of her youth, when whole villages made a living from traditional arts and crafts and families of different faiths lived side by side without it being an issue (in fact they sometimes helped each other celebrate their religion); to the increasingly fractious, suspicious Kashmir following the India–Pakistan divide, when the valley gradually came under fire from all sides and your religion became all-important; to the deeply scarred warzone that Kashmir had become by the 1990s. It is a tale of tragic loss, of human idiocy and impotence. There were details that were appallingly horrific and, though this is fiction, I don’t doubt closely resemble real events and that sickens me.

The loss of the beauty and happiness of Kashmir is mirrored in the tale of Boonyi. A combination of history and human fallacies lead her ever downward and the world around her follows suit.

There are no particularly sympathetic main characters. Or at least, there weren’t for me. The love stories are touching but the characters involved are too cold or too single-minded for me to like them. My favourite character – and I’m sure the reader is meant to react this way – was the Sikh governor Sardar Harbans Singh who stayed true to his love of Kashmir to the end.

As with any novel with a historical setting it was sometimes unclear which bits were real history and which were fiction. I suppose it doesn’t matter really , except perhaps when words are put in the mouths of real historical figures. Is that okay? Is that allowed?

I greatly enjoyed this and was sad when it ended but it’s not a cheerful book. Consider yourself warned.

Published 2005 by Jonathan Cape.

4 thoughts on “Putting the story into history

  1. matthew self October 5, 2010 at 9:07 pm

    I have to admit to mixed feelings about Rushdie, or more precisely his novel Midnight’s Children. It uses a similar method to Shalimar the clown it seems. Covering the period from India’s partition onwards, through the eyes of Salim, a child born on midnight of the day Pakistan separates from India. Salim discovers all the children born at this time in India posses telepathic powers and communicate with each other. The story of Salim and the other children becomes a microcosm of India’s experience in its early years of independence.
    Rushdie certainly creates a rich and complex picture of India. Bringing in a great variety of themes important in Indian society, family relationships, the Ghandi family, muslim-hindu tensions, class differences are all considered in some detail (in the course of 7-800 pages, I suppose he has time!). Midnight’s Children does have to be considered a masterpiece, and yet, something about also annoys somewhat. Perhaps it’s the thought of Rushdie’s smug face, thinking this is exactly the sort of book the literati love in Britain. A tale of a former colony embracing its political destiny and growing into a proud nation, not afraid to remember its religious and mystical heritage. There are long scenes in which Salim, as an old man, talks of the chutney his wife makes, and how certain recipes recall certain memories. Is this a rather obvious technique; smells and memory, the melting pot of a countries civilisation? Maybe it’s only twenty years later we can judge it so harshly, after a deluge of books which have followed a similar themes and also been successful at awards ceremonies.

  2. Nose in a book October 6, 2010 at 7:21 am

    Matt Interesting. Previously I’d only heard glowing praise of Midnight’s Children. Sounds like the main difference between the two books is that Shalimar doesn’t paint a positive picture of independence – the situation just gets worse and worse. But the fact of India’s independence and the Brits leaving isn’t talked about much. Mostly it’s about the partition and what that did to Kashmir. Midnight’s Children is on my TBR so I’ll come back to your comments when I’ve read it!

  3. Carin B. October 7, 2010 at 1:02 am

    I need to read some Salman Rusdie. I’ve never actually read him before. This book actually sounds like something I would enjoy. I’ll keep it in mind when I finally get my TBR list down enough to pick up a new author!

  4. matthew self October 7, 2010 at 7:24 pm

    there does seem to have been a shift in both fiction and non-fiction covering india in recent times. For a long time the mood was overwhelmingly positive. Although accepting the problems of kashmir and hindu-muslim relations, the message was that this was the first great third world, democracy. Now the problems of a very corrupt government and rampant corporate capitalism have become too painful to ignore.
    Aravind Adiga, when he won the booker, came out with a good quote i thought. (i’m recalling from memory, so i’m sure it’s not exact) ‘It’s (the novel white tiger) a rejection of the Rushdie point of view ‘we live in the greatest democracy in the world’. what a load of crap’ this immediately made me want to read his novel, but of course it remains on my To be read list.
    Also quite interesting is some of Arundati Roy’s recent writing. There is a savage article in the current new statesman on the current Indian government.

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