Shalimar the Clown

by Salman Rushdie

(Random House) $25.95

Salman Rushdie's eighth novel begins with a death. A man named Maximilian Ophuls (nothing to do with the legendary filmmaker) is killed by his chauffeur, an Islamic terrorist who bears (in both senses of the word) the name Noman Sher Noman. Noman, like many of the characters in the novel, has another name, Shalimar the Clown. Before becoming a professional killer for an international terrorist network, Noman was a tightrope walker in the long-troubled (and once fabulous) land of Kashmir. The man he murders is very old (81), Jewish, a former U.S. Ambassador to India, and the father of a young (24) and beautiful woman who lives in Los Angeles, makes documentaries, and (not surprisingly) has two names, one of which she despises—India. The old man's life ends on his daughter's doorstep.

The purpose of the novel is to explain the murder of Max Ophuls in just under 400 pages. Born in Strasbourg to a bourgeois (the pun of place and class is automatically exploited by the author—Strasbourgeois) Jewish family that operated a printing house, Ophuls's life is one of unprecedented opulence, global womanizing, and high adventure (during World War II he was an exceptional member of the French Resistance). While serving as ambassador to India for the president, Lyndon Johnson, of his adopted country, Ophuls is seduced by a village girl, who, too, has more than one name—"Boonyi... is her preferred, how to say it, her optioned name," says a translator to Max. Boonyi, like many of Rushdie's female fictions, is ineffably desirable, incredibly beautiful, and sensationally sensual. Boonyi's art is dancing, and the way she sways her hips can make "a dead man come."

"Ambassador Maximilian Ophuls, 'the Flying Jew,'" writes Rushdie, "the man who had flown the Bugatti Racer to safety, murmured to the Indian Foreign Ministry delegation about the various ways in which it might be possible to structure a deal for the high-speed jets. Then Boonyi Kaul Noman came out to dance and Max realized that his Indian destiny would have little to do with politics, diplomacy or arms sales, and everything to do with the far more ancient imperatives of desire."

At the time (the mid-'60s) the village girl, Boonyi, meets the man of the world, Ophuls, she is married to the village clown, Noman. In the beginning, in the heart of paradise, Noman was Romeo and Boonyi was Juliet, for two reasons: One, they were teenagers (14 to be exact) when they fell in love; two, they came from opposing religions (Boonyi is a Hindi and Noman is a Muslim). The village, however, accepts the terms of the interfaith marriage and life is well and good until Max comes along. As is the case with all preternaturally beautiful women trapped in magical realist novels, Boonyi has a monster-hunger for power and fame. She wants the whole world on her plate, and the means by which she sees this happening is the popular American ambassador, who is married to a proper British lady named Margaret "Peggy" Rhodes—her other name is the Grey Rat, or simply "Ratty." ("Ratty, will you marry me?" is how Max proposed to Margaret.)

Boonyi abandons Noman and becomes Max's lover. They have a child, India, who is adopted by icy Ratty after scandalous Max falls from India's (the country) graces and is called back to the U.S. Shamed Boonyi returns to her village to face the consequences of her raw ambition. And permanently damaged Noman becomes a terrorist, who many years later (1991) cuts Maximilian's throat. The nut of this novel is now revealed: Noman murders Max for revenge and not religion.

My estimation: Shalimar the Clown is the poorest of Rushdie's three American novels. The best is Ground Beneath Her Feet, because it has its moments; second is Fury, because it documents a world that came crashing down on September 11, 2001—the day the novel was released. Shalimar the Clown is at the bottom because it has nothing new to offer a reader who is acquainted with Rushdie's style of writing—which is messy, noisy, crowded, and yet empty. In the end, Shalimar the Clown leaves one wondering if a global novel is at all possible, or imaginable, or narratable. The novel as a form can fit and reflect the realities of being in a city or nation, but it cracks into a thousand pieces when it attempts to represent a world that has too many stories, too many histories, "too much, too many people."

Salman Rushdie reads on Thurs Sept 22 at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave, 652-4255), 7:30 pm, $5.