As Kashmir collapses into chaos, one beleaguered onlooker croaks, "We are no longer protagonists, only agonists." That bit of dialogue says much about Salman Rushdie's new novel, a devastating if at times heavy-handed examination of a doomed love and doomed region. Rushdie embraces big themes, endless allusions, puns, folklore and anything else handy in his literary arsenal while exploring everyone and everything from Clytemnestra and the Koran to Bretton Woods and Bugatti. In other words, he's back, revived after his awful last novel, Fury, a clueless meditation on millennial New York and middle-age rage.
Rushdie's style doesn't bring to mind other contemporary novelists as much as he does a blazing rock group, say, The Who. Both give up subtlety to present a bold, noisy dexterity prone to surfeits of ambition and look-at-me vigor.
Shalimar the Clown isn't a story, but rather (as movie people say) back story. Rushdie's cinematic tale begins where all movies begin: in Los Angeles. Max Ophuls, an octogenarian and legendary American ambassador, dies in a pool of blood below his illegitimate daughter's apartment, an assassination victim at the hands of his Kashmiri driver. The rest of the novel explains how Ophuls, his daughter India and the assassin, Shalimar the Clown, converged in 1990s Los Angeles.
The backstory begins in Kashmir, where the erstwhile US ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, first spies, then beds, Boonyi Kaul, the young, hip-swiveling Hindu wife of a Muslim high-wire performer known as Shalimar the Clown. Later, just as the ambassador prepares to dump the drug- and food-bloated Boonyi, she, much like India and Pakistan, goes nuclear: "I'm pregnant."
In the Kashmiri village where Shalimar waits in vain for his wife, the pandits declare Boonyi dead. Ophuls loses his ambassadorship. And his chilly wife, a woman known as the "Grey Rat," snatches Boonyi's baby girl days after birth and flees to Europe with an adopted daughter re-christened as India. All of which stokes a poisoned fury in Shalimar, sending him into the arms of nascent terrorists while vowing murderous revenge on the illicit lovers and their child.
Here Rushdie dispenses with dispassionate third-person narration and becomes more polemical. Even as he introduces the militant mullah, the mad military leader and the rest of his motley wrecking crew -- the Indian and Pakistani armies, the quickly quashed Kashmiri nationalists and the legions of alphabet-soup liberation fronts and resistance groups -- Rushdie can't keep his cool.
Crackdowns, beatings, humiliation -- all the atrocities familiar to any reader of Abu Ghraib dispatches -- gain momentum in the smaller-scale literary landscape created here. Then, as Rushdie draws his lens wider, he condemns the Islamic fundamentalists fueled by Pakistani, Afghan and CIA money and Allah knows what else, as well as the Indian army who are on hand as ostensible protectors.
It would be easy to quibble with the messiness of Shalimar the Clown and all that Rushdie attempts to squeeze into 400 pages. Much like Robin Williams, Rushdie can't help himself: a frenzied torrent of ideas, scenes and observations spill onto every page, leaving the reader either exhausted and exasperated or dizzy and delighted.