Serious Stuff 

Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, Coetzee’s Slow Man

Thursday, Sep 8 2005
Illustration by Miguel ValenzuelaSalman Rushdie doesn’t write novels, he writes epics. If he were a cook, he’d be like the chefs in Shalimar the Clown, his new opus about love, terrorism, and the disputed land of Kashmir, where (during peaceful times) diners were treated to gustatory marathons such as “the Banquet of the Thirty-Six Course Minimum” or even “the Banquet of the Sixty Courses Maximum.” And though Shalimar clocks in at just over 400 pages, some readers may drop away in exhaustion, bellies distended, barely able to breathe, long before the main course has been concluded. That would be a pity, since Shalimar marks a vast improvement over the author’s last novel, Fury (which could also have been the title of this one). It is unlikely, however, to match the reputation of Midnight’s Children (the novel that made Rushdie famous) or The Satanic Verses (which earned him a fatwa and kept him in hiding for the best part of a decade). Nonetheless, it’s a return to something like form. When he isn’t overegging the pudding or turning every other character into an ethnic caricature — in short, when he concentrates on the narrative — Rushdie has a damn good story to tell. It’s 1991 in the city of Los Angeles, and the distinguished, Jewish, European-born former American ambassador to India, Maximilian Ophuls, has just been assassinated, Muslim-style (butcher knife, near-head-chop), by his Kashmiri chauffeur — Shalimar — on the doorstep of his 24-year-old daughter’s apartment. Said daughter, named India, is a 21st-century West Coast immigrant babe: She whips her body into shape at a hip boxing club frequented by the fighting world’s crème de la crème (“the cold fury of her hitting made the male boxers pause to watch”), practices the martial arts, fires guns at Twentynine Palms, and (her specialty) shoots the bow and arrow with lethal accuracy. All this, as the reader will eventually see, turns out to be useful rather than merely aesthetic and therapeutic.Ophuls’ gruesome death is treated by the media and police as a political assassination. Shalimar may have been a clown once (tightrope walker, actually), but, the police quickly learn, he’s been a mujahedeen and assassin for far longer. As for Ophuls, a Resistance hero in France during World War II, and an ambassador and counterterrorism chief in America, his status as a target is obvious even if the murderer’s motivation remains obscure. Not to the reader, however, who knows part, if not all, of the story from the beginning, along with the Rushdie-esque credo that underlies it. “Everywhere was now a part of everywhere else,” he writes, reviving a familiar theme. “Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another’s, were no longer our own, individual, discrete.” Long ago, in the beauteous valley of Kashmir, Shalimar the clown fell in love with Boonyi, a Hindu dancer. Such was the magic of her lovemaking that, after their first roll in the meadow, Shalimar, “panting for joy,” urged young Boonyi to stay with him forever. “ ‘Don’t you leave me now, or I’ll never forgive you,’ he said. ‘I’ll have my revenge, I’ll kill you and if you have any children by another man I’ll kill the children also.’ ” It’s a pretty weird thing for a guy to say while “panting for joy,” but as it turns out, he means it. And when, in the late 1960s, Ambassador Ophuls, on a visit to Kashmir, takes Boonyi as his mistress, only to cruelly discard her months later, though not before making her pregnant with the girl who will take boxing lessons on Santa Monica and Vine 20-plus years later, the plot’s geopolitical and highly personal wheels are set in motion. Where the novel bogs down is in the long section dealing with the good old days in Kashmir, when Muslims and Hindus managed to get on, and then the evil days when they did not. One learns a fair amount about the conflict, though thanks to Rushdie’s magical-realist leanings, it’s all a bit of a jumble. One of the book’s epigraphs is the well-known “A plague on both their houses” from Romeo and Juliet, and in Rushdie’s telling, both the Indian army and the Pakistani-backed Muslim freedom fighters who battle them are equally brutal and repellent. Shalimar is at its best in the moving account of Boonyi’s disastrous and short-lived career as Ophuls’ mistress — a restrained, horrifying parable of the abuses of masculine power, though Boonyi, it has to be said, is initially all too eager to partake in that power, if not in its abuse — and also in its account of Shalimar’s transformation into an assassin and terrorist. Rushdie’s portrait of L.A., however, like his depiction of New York in Fury, is only half-satisfying, and all too often grotesquely cartoonish and slowed by clumsy humor. Christopher Hitchens, in his review of the book in the recent Atlantic Monthly, called it “a highly serious novel, on an extremely serious subject, by a deeply serious man.” Well, it might have been, had there been a highly, extremely, deeply serious editor — one who had spent some time in Los Angeles — on hand to lop off a hundred pages and instruct the author to quit the horsing around, cut down on the tediously verbose eccentrics who all sound alike, whether they’re in Kashmir or L.A., and keep his eye on the narrative ball. Slow Man, the new novel from the South African Nobel Prize-winning gloom-pot, J.M. Coetzee, is not slow. A lean 265 pages (ah, bliss!), it moves along with considerable pep and zip even though its hero, grumpy 60-year-old photographer and archivist, Paul Rayment, is first hospitalized and then bedridden until halfway through the action. As well as being a photographer, Rayment is a bicycling enthusiast. Bicycling not only keeps him fit and maintains (in his own mind, at any rate) a lingering aura of youth, it also seems to represent the clearest expression in his life of bodily vigor and freedom. In short, he enjoys bicycling, or did, until the opening sentence of the novel: “The blow catches from the right, sharp and surprising and painful, like a bolt of electricity, lifting him up off the bicycle.”Given that the aforementioned “blow” comes from a car that has just driven into him, steered (to add insult to injury) by “a youngster with wiry hair and spots along his hairline,” and that the car has just crushed his right leg, which will soon be amputated, you have to admit that it’s a pretty nasty opening sentence for any hero, however flawed a human being, to be subjected to. But such is Paul Rayment’s fate.No more right leg. No more bicycling. No more mobility. Long, tedious, convalescence. A deep melancholy, colored by humiliation, self-pity and remorse, settles over Rayment’s austere bachelor life in Adelaide, Australia. Will he accept a prosthesis (an artificial, replacement leg), as his doctors urge? Will he rediscover his will to live an active life, however limited, or will he sink swiftly into sulky old age and obsolescence, an embittered cripple? The early signs are not good. “Escaping death ought to have shaken him up, opened windows inside him, renewed his sense of the preciousness of life,” Coetzee writes. “It has done nothing of the sort. He is trapped with the same old self as before, only greyer and drearier. Enough to drive one to drink.”Born in France, Rayment was brought to Australia at age six, but has never fully embraced his adopted country. Without a wife (he is long divorced) or children to care for him, no family relations in Australia (his only sibling, a sister, died young) and few intimate friends, Rayment faces a psychologically precarious situation. His biggest regret is not having a son. Absent that, he expects his only legacy to be a collection of rare photographs and postcards of life in the early mining camps of Victoria and New South Wales, which he intends to leave as a bequest to the State Library in Adelaide. Hope arrives in the solid but curvaceous form of Marijana, the Croatian nurse who tends to him daily. A recent arrival in Australia, Marijana has a busy family life (husband, three children) and, still beautiful, seems unlikely to fall for an unhappy one-legged 60-year-old bachelor. But, having fallen in love with her, Rayment of course dreams that she will, and soon becomes far more involved in her affairs and family than he probably ought to be. In the meantime, a rather more rational prospect of hope, or at least companionship, arrives in the form of Elizabeth Costello, neither young nor attractive, but highly intelligent and eager to form a liaison with Rayment. (She is also the eponymous subject of a previous Coetzee novel, Elizabeth Costello.) Will our hero chase after the sexy, exotic, unavailable nurse or settle down sensibly with a lady of his own age and cultural background? Careful students of human nature may have the answer already, but this is a pitiless, sometimes frighteningly lucid study of late middle age, physical deterioration and dwindling choices. Cheers!SHALIMAR THE CLOWN | By SALMAN RUSHDIE | Random House | 416 pages | $26 SLOW MAN | By J.M. COETZEE | Viking | 265 pages | $25

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