Thursday, July 19, 2007

A dirge for our time

Not since my review of David Kaplan's excellent Fires of the Dragon more than a year ago have I chosen to write about a book for The Far-Eastern Sweet Potato, but having just finished reading Salman Rushdie's most recent novel, Shalimar the Clown, I felt compelled to write one.

As with his previous novels, Rushdie's convoluted and idiosyncratic storytelling in Shalimar may be challenging, if not daunting, for readers accustomed to a more standard style. My first attempt at reading it took place days after its North American publication, sometime in the fall of 2005. Back then, weeks after my resignation from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), where I had worked in counterterrorism, Rushdie's angered take on our times proved too much emotionally and I found myself unable to go beyond the very vivid scene of a decapitation.

It was only two years later, with emotional distance and a book about my experiences at CSIS between me and that institution, that I could pick it up again — and what an experience it has been.

Shalimar the Clown is nothing less than a fable for our troubled times, where politics and religion interact, with devastating effect, with the sometimes destructive power of love. It presents Rushdie at his angriest and most unsparing, who offers us scene after scene of the ravages of war, from World War II Strasbourg to the paradise-turned-hell of Kashmir as it gets caught between the Indian-Pakistani war, followed by its own divisive conflict and descent into madness.

Out of this emerge characters — Noman Sher Noman, also known as Shalimar the Clown, and Max Ophuls — who are done and undone, made and unmade, by the defining storms of time eternal: war and love. Rushdie, with the surgeon's expert hand, brings his characters, with all their suffering, anguish and fears, to all-too-real life and allows us to draw our own conclusions about what it is that animates them, that forces them to act in the cruelest of manners. When the opportunity is ripe, those who are shaped by history will, in turn, shape history — or so we think. Ultimately, however, Rushdie presents us with a landscape of inevitable devastation, with parallels between Kashmir and the Philippines, Afghanistan and Los Angeles, making for a very pessimistic plunge into human nature, one in which the very hope of redemption through love is crushed at the very last moment, where the terrorists of the future are formed not by politics — or politics alone — but also by matters seemingly much more simple, such as a wife, seeking unknown, illusioned liberty, running off with the charismatic former Resistance Francaise hero (at times frighteningly reminiscent of real-life John Kenneth Galbraith, whom in the story he actually replaces, before real-life Chester Bowles does so) turned US ambassador to India turned US counterterrorism czar.

The beauty — and, simultaneously, terrible ugliness — of Rushdie's dirge is that it shows the numerous paths leading to madness, from the occupation of one's land by a foreign army to the torturing of loved ones to the lure of intransigent religion to cold, hard politics to matters of the heart. Nothing, mind you, is necessarily teleological and many are those who, even in the face of atrocities, will adopt more peaceful ways to cope, only to die of old age while youth are blowing themselves up for a cause. Some, like Shalimar, become "terrorists" by proxy, drawn not to the cause itself, which takes him down a path familiar to anyone who has read about terrorism in Southeast Asia, but rather to the need to inflict violence, a corridor that leads him to his ultimate act of terror in the US, before the very eyes of a daughter.

Although the novel takes place before the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US (the backdrop to the end of the novel is the 1993 bolbing of the World Trade Center), the undertones of the road there, the seeds of future history being sown, are ever-present, and it is unlikely that this novel, in this form, could have been written absent 9/11 and everything else that ensued. As the novel progresses, as chaos envelops Kashmir, we can see emerge, in the shadows of coalescing networks, the future headline-makers. One can also feel the anger, the fear generated by the religious edict — or fatwa — made against Rushdie himself by Ayatollah Khomeini following the publication of The Satanic Verses, yet another iteration of violence against the individual. Anger at the US, at its creation of an inevitable future of violence that should have been anything but inevitable, is also palpable, as epitomized by Max Ophuls himself, who is animated by goodness and evil, with the all-too-human capacity for stupidity and mistakes.

Shalimar the Clown is about violence, is violent itself, and despite its gazing deep into the pit of man's inhumanity to man for the multifarious reasons that we have created for ourselves, it leaves it to the reader to answer the question that Max, pondering the cycle of violence that we have created following the death, in an IRA bombing, of a friend, asks us all. "Perhaps violence showed us what we meant, or, at least, perhaps, it was simply what we did." We can attempt to intellectualize, to comperend the reasons why a person chooses to go down the path to violence, and sometimes the plainness of truth, as he writes, suffers by comparison with paranoid scenarios, but in the end it doesn't mean that we can, or will, forgive.

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