SALMAN RUSHDIE: SHALIMAR THE CLOWN (2005)

On August 12, 2022, a seventy-five-year-old Salman Rushdie, a naturalized American citizen, was attacked on stage in Chautauqua, New York, where he was about to speak at an event. The attacker, a young Muslim man clearly intent on murder in retribution for what were perceived by some Muslims as Rushdie’s past sins, stabbed Rushdie multiple times, the most serious wound being a wound to the neck. Rushdie (barely) survived the attack, which cannot be said for Max Ophuls, an aging character in Rushdie’s 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown, an immigrant to America who is attacked by a much younger Muslim man who kills him with a knife wound to the neck in revenge for a transgression perpetrated decades earlier.

The parallels between these two attacks are uncanny enough to make one wonder whether Rushdie’s attacker might have read Shalimar, though that seems highly unlikely (just as it is unlikely that the Ayatollah Khomeini, who issued the original fatwa, had read much, if any, of The Satanic Verses.)[1] However, these parallels are particularly appropriate given that one of the most striking characteristics of Shalimar the Clown is the way it freely intermixes fiction and reality, drawing extensively upon real historical events and political issues but also including imaginative inventions that veer into the realm of magic. Shalimar is a complex postmodern novel that playfully engages with popular culture, both Eastern and Western, and rather less playfully engages with both Eastern and Western history in order to tell a fictional story that is focused on a relatively small number of characters but also comments on global events through much of the twentieth century.

Overview

The Shalimar the Clown of the title is a traditional Kashmiri stage performer who eventually becomes a skilled terrorist assassin. In addition to Shalimar, three other characters are important enough to have main sections of the novel titled after them. These include the Kashmiri dancer Boonyi, who is married to Shalimar but is seduced by Max Ophuls, another important character who is a Jew from France but becomes an important American diplomat and antiterrorism expert. The final important character (after whom both the first and last segments of the novel are titled) is India Ophuls (aka Kashmira Noman), the daughter who is born to Max and Boonyi. The interrelationships among these characters provide the surface plot of the novel, but the underlying plot involves the history of much of the world from World War II forward, related to us from Rushdie’s strongly bicultural perspective via his distinctive postmodern style.

Shalimar demonstrates many of the ways in which the history of India and the East has long been entangled with the history of the West, a project for which Rushdie is uniquely qualified. Rushdie is now a resident and citizen of America. Born in British colonial India only two months prior to independence and the formation of the nations of India and Pakistan in 1947, he also had grandparents who were from Kashmir, giving him a special connection to the region. Rushdie moved to Britain at the age of fourteen to continue his education at the prestigious Rugby School. A precocious student, he ultimately completed his education by graduating with an M.A. in history from the University of Cambridge in 1968. Between the publication of his first novel, Grimus,in 1975 and the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, he lived and worked in Britain and was considered one of Britain’s leading novelists, with his novel Midnight’s Children (1981) being widely regarded as one of the greatest British novels (possibly the greatest) of the second half of the twentieth century. Of course, because of his family background (and because of the subject matter of his novels), Rushdie was always special among British novelists in the extent to which his writing drew upon and engaged with the history and culture of the East, especially India and Pakistan. Indeed, he was often read, early in his career, as a postcolonial novelist, though I have argued extensively elsewhere that it was always more appropriate to view Rushdie as a postmodern novelist (“Midnight’s Children”).

In Shalimar Rushdie pulls no punches in describing the abject violence—the rapes, the tortures, the bombings—that has been such a big part of the modern history of Kashmir (and of India and Pakistan in general). Indeed, one of the reasons Rushdie has so many enemies in certain circles is that, knowing that the has such a large audience in the West, he still includes some extremely unflattering portraits of the East in his fiction. In response to such criticisms, of course, one might note that the events described in Shalimar in terms of violence in Kashmir are closely based on the real history of the region and that he includes nothing in the novel that isn’t at least similar to things that have actually happened. Moreover, Rushdie is quite careful to construct the novel in such a way as to make clear that equally horrific events have routinely occurred in the West.

The novel is structured in such a way as to balance the depiction of Eastern and Western abuses. In the first section, we are introduced to India Ophuls, leading up to the killing of her father by Shalimar. We do not, at the time, understand all of the background of these events, but what we do know is that this chapter involves a Kashmiri man who travels to America and murders an American. Then, in the second section, entitled “Boonyi,” we learn a great deal of the background to this killing (as well as the background of India Ophuls). The section, basically, involves an American man (Max Ophuls) who travels to India and Kashmir and sexually exploits a Kashmiri woman (Boonyi, the wife of Shalimar), ultimately leading to the destruction of her life and to her symbolic “death.” This behavior, in fact, is reprehensible enough that some readers might ultimately conclude that Shalimar was entirely justified in killing Ophuls, even if his eventual actual killing of Boonyi to defend his own patriarchal honor seems indefensible from a Western perspective. Part 3 of the novel, entitled “Max,” then shifts gears entirely, shifting to the time preceding and during World War II in which a young Max emerges as a heroic young resistance fighter against the atrocities being perpetrated in Europe by the German Nazis. Among other things, this segment this gives us a different (and much more positive) view of Max, just as Shalimar will also be shown in both positive and negative lights in the course of the novel. In addition, though it includes less in the way of graphic detail than do the Kashmir sections, this segment reminds us that Christians in the West have sometimes committed atrocities that match in horror and far exceed in scope anything that has been done in Kashmir by Muslims and Hindus. For example, after the war, Max learns that his aging parents had met a horrible end in a Nazi concentration camp, where they were subjected to gruesome medical experiments: “They were old and losing their reason and good for nothing and so a use had been found for them. After lifetimes lived mainly in their now-enfeebled minds they ended up as mere bodies, bodies that reacted this way to pain, this way to greater pain, this way to the greatest pain imaginable, bodies whose response to being injected with diseases was of interest, of high scientific interest. So they were interested in learning? Very well then. They had helped the advancement of knowledge in a valuably practical way. They never made it to the gas chamber. Scholarship killed them first” (157). The rational scientific West, such passages make clear, can be just as savage and cruel as the supposedly less advanced East. On the other hand, this segment also makes it clear that the French resistance fighters committed acts that can only be labeled as terrorism, indicating that terrorist acts have often used as a political tool throughout history—though Max himself concludes that he doesn’t have to stomach to commit such acts routinely (162).

In addition, this section makes quite clear that the Alsace region, long a contested region claimed by both France and Germany but also retaining a sense of its own identity, has a great deal in common with Kashmir. We might tend to associate such spaces with “undeveloped” parts of the world without long-established traditions of nationalism. But the comparison between Alsace and Kashmir in Shalimar makes it quite clear that such contested spaces, in fact, exist all over the world, even in the heart of Europe. Rushdie is perhaps as aware of cultural differences between East and West as anyone, yet he also continually reminds us of how many things the East and West have in common—and how much cultural interchange there is between the two in our current age of globalization. As the narrator points out later in the novel, “Everywhere was a mirror of everywhere else. Executions, police brutality, explosions, riots: Los Angeles was beginning to look like wartime Strasbourg; like Kashmir” (355). Or, as Max himself puts it, comparing Kashmir with his native Alsace, “Could any two places have been more different, he asked himself; could any two places have been more the same?” (180).

Part 4, entitled “Shalimar the Clown,” tells us of the turn of the once jovial Shalimar to stern terrorist assassin—an assassin so effective that he almost seems to have superpowers. In addition to his training in weapons and tactics, Shalimar and the other members of his terrorist group also receive a great deal of religious indoctrination. Shalimar resolves to do whatever is asked of him. At the same time, he remains devoted to his own personal mission of revenge against Max, Boonyi, and even young India, having pledged to kill them all: “He had not surrendered his self as he had been required to do, had hidden it deep beneath a performance of abnegation, the greatest performance he had ever given. He had his own goals in life and would not give them up. I am ready to kill but I am not ready to stop being myself, he repeated many times in his heart” (271). It is surely the case that Shalimar’s sense of mission derives partly from an Islamic sense that his personal honor has been violated by what Max has done to Boonyi. Yet there is also something quite Western about Shalimar’s individualist sense of mission, his refusal to give himself over to the service of Allah.

Section 5 of the novel, entitled “Kashmira,” returns its focus to India Ophuls, as we learn more about her background and childhood, but also follow her as she hones her skills in things like marksmanship, archery, and martial arts in the wake of Max’s death, realizing that Max’s killer might also be coming for her. She decides to start using her birth name, “Kashmira Noman,” as a way of rejecting the hijacking of her Indian identity by her Western “parents” (which, ironically, includes naming her “India”). Eventually, though, she moves back to Max’s mansion under high security), thereby accepting her connection to him. After Shalimar is arrested, security is loosened, but then he makes a spectacular magical realist escape from prison, leading to the cliffhanger ending of the novel as he goes after India/Kashmira in an attempt to fulfill his promise to kill her[2].

Shalimar the Clown and Historical Events

By featuring a title character who is an international Muslim terrorist, Shalimar the Clown engages with some key current political issues that were very much on the minds of its American readers at the time of the novel’s publication[3]. It also engages with the history of Kashmir, which most Western readers probably know little about, while also looking back to World War II, adding to the scope of the political and historical perspective of the novel. In Shalimar the Clown, a wealthy and powerful American man travels to the Third World and conscripts its riches for his own pleasure. Later, this American returns home, only to find that his indiscretions follow him there, leading to a deadly encounter with a Third World avenger (who also happens to be a highly trained Muslim terrorist). In this sense, the story of Max Ophuls, his seduction of the Kashmiri dancer Boonyi while he is serving as the U.S. ambassador to India, and his later murder back in the U.S. at the hands of the dancer’s Muslim husband (the title character of the novel), clearly reads as a sort of allegory of the bombings of September 11, 2001, which were carried out in retribution for perceived American abuses in the Middle East. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Shalimar the Clown was Rushdie’s first novel after the 9/11 attacks, though it should also be noted that all of its action occurs before those attacks. Ophuls’ seduction of Boonyi occurs in the late 1960s, while his murder occurs some time around the beginning of the 1990s, and the action concludes roughly in 1993. However, the novel itself (like much of Rushdie’s fiction) virtually asks to be read allegorically, so that it makes a great deal of sense to read it as an allegorical commentary on 9/11. For one thing, the book’s narrator calls attention to the fact that, when news of Ophuls’ exploitative seduction of Boonyi breaks, many in America, where the anti-Vietnam War movement was then at its peak, see Ophuls’ “invasion” of India as just another American neocolonial adventure in the Third World: “So war-torn America turned on Max as well, his alleged oppression of Boonyi becoming a sort of allegory of Vietnam. Norman Mailer wrote about Boonyi and Max as if she were the countryside near Saigon and he was Operation Cedar Falls” (206)[4].

In addition, despite the fact that the novel ends in the 1990s, Rushdie slips in an indirect reference to the 9/11 bombings, making it clear that the action of the novel is being narrated from a point in time that is later than 2001. Late in the novel, as Shalimar sits in prison for murdering Ophuls, he expresses fear for his safety, given the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment brought about by the recent “bombing of the World Trade Center in New York.” The narrator then notes that “eight years later this would be remembered as the first bombing” (377). The bombing referred to here is the now nearly-forgotten car-bomb attack (also by Islamic terrorists) on the center on February 26, 1993—which became the “first” bombing when the 2001 bombing became the second eight years later.

Among other things, this moment in the text suggests that Shalimar’s fellow prisoners certainly understand his attack on Ophuls as at least symbolically similar to the 9/11 attacks, which to some extent serves as a tip that we might want to read it in the same way. Meanwhile, many other real historical events are woven into the narrative of the novel, suggesting that the novel is about real-world history as much as it is about its fictional characters and its fictional world. The construction of the text authorizes us to look for historical resonances in all of the action of the novel, providing a far more substantial narrative than might first appear.

Of course, there are cases, as in any novel that takes place over a period of time, when historical events are simply mentioned in passing in order to provide markers that allow us to date the events of the novel. For example, in the wake of Max’s murder by Shalimar the Clown, India Ophuls continually compares her father to the images she sees in the news on television—in a way that helps us to date his killing, though not precisely. Soon after Max’s killing, India, “watching television, would see Gorbachev getting off a plane in Moscow, having survived the attempted Communist coup against him” (23). She is speaking, of course, of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, whose attempts to lead the Soviet Union away from hardline communism via the program known as perestroika were nearly derailed in a coup attempt in August 1991. Then the narrator describes India looking on as Gorbachev is eventually swept away by history and Boris Yeltsin, referring to the ultimate fall of Gorbachev (and the Soviet Union itself) in late 1991.

The narrator then describes India watching a former revolutionary as he emerges from a “lifetime” in prison in South Africa. She had only seen a picture of this man from the time before his imprisonment, a time when he was “a Mike Tyson look-alike. A flame-eyed revolutionary. But this man was tall and slender and walked with gentle grace. When she saw that silhouette, long and skinny as a Spielberg alien, walking to freedom with the klieg lights behind it, she knew she was seeing her father, raised from the dead” (24). This colorful image, employing an allusion to a well-known American film (Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third), is quite typical of this novel. It also helps to date the killing of Ophuls because we know that the man emerging from prison is obviously Nelson Mandela, the leftist revolutionary who was imprisoned in South Africa from 1962 until his release on February 11, 1990, his emergence televised around the world.

We are thus given two dates of known historical events that occurred soon after Ophuls’ murder, one that occurred in February 1990 and one that occurred in August 1991. The date of the murder is thus indicated, but only vaguely, given the eighteen months between these two events, though it presumably occurred some time before the earlier date. Part of this vagueness might be attributed to the fact that India Ophuls is the point-of-view character in this segment of the novel, and we are told that she lived through “timeless days” in the wake of the murder, having essentially lost her sense of time (24). Meanwhile, it might be noted that the fatwa ordering Rushdie’s death because of his perceived insults to Islam in The Satanic Verses was issued on February 14, 1989, and that the first serious attempt to kill him was unsuccessfully carried out (by a Lebanese Muslim extremist) on August 3, 1989. The killing of Ophuls is thus (surely not coincidentally) carefully placed to correspond roughly in time with the attempted killing of Rushdie in 1989, though the author could not have foreseen how prophetic the depiction of Ophuls’ murder would become when Rushdie was attacked (by another Lebanese Muslim extremist) in 2022.

Meanwhile, we are also given another date to help us triangulate the timing of the murder. Early in the morning of Sunday, March 3, 1991, a black man named Rodney King was stopped by Los Angeles police, then brutally beaten, without provocation. The entire incident was captured on video by a man who lived nearby, with King’s beating quickly becoming one of the largest media events of the 1990s. The four police officers who beat King were put on criminal trial, but shockingly acquitted of assault, despite the obvious evidence of the video. (Even President George H. W. Bush expressed shock at the verdict.) Within hours of this acquittal (on April 29, 1992), perceived as clear evidence of the racial biases inherent in the American justice system, violent and destructive rioting erupted in Los Angeles in protest. The riots lasted for six days, resulting in 63 deaths, more than 2000 injuries, and more than 7000 fires in the city, before finally being quelled by a combined force of police, the National Guard, the U. S. Army, and the U. S. Marine Corps.

The mentions of such events certainly help us to date the action of Shalimar the Clown. However, that these events involve the failed Soviet Union, Apartheid South Africa, and racist police brutality in the U.S. also serves as a reminder that, whatever its advantages (and Rushdie is ultimately a big supporter of modernization), modernity in the West has not been without its difficulties. Historical events with which Western readers might be expected to be familiar are also used to date some of the events in India. For example, we are told that, as Boonyi is fattening and her relationship with Max is cooling, “elsewhere in the world it was the summer of love” (203). This comment indicates that the events are occurring in the summer of 1967, widely known as the “Summer of Love” because it was the peak period of the love-oriented hippie counterculture of the 1960s. Unfortunately, there were also more than 150 violent race riots in American cities during that same summer, though the narrator does not mention this fact.

Similarly, after the scandal in India, Ophuls is removed as ambassador and from public life as a whole, which begins to pass him by, as is noted via a list of the things he is missing, most of which indicate troubled times in the West: “Here is ex-ambassador Maximilian Ophuls, falling, for the time being, out of history. Here he is in disgrace, plunging down through the turbulent waters of 1968, past the Prague Spring and the Magical Mystery Tour and the Tet Offensive and the Paris événements and the My Lai massacre and the dead bodies of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy, past Grosvenor Square and Baader-Meinhof and Mrs. Robinson and O. J. Simpson and Nixon” (212). Here Max’s retreat from public life in 1968 is accompanied by a mention of some of the major events in political history of that year—such as the Prague Spring revolt against Soviet domination of Czechoslovakia (which actually lasted from January to August), the Tet Offensive against the American invasion of Vietnam (which occurred in several waves from January to September), the widespread student protests in Paris in May, the American massacre of the villagers of My Lai in Vietnam on March 16, the assassinations in America of civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy (in April and June, respectively) the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam War protests of March 17, 1968), the German student protests in 1968 that ultimately led to the formation of the Baader-Meinhof group of violent leftist radicals, and the election of Richard Nixon as president of the United States in November (partly enabled by the killing of Kennedy). Tellingly, though, this list also includes a number of items from popular culture: Magical Mystery Tour was a groundbreaking album by the Beatles (actually released at the end of 1967, but popular through 1968), while “Mrs. Robinson” was a key character in the American film The Graduate (also released at the end of 1967 but very much on the popular mind through 1968). Finally, the reference to O.J. Simpson (now best known for his highly publicized murder trial in 1994–1995) is to the completion of his college football career in the 1968 season—though the novel does later make reference to Simpson’s murder case, despite the fact that it occurred after the events of the novel (376).

Shalimar the Clown and the Postmodern Use of History

This list of events again helps to balance the horrific events described in Kashmir in the novel, reminding us that bad happenings are not confined to the West. Moreover, the inclusion of events from film, music, and sports along with important political events as markers of history is indicative of the way Rushdie clearly understands that these two categories of events are not entirely separable. And he is surely right: the popular culture that is widely experienced in a given year is clearly very much a part of the texture of life in that year. At the same time, there is surely something very postmodern about the way Rushdie treats political history and cultural history in essentially the same way—as a vast library of images and motifs from which to draw as ready-made material to include in his novel. In this sense, Shalimar is constructed in a manner that is a classic example of postmodernism, where this tendency has often been observed, though the collapse of the boundary between reality and culture (representations of reality) in Shalimar is particularly postmodern. The leading theorist of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, has noted that postmodern artists tend to view the entire cultural tradition as a sort of aesthetic cafeteria from whose menu they can nostalgically pick and choose without critical engagement with the works being borrowed from or concern for the historical context in which those styles originally arose. Referring to this practice as the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past,” Jameson, argues that this form of pastiche is,

like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of any laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. (Postmodernism 17)

David Harvey observes a similar tendency in postmodern culture when he notes that

postmodernists simply make gestures towards historical legitimacy by extensive and often eclectic quotation of past styles. Through films, books, and the like, history and past experience are turned into a seemingly vast archive ‘instantly retrievable and capable of being consumed over and over again at the push of a button.’ … The postmodern penchant for jumbling together all manner of references to past styles is one of its more pervasive characteristics. (85)

Importantly, for both Jameson and Harvey, this practice is not a choice on the part of individual artists, but an imperative necessitated by the conditions of life under late capitalism. Jameson particularly emphasizes his view that, partly because they themselves suffer from the psychic fragmentation he associates with the postmodern condition, postmodern artists are simply unable to develop and maintain the kind of distinctive personal styles that Jameson attributes to modernist artists. In his view, “the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture” (Postmodernism 17–18).

For most theorists, the disengaged nature of pastiche is part of the lack of political power of postmodern art and literature. Rushdie, however, might be an exception, both because he engages so extensively with openly political issues and because the cultural and historical “cafeteria menu” from which he draws is much broader than that of most postmodern artists, including extensive material from the East, as well as the West, from which most postmodern artists exclusively draw. In this sense, it is worth noting that Jameson has suggested, in a controversial 1986 essay on “Third-World Literature” (meaning what would soon be more commonly referred to as “postcolonial” literature) that this literature might provide an alternative to Western postmodern literature because it remains connected to social and political reality in ways that Western postmodern literature cannot. At the same time, it is not really the case that any of Rushdie’s fiction really qualifies as Third-World literature, even in texts such as Midnight’s Children, which is set entirely in India. As I have argued elsewhere (“Midnight’s Children”), Rushdie himself has always been more of a postmodern writer than a postcolonial one.

In addition, Jameson’s main focus in his essay is on the ability of the typical work of Third-World fiction to function as a national allegory in which the experiences of its characters stand in for the experience of their nation as a whole and especially of the national experience of overcoming colonialism to become a postcolonial nation. As I have argued elsewhere, Midnight’s Children certainly meets this description on the surface, but its postmodern textuality essentially ends up making it a parody of a national allegory, rather than a national allegory proper (“Midnight’s Children”). Shalimar the Clown, on the other hand, completely deviates from the national allegory model in that Kashmir has never managed to become a nation, while characters such as Shalimar and Max and India Ophuls are essentially citizens of the world with complex international backgrounds, which makes it impossible for them to allegorize the experience of any one nation. As Nalini Iyer has noted, the story of Kashmiri nationalism “can only flourish in the diaspora through characters like Kashmira and writers like Rushdie who nurture the idea but recognize the impossibility of its realization in the political world of the day. The narrative refuses to provide easy answers, thus frustrating literary critics who would rather have a well-made national allegory for their reading pleasure” (135).

In Shalimar one very postmodern aspectof the way historical events are used is the blurring of the boundary between history and fiction. In the third section of the novel, which fills in the background of Max Ophuls, we learn that he is appointed ambassador to India by President Lyndon Johnson “nearly two years after the Kennedy assassination,” which tells us that he became ambassador some time in well into 1965 (137). We are also told in the novel that Ophuls’ predecessor as the U.S. Ambassador to India was the economist and intellectual John Kenneth Galbraith, who did indeed serve in that role from April 18, 1961, until July 12, 1963. And we learn that Ophuls’s successor as ambassador (after the scandal of his involvement with Boonyi drives him from office) was Chester Bowles, who was actually Galbraith’s successor, serving until April of 1969. Thus, the fictional Ophuls is sandwiched between two real-world ambassadors to India, just as real people and fictional characters are freely intermixed throughout the novel.

One of the oddest examples of a mixture between fiction and reality in Shalimar the Clown occurs in the naming of “Max Ophuls,” which film aficionados (it always helps to be a film aficionado when reading Rushdie, given his frequent film allusions) will recognize as also being (except for the lack of an umlaut) the adopted name of a well-known twentieth-century film director, though this Max Ophüls was actually born (in 1902) Maximillian Oppenheimer. Ophüls, a Jew, began his career as a film director in the German film industry, then fled Germany for France after the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis. When the Nazis invaded France, he was forced to flee again, eventually resuming his directorial career in Hollywood films, including the highly respected Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) and Caught (1949), a seemingly low-key domestic noir about an innocent young woman who marries a pathologically controlling man who treats her like a piece of property (with the addition of a great deal of social commentary). Ophüls then ended his career back in Europe after the war. There are no doubt multiple reasons why Rushdie might have chosen to name one of his major characters “Max Ophuls.” For example, both Maxes are European Jews with both German and French cultural connections who ultimately wind up in America. To that extent, both (like Rushdie himself) serve as emblems of the increasing globalization that was one of the hallmarks of twentieth-century culture.

Ultimately, though, the use of the name of Ophuls might be, more than anything, a simple postmodern textual game. For example, in the novel, Ophuls escapes from Nazi-occupied territory by piloting the first supersonic flight to safety. This story is apparently based on the fact that American pilot Chuck Yeager was shot down behind enemy lines during World War II, escaping to safety with the help of members of the French Resistance. Yeager then later became the pilot of the first supersonic flight. Rushdie clearly draws upon history in complex ways in this novel.

The novel does contain one hint to Rushdie’s thinking process in using the Ophuls name. During his time with the French resistance, Max has to adopt multiple pseudonyms in order to help him evade the Nazis, including “Sebastian Brant,” after which he is chided for choosing such a well-known name (161). Brant (1458–1521, aka “Brandt”) was, in fact, a prominent German satirist, best known for the 1494 satirical allegory Ship of Fools. Later, Max adopts still another identity, “Jacques Wimpfeling,” clearly derived from the name of Jakob Wimpfeling (1450–1528), an Alsacian humanist scholar (and theologian) from roughly the same period as Brant[5]. Whether or not the Nazis would immediately recognize these names as fake is open to debate, but, in choosing the name of Max Ophuls, someone so recently famous, Rushdie seems to have ensured that the source of the name would be recognized by at least some of his readers, probably as a way simply of reminding us that Ophuls is a fictional character.

Incidentally, one of Max’s jobs in the Resistance is to create false identities for other Resistance fighters, complete with documentation, something about which he later muses: “The reinvention of the self, that classic American theme,” he would write in his memoir, “began for me in the nightmare of old Europe’s conquest by evil. That the self can so readily be remade is a dangerous, narcotic discovery. Once you’ve started using that drug, it isn’t easy to stop” (162). Of course, while reinventing oneself might be a fundamental theme of American life, we should also note that one of the principal motifs in Shalimar the Clown involves the Kashmiri title character’s reinvention of himself in a totally new identity (and Boonyi’s ill-fated attempt to build a new identity/life for herself).

Meanwhile, the main arcs of the plot of the novel also indicate that whole regions can take on different identities in different times—and perhaps be viewed as different places by different people. Kashmir, for example, is the site of horrific atrocities in the novel, but it is somewhat idealized by some characters as a former paradise that has been disrupted by political disputes. For example, in an event that indirectly triggers his killing, Ophuls goes on an American talk show and (somewhat to the chagrin of the host, who had hoped Ophuls would merely relate entertaining, colorful, and exotic stories from his past) launches into a lengthy diatribe about Kashmir: “We who live in these luxury limbos, the privileged purgatories of the earth, have set aside thoughts of paradise,” declares Ophuls, “yet I tell you that I have seen it and walked by its fish-rich lakes. If thoughts of paradise do occur to us, we think of Adam’s fall, of the expulsion from Eden of the parents of humanity. However, I have not come to speak of the fall of man, but the collapse of paradise itself. In Kashmir it is paradise itself that is falling; heaven on earth is being transformed into a living hell” (28).

Ophuls’ description of Kashmir as a heaven (then hell) on earth is, like all declarations, exaggerated, but his reminders of the violence that has ripped apart the region and the description of that violence elsewhere in the novel are based on historical fact. Kashmir has long, in fact, been one of the most contested places in the modern world, its remote and once-idyllic environs having frequently become the site of unusually extreme outbreaks of violence. Rushdie weaves his account of this historical violence into a fictional narrative that gives the history of Kashmir a sort of fable-like quality, perhaps especially for Western readers, most of whom are not terribly familiar with the history of the region.

This is not the place to provide a detailed account of the history of Kashmir. Briefly, though, it is worth noting that, while there has been a long history of invasions and changes of regime in Kashmir, much of the region had been relatively peaceful from 1846 to 1947, constituted as the Princely State of Kashmir, with a Hindu elite holding most power (in cooperation with the British colonial rulers of India), despite the fact that the majority of people in the region were Muslim. Upon independence from Britain, the Partition of India into the nations of India and Pakistan triggered bloody outbreaks of violence in much of India—especially in Kashmir, where the exact boundaries between Pakistan and India remained in dispute, leading to the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947–1948 (also known as the Kashmir War). Conditions in Kashmir were further destabilized by the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 (also known as the Second Kashmir War), so that, by the time Ophuls first came to Kashmir in the mid-1960s, the area had already suffered a long legacy of violence, complicating his view of it as a peaceful paradise.

Kashmir is also located in a part of the world that has seen considerable activity by Muslim extremist terrorist organizations, such as the one ultimately joined by Shalimar, who receives extensive professional training, becoming a very deadly and highly skilled assassin. Such organizations are, nominally, driven by religious fervor, though the novel makes clear that Shalimar himself is not particularly religious and does not buy into the ideology of the group that trains him. Instead, he is simply accumulating the skills and experience and resources that will ultimately allow him to travel to America to kill Ophuls.

Ophuls’ discourse on Kashmir is quite even-handed, noting both the damage done to the region by Muslim terrorist attacks on Hindus as well as the damage done to the region by attacks of the Hindu-dominated Indian army on Muslims. Unfortunately, by the time his appearance on the talk show airs, his segment has been radically edited, mostly in ways that seem to make it primarily a criticism of Muslim terrorism. This motif, of course, serves as a commentary on the often one-sided coverage of Islam in the American media; it also enrages Ophuls’ current lover, Zainab Asam, a dazzling young Muslim woman who just happens to be India’s leading sex symbol, a top film star in Bollywood. Zainab refuses to listen to his explanations concerning the editing, ending their relationship. Then, on the ride home from Ophuls’ apartment in her now-former lover’s Bentley, the furious Zainab vents her spleen concerning Ophuls’ perceived hostility to Islam to Ophuls’ chauffeur, who is, as it turns out, Shalimar the Clown. Zainab’s rant then apparently finally triggers Shalimar to carry out his long-delayed assassination of Ophuls. He bids farewell to the film star with words that portend the killing of Ophuls soon afterward, placing that killing in a world historical context, declaring, “For every O’Dwyer … there is a Shaheed Udham Singh, and for every Trotsky a Mercader awaits” (30).

Zainab has no idea what he’s talking about, nor will most American readers. But readers of Rushdie should have learned by now to keep Wikipedia open as they read his work, which would allow them quickly to ascertain that Shaheed Udham Singh was the assassin who killed Michael O’Dwyer, the former lieutenant governor of the Punjab in India, on March 13, 1940. This assassination was carried out in London as an anticolonial gesture and at least partly as a response to the notorious Amritsar Massacre of 1919, in which British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of Indian protestors, killing hundreds. That shooting was ordered by a Colonel Reginald Dyer; Michael O’Dwyer was not involved, but the similarity in names has often been thought to have suggested to Singh a link between the assassination of O’Dwyer and the Amritsar Massacre. However, Singh, though he had a history of anticolonial political radicalism, claimed that he killed O’Dwyer for personal reasons.

Meanwhile, Ramón Mercader was a Spanish communist who, on August 20, 1940, attacked former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky, who was living in exile in Mexico after having become an enemy of the Stalinist regime back in the Soviet Union, which from he had been expelled in 1929. Trotsky died the next day as a result of his injuries, which were inflicted, Mercader claimed, because of a personal grudge, though it has been widely assumed that Mercader was doing the bidding (perhaps unknowingly) of the Stalinist regime, which regarded the brilliant anti-Stalinist intellectual Trotsky as a serious threat to their power.

Both Singh and Mercader, then, are appropriately cited as Shalimar’s predecessors, because both carried out politically charged assassinations for apparently personal reasons long after political events that were nevertheless linked in some way to the killings. By mentioning these famous assassinations, Rushdie places the fictional story of Ophuls within a real-world context, which seems to make his story more believable. Moreover, if the attempted assassination of Rushdie in 2022 also suggested parallels between Ophuls and Rushdie himself, the fact is that those parallels were already in place when this novel was published in 2005. After all, while the killing of Ophuls has to do with long-held personal grudge on the part of Shalimar, it is triggered by Ophuls’ perceived public criticism of Islam, a criticism that is made to seem more severe because his accompanying criticism of Hindu-dominated India gets lost in the shuffle. In the same way, the fatwa and the two attempted killings of Rushdie were brought about by his perceived criticism of Islam in The Satanic Verses, ignoring the fact that this criticism is not really the main point of the novel, in which a major satirical target is the anti-progressive (and especially anti-immigrant) tendencies of Thatcherite Britain, something that again got lost in the furor over the novel’s treatment of Islam[6]. The attack on Ophuls thus has a clear self-reflexive element, as do so many things in Shalimar the Clown.

Shalimar the Clown and Popular Culture

Especially for readers who are not accustomed to reading Rushdie’s fiction, one of the most striking things about Shalimar the Clown is the way it draws so heavily upon motifs from popular culture, as do many works of postmodern fiction, as in the case of Thomas Pynchon, one of Rushdie’s key literary influences. What is especially distinctive about Rushdie’s work, though, is its ability to intermix Eastern and Western popular culture so freely. The Kashmir portions of the novel focus on the village of Pachigam, whose inhabitants specialize in a traditional form of live theater that includes not only enactments of drama, but also other forms of performance as well, including singing, dancing, and circus-like acts, such as tightrope walking. Indeed, “Shalimar the Clown” is the only stage name of the book’s title character, who was born “Noman Sher Noman,” but performs as an acrobat and clown in the entertainments put on by the Pachigam troupe of traveling players in the novel.

The narrator of the novel seems quite knowledgeable about the form of traditional popular culture represented by the performances of this troupe and provides us with a great amount of detail concerning this form of traditional Kashmiri culture. At the same time, this narrator is also extremely conversant with Western popular culture, allusions to which constitute a natural and integral part of his language. Early in the novel, for example, the Asian martial arts instructor of India Ophuls is described as being “a Clouseau-attacking Burt Kwouk look-alike,” in reference to the English actor (of Chinese descent) who played Cato, the Asian man-servant of Inspector Closeau in a series of seven films in the Pink Panther series, beginning with A Shot in the Dark in 1963 and extending all the way to Son of the Pink Panther in 1993 (6). Cato is a martial arts expert whose duties include surprise attacks on Closeau, just to keep the inspector sharp.

Sometimes references to Eastern and Western popular culture are intermixed in a single extended allusion. For example, the novelbegins as the narrator describes the odd guttural noises sometimes made by twenty-four-year-old India Ophuls while she sleeps, in a description that immediately makes clear the dual cultural context of the novel: some observers, we are told, have suggested that India sounds “as if she were speaking Arabic. Night-Arabian, she thought, the dreamtongue of Scheherazade[7]. Another version described her words as science-fictional, like Klingon, like a throat being cleared in a galaxy far, far away. Like Sigourney Weaver channeling a demon in Ghostbusters” (3).

Among the many ironies of Shalimar the Clown is the fact that, while Max Ophuls might be a Westerner (and might take his name from a figure in Western film history), he himself rejects recorded media such as film and television and believes only live performance (as in traditional Kashmiri performances) to have true value: “In the capital city of the billion-dollar industries of film, television and recorded music Max Ophuls never went to the movies, detested television drama and comedy, owned no sound system, and happily foretold the coming end of these temporary perversions, which, he predicted, would shortly be abandoned by their devotees in favor of the infinitely superior appeal of the immediacy, spontaneity and continuity of live performance, the thrilling power of the physical presence of the performer” (24–25).

Rushdie’s extensive allusions to classic texts of world “literature” combines with his frequent references to modern popular culture to remind us that the once unbridgeable divide between “high” and “low” culture no longer applies in our postmodern world. In addition, one of the most important uses to which Rushdie puts his references to popular culture in Shalimar the Clown is to establish East-West dialogues and to demonstrate how it makes no sense in our modern globalized world to think of the East and West as polar opposites—even as it also makes no sense to think of the world as an entirely homogeneous culture in which everyone should be expected to accept Western values and play by Western rules. Rushdie is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan writers, engaging in a knowledgeable way with cultures all over the world. He is also one of the leading contemporary American writers, which should serve to remind us that American culture does not exist in isolation from the rest of the world. But Shalimar the Clown also helps us to recognize that these issues are not simply theoretical but impinge on the lives of real people in real places, often places of which Americans have little awareness. In this case, that place would be Kashmir. Thus, Stephen Morton is absolutely correct to emphasize that, in this novel, “Rushdie offers a political elegy for Kashmir that highlights the limitations of American foreign policy in postcolonial South Asia from the Truman administration to the Bush administration, and mourns the lives of many Kashmiris, whose deaths have been overshadowed by the Cold War and the US-led war on terrorism” (353). But Rushdie also offers a complex postmodern entertainment that has many dimensions and that engages with global culture as well as global history.

Works Cited

Anker, Elizabeth S. “Narrating Human Rights and the Limits of Magic Realism in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown.” Theoretical Perspectives on Human Rights and Literature. Edited by Elizabeth Swanson Goldberg, and Alexandra
Schultheis Moore, Routledge, 2011, pp. 149–64.

Booker, M. Keith. “Midnight’s Children, History, and Complexity: Reading Rushdie after the Cold War.” Critical Essays on Salman Rushdie. Edited by M. Keith Booker, G. K. Hall, 1999, pp. 283–313.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Blackwell, 1990.

Iyer, Nalini. “Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, National Allegory, and Kashmiriyat.” South Asian Review, vol. 35, no. 1, 2014, pp. 125–37.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Jameson Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” First published in 1986. Pretexts, vol.3, nos. 1–2, 1991, pp. 82–104.

Morton, Stephen. “‘There were collisions and explosions. The world was no longer calm.’ Terror and precarious life in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown.” Textual Practice, vol. 22, no. 2, 2008, pp. 337–55.

Rushdie, Salman. Shalimar the Clown. Random House, 2005.

Stadtler, Florian. “Terror, Globalization and the Individual in Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing, vol. 45, no. 2, 2009, pp. 191–99.

Notes

[1] In another parallel that might conceivably have influenced Rushdie’s writing of Shalimar, it might be noted that Egyptian Nobel Prize–winning novelist Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck in 1994 for perceived insults against Islam in his writing. The controversy that led to the attack on Mahfouz was, meanwhile, intensified after the fatwa was issued against Rushdie.

[2] Shalimar’s mode of escape comes as something of a surprise in that magical realism is far less prominent in Shalimar the Clown than in most of Rushdie’s novels. See Anker for a discussion of the greater realism of this novel relative to most Rushdie novels.

[3] See Stadtler for a detailed consideration of the novel’s engagement with the issue of terrorism.

[4] Norman Mailer (1923–2007) was an extremely prominent American novelist, known for his antiwar activism and for his writings (directly or indirectly) about the Vietnam War and the antiwar movement, including the experimental novel Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) and the nonfiction Armies of the Night (1968). Operation Cedar Falls was a massive search-and-destroy mission conducted in 1967; it was the largest U.S. land operation of the Vietnam War.

[5] Max also uses the name Niccolò, which perhaps suggests Niccolò Macchiavelli (1469–1527). However, he does not employ Macchiavelli’s last name, presumably because that would be too obvious given Macchiavelli’s great fame. Rushide also refers to Macchiavelli (more unequivocally) in The Satanic Verses, again without the last name, and in Fury (2001), with the last name.

[6] One suspects, in fact, that Khomeini’s ire was not about the treatment of Islam itself but about the fact that The Satanic Verses contains a character called “the Imam,” who is clearly based on Khomeini and who is clearly portrayed as a crazed and dangerous fanatic. It might be noted that Khomeini, then in power in Iran, had ordered the torture and killing of tens of thousands of political dissidents there in the year prior to the publication of Rushdie’s novel.

[7] Scheherazade is the key storyteller figure in the extremely well-known Middle Eastern story collection The One Thousand and One Nights (aka The Arabian Nights).