SHALIMAR THE CLOWN by Salman Rushdie (Random House), 398 pages, $34.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
Given its title, you might expect Salman Rushdie's novel Shalimar The Clown to be rife with his usual hilarity. But Salman the clown is mostly missing from this harrowing tale of the betrayal and dismemberment of his ancestral homeland, Kashmir. It is much more Rushdie's sadness and outrage that are projected in this tightly textured prose, giving it a sense of gravitas unique among his works of fiction.
Fortunately, all the other familiar gifts abound: the lush landscapes, mythic underlay, infuriatingly compelling asides, aphoristic quips, Solomonic wisdom - all propelled by Rushdie's celebrated storytelling.
Rushdie exhales long complex sentences that would leave many readers staggering if it weren't for every syllable's extreme forward momentum. This carries everything onward to the book's final 80 pages, which are among the best Rushdie (or anyone) has ever written.
The eponymous Shalimar, an avenging terrorist clown, is set on murdering not only his unfaithful wife, Boonyi, but also her sleazy seducer, American diplomat Max Ophuls (not the German film director).
These three characters cooperate so inexplicably with their impending doom that it's hard to have any sympathy for them at all. But when the book's chilling denouement moves to Los Angeles and the stolen love child Kashmira (aka India), whom the clown has also sworn to kill, the narrative traction becomes so intense that it's advisable to cancel all appointments before beginning that section.
Along the way, via the beautiful, tormented Kashmira, Rushdie manages to elegantly confront and repudiate the so-called honour killing system, bewail his beloved Kashmir and ultimately sound a tone of hope and valour. He is a master writer, and this book stands, along with Midnight's Children and the underrated Haroun And The Sea Of Stories, with his best work.