Shalimar the Clown: A Review

In a recent radio interview about his new book, Salman Rushdie tried to explain why fiction still holds an important place in today’s world. Every day when we turn on our televisions and radios, we hear about bombings and murder, acts of war and terrorism. The atrocities we hear about and see, sometimes in gruesome detail, but no one ever explains why these things happen, or what drives people to commit these acts of hate and terror. At times we don’t even know what motivates our own selves to acts of love or hatred.

As one of the characters in Shalimar the Clown wisely states, “We don’t know why we do things.” Rushdie went on to explain that he believes an important job of the fiction writer in today’s world is to help the reader understand the factors that influence people to do good or evil. To condemn acts of terrorism and hate is easy, and understandable. But the difficult challenge we face in our world today is to understand these nuanced and complex issues thoroughly before we can hope to be able to affect any kind of change. To be able to step into the life and mind of someone far different from what you know is the gift bestowed on the reader by a great writer.

The story begins in an idyllic village in Kashmir, just before the war between Pakistan and India tear it apart. The village people make their living by providing nearby towns with food and entertainment for weddings and other celebrations. Love blossoms between two of the village’s young people—the beautiful dancer Boonyi and the talented comic tightrope artist Shalimar, one a Hindi and the other a Muslim. In spite of such religious differences, the entire village comes together to support and protect the love between Shalimar and Boonyi, reflecting the story of Romeo and Juliet in reverse.

The villagers celebrate their love and marriage as “a symbol of victory of the human over the inhuman.” Everything looks promising for the future, but Nazarebhadoor, the village’s prophetess, withdraws from public life. Her last prediction becomes her chilling explanation for her hermitage, “What’s coming is so terrible that no prophet will have words.”

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The peaceful moment of grace in the village is indeed short-lived. Boonyi runs away with a foreign ambassador, and Shalimar is twisted with jealousy and hate. What is happening on a personal level between the two is mirrored by the corporate violence happening to their small country as war erupts between India and Pakistan. Boonyi tries to come home, but things have changed forever. The book reads, “The age of reason was over, as was the age of love. The irrational was coming into its own. Strategies of survival might be required.”

As Christians, we are often taught and will assert proudly that we hold the absolute Truth. Hopefully this motivates us to be people of love and mercy, following in the footsteps of Christ. But in this work of fiction, Rushdie explores the flip side and danger of such thinking. Many terrorists and many different religious leaders also believe that they hold absolute Truth, although their own definitions of such Truth will vary markedly. When you believe without doubt that you hold the Truth, then any of your actions can be motivated and justified by that belief. Acts of murder, terrorism, hatred, racism, war—all justified by the “truth” you hold. Rushdie also explores in the story whether discord is a more powerful force than harmony, whether violence must ultimately be stopped with violence, and whether or not we can go on believing that humans are essentially good in the world that we live in today. Rushdie does a remarkable job of placing these events and issues in a specific place in history, all the while hinting at the idea that the violence we see and hear about today is nothing new. Compelling characters and beautiful writing make this book a joy to read, but the real treasure is in the skillful exploration of ideas that keep many of us up at night, long after watching the evening news.

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