Review: Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie

My lovely Legal Sister bought me Shalimar the Clown at a book sale last year and gave it to me when she GRADUATED SISTER GRADUATED WOOOO YAY FOR SISTERS. Legal Sister reports that the family has a policy whereby we all give each other books we got at book sales and do not have to pay each other back. I am not sure this is a real policy, but I’m delighted to acknowledge it as if it were. Shalimar the Clown is one of the two fiction books by Salman Rushdie I had yet to read (not counting Grimus and Shame, which I started and loathed and never finished; and not counting Luka and the Fire of Life, which I’m not sure about because I didn’t love Haroun and the Sea of Stories), the other being The Moor’s Last Sigh, so I was glad to have the chance to read it. I suspected I would like it okay but not as much as The Moor’s Last Sigh. But we’ll see.

Teresa and I were talking last week about Salman Rushdie and how his gifts as a writer do not necessarily run to constructing coherent plotlines. He is a genius with wordplay, and he makes magical realism, a genre I customarily detest, startlingly unloathsome. He has some set pieces that are marvelously executed, nicely set up, elegantly internally paralleled, and tidily finished. But if you are after a coherent narrative, Salman Rushdie is perhaps not your guy. Teresa said that this was the reason she liked Shalimar the Clown best of Rushdie’s books, because it is a well-ordered, narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Digressive it certainly is, or it wouldn’t be Rushdie, but it’s all building up to something, and once it builds up to the thing, there’s a climax, a denouement, and then the book ends. I can absolutely see Teresa’s point on this.

However, Shalimar the Clown didn’t do it for me. The plot is basically that there is this American diplomat with an illegitimate daughter called India, and he gets brutally murdered by his driver, a Kashmiri fellow called Shalimar the Clown. Subsequently the narrative flashes back to Shalimar’s childhood in Kashmir and the love of his life, a girl named Boonyi, and all the terrible things that happened to Boonyi and Shalimar and Kashmir, and how it’s all led up to this brutal murder by Shalimar of the American diplomat. In Rushdie-relative rather than absolute terms, this plot is tight as a drum.

But, eh, I don’t know. It all felt heavy-handed.

(I just paused from writing this post because my friend sent me a link to the film trailer for Breaking Dawn. Now I feel silly calling anything else in the entire world heavy-handed. But on I bloodily stagger.)

As I was saying, it all felt heavy-handed. There were parts of the book that talked about the bloodshed in Kashmir, and when you’re talking about something as horrible as what Rushdie’s talking about,  you really don’t need to sell it much because the impact on the readers happens just from the events. The writing doesn’t need to fall all over itself reminding you how terrible and senseless it is. I was also bothered (I am increasingly bothered by this in Salman Rushdie’s books!) by the genders of the characters. As is often the case with Rushdie, the momentum in the book (broadly speaking) tends to belong to the male characters, while the women are more reactive than active.

(Actually, that last complaint could be about the Twilight series too. HA HA, Salman Rushdie would probably not appreciate this comparison. Sorry, Salman Rushdie. You are far cleverer than Stephenie Meyer.)

So that’s it for Shalimar the Clown. I’m going to go watch the trailer for Harry Potter again now. Have I mentioned I miss Harry Potter?

Who else read it:

Asylum
Literarily Speaking
Lotus Reads
Books, Time, and Silence
Largehearted Boy

Tell me if I missed yours!

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37 thoughts on “Review: Shalimar the Clown, Salman Rushdie

  1. I have read and loved Midnight’s Children, and struggled to get through The Satanic Verses many times, and I am not quite sure Rushdie is for me. He is incredibly smart, and has a way with magical realism, as you said, but I am just not sure. I also read an interview on one of my favorite blogs of Rushdie. He came off as arrogant and bored, and almost a little insulting. I felt bad for the blogger, as she is really a great person and knows her way around literature. I do have a copy of Grimus on my shelves, and there is The Satanic Verses to try to tackle again…I just don’t know when.

    • I’m sad but not surprised that Rushdie acted like a jerk in a blog interview. He doesn’t strike me as an awfully nice person, even if he’s a gorgeous writer. I try to avoid reading interviews with him. I think he would just piss me off.

      • So true Jenny! Even though I lurve his books, I think I’d want to smack him over the head if I met him in person.

  2. I read Shalimar The Clown on a flight to DC several years ago – I have to admit, I thought it was pretty heavy too, though it certainly hammered home the message about Kashmir. And I can’t say I noticed much in the way of magical realism – just realism (but since when have clowns ever been entertaining or funny?). My favourite Rushdie book is The Ground Beneath Her Feet – wordplay at it’s best! And that one has a far lighter touch – I recommend that one to everyone who thinks threy don’t like Rushdie (after Haroun and the Sea of Stories, of course).

    The Moors Last Sigh is somewhere between The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Shalimar The Clown – it has the wordplay, but the tone is far more bitter, definitely not a happy book.

    • Oh, yes, you’re right. There wasn’t much magical realism, apart from, I suppose, the psychic connection between Shalimar and Boonyi and India. But yes, The Ground Beneath Her Feet was a more accessible book, with lots of good wordplay.

      I still have hopes for The Moor’s Last Sigh! And I quite liked The Enchantress of Florence. I want to always hold a Rushdie book in reserve. His writing is lovely.

  3. OK, thanks for making me laugh my arse off at the library where a very attorney’ish looking bloke is now making stink eyes at me from across the room.

    Rushdie and I do not have a relationship. I will once again try The Satanic Verses one day in the nebulous future because I like the title, but I don’t know that we’ll ever get further than that.

    *sigh*

    • You are welcome! When a suit cuts his eyes at you you’re probably doing something right. :p

      What did Salman Rushdie do to you to make you cross with him? The Satanic Verses is good but it’s not the best of his books (in my opinion). The Ground Beneath Her Feet is more better.

  4. oh is breaking dawn trailer out already? I read the book and wasn’t sure how possible it would be adapted on big screen. Bella’s labour was horrific!

    I wanted to read Shalimar the Crown for awhile. After reading your review, perhaps it is not worthwhile?

    • I still cannot imagine how it’ll be adapted to the screen. And how can it possibly make two movies? It’s too stupid for two movies!

      It…well, I don’t know. I wouldn’t recommend it as your first Rushdie if you haven’t read anything else by him yet. But other people (like Eva! and Teresa!) have liked it a lot, so don’t go by me.

  5. I believe I neglected to mention that when I say Shalimar is my favorite Rushdie book that I’ve only read three, so that’s not much to go on 🙂 Still, I did like it and don’t remember finding it heavy handed (or it might have been that because I reading about a part of the world that I hadn’t read much about and thus needed thematic whacks upside the head)!

    • It’s enough to go on! It’s totally enough! I knew by the first half of my first Rushdie book that I liked him, even though the first book (Midnight’s Children) is very much not my favorite. I like the way he writes using tons and tons and tons of words. Whenever I reread The Ground Beneath Her Feet, I find it just as marvelous as every other time. But alas, Shalimar the Clown did not do it for me.

    • Sure! I liked The Ground Beneath Her Feet best, but Amazon tells me it is not the favorite of most people. Shalimar the Clown is pretty upsetting in some ways, maybe more than any of the other Rushdie books I’ve read? I wouldn’t start with it. Try The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and if you like the writing, you’ll know pretty quickly. The writing is always consistently good even if you don’t like the plots.

    • Is it? I thought the policy was just, like, if we get something cheap for each other we don’t worry about paying it back. Is it exclusive to books?

  6. Why do you hate magical realism? I’m not 100% sure I’m clear on what it is, but it appears to be magical elements introduced into a realistic setting, so that doesn’t *seem* like something detestable. I’m curious now.

    • I have no idea how to define it. It’s one of those things. I know it when I see it. :p It’s like where the book’s totally normal and probably rather grim, and then something weird happens, but instead of going “Hey, this is weird,” the characters are just like, “Oh yeah, I’m psychically connected to my former lover. That’s normal.” I’m not a fan.

  7. So if I was in the family (how many types of sister do you have? is there an application process?) then if I buy you a book at a book sale then you are not in any way obligated to buy me a book? but if I buy you one at full price, then you must return the favor, is that it? Just wonderin’.

    I attempted Midnight’s Children but it was an old tiny-print yellow-paged somewhat smelly paperback and I failed to get into it. Or I abhorred holding it and peering at the tiny font. I’m thinking I could better get a pretty fresh copy of The Ground Beneath Her Feet instead.

    • Family Policy: If you buy books at a book sale, and then give them to others, the recipients may not pay you back. Even if it is not their birthday, Christmas, Mother’s Day or the Feast of St. Crispin.

    • I have three sisters: Legal, Indie, and Social. (Those are not their real names. Those would be weird real names.) The policy is if I buy a sister a book at a book sale, she doesn’t have to pay me back the cost of the book; but if I bought her a book at full price (this would only be with her permission of course), she’d have to pay me back.

      Midnight’s Children is a bit difficult to get into. Yes! The Ground Beneath Her Feet is better. Much better storyline, and a good set of central characters.

    • Same here. I want to read The Moor’s Last Sigh immediately, as a palate-cleanser, but I like having it held in reserve. Next time Rushdie writes a new book, that’s when I’ll read The Moor’s Last Sigh.

  8. I have to confess to having never read Rushdie, although I intend to. In fact, I have The Echantress of Florence all lined up here and ready to go (I hope that’s a good one). I get the feeling, though, that he’s one of those writers with such ambition that inevitably there’s part of his work that struggles to come off. But what do I know? I haven’t read him yet! I must get to him soon.

    • I like The Enchantress of Florence a lot — it deals with stories and making stories real, and that’s a theme I love with all my heart. There are aspects of it, gender things, that annoy me, but overall I loved it. I hope you do too! Salman Rushdie is the cleverest with words possibly of any writer I’ve yet read.

  9. I read this book many years back, and I remember liking it quite a bit. Your friend is right, in that there is a proper beginning, middle, and end to the story. I think the problem with Rushdie is his character building. Although the events are so gripping, the play with language is so good, the let-down seems to be that I can’t really care too much about the fate of the people involved.

    I recently finished Midnight’s Children, and I loved the book, but the titular character was probably the weakest link.

    • Yes! You have hit the nail exactly on the head. The characters are no good, and the women in particular are no good. That is why I liked The Ground Beneath Her Feet (most of the way through, until Vina died, that’s not a spoiler, you find that out at the very beginning), because the people were people. The three main people were the same all the way through, and I liked them.

  10. I have tried to read Rushdie and failed miserably (those long-ass sentences almost made me throw the book across the room). I’m sure he’d have a conniption if he knew I’ve never read his books but have read all of the Twilight books (although in retrospect, that was a bad move on my part).

    • Hahahaha, I can understand. I have to be in a particular mood before I can read Rushdie. He’s not an everyday sort of read — those long-ass sentences can be wearing.

  11. Jenny!!! You mean we are not in fact the same reading brain in two bodies?! How did I not know that you didn’t like magical realism?! Of course you won’t like Rushdie, lol. But that leaves all the more for me! 😉 (And this is one of my very faves; the audio version is the most wonderful thing ever.)

    • Eva!! I knew you liked magical realism, but I just don’t! I just don’t! I like for the characters to notice and be bothered when weird shit is going on. I loathed One Hundred Years of Solitude, alas, alas, alas. And I love Rushdie but not for his magical realism.

      • Hehe, ok well at least you love Rushdie then! What other magical realist authors have you tried? (I’m just curious.)

        Also, I just went back and read the first paragraph of your post, where it clearly says you love Rushdie. I don’t know how I missed that in my google reader: I think my brain was all “Shalimar the Clown! Squee!” and could not process anything else until the second paragraph. I just picked up The Ground Beneath Her Feet from the library; after that I’ll only have Grimus, Fury, and the new YA one of his fiction left and Imaginary Homelands from his nonfic. I try so hard to draw out the backlists of my favourite authors, but at the same time I’m impatient to read everything because they’re favourites! I try to follow a one or two book a year policy for most authors (except with DWJ she wrote so many I can indulge :D), but then I feel like a fraud calling them a favourite. Plus, once I finish an author’s backlist, I just start rereading, so I really shouldn’t worry about it so much! (I feel a blog post coming on…)

      • Ummm, well, not all that many, I guess. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude and as I say hated it; I read Like Water for Chocolate and double-hated it; I (am so sorry because I know you love it!) hated Beloved with a passion and furthermore it made me sick to my stomach. I liked the one book I read of Angela Carter’s, but I liked it best when it was being least magical realismy. :/

      • LOL I hated Like Water for Chocolate too! You know, I first tried reading Beloved when I was 14, but it made me so nauseous and unsettled I quit and didn’t pick it back up until I was 20! (I know that because I remember we were getting ready to move, and I went to B&N to enjoy a comfy chair for awhile since our stuff was packed, and it was on a display table and I just picked it up to flip through but ended up reading half the book & buying it so I could take it with me and read the rest.) Obviously, I’m not saying that you have to try it again, but I understand your reaction. If you do want to give Morrison another go, I just read Tar Baby which I can really see you liking! No magical realism, lots of gender politics, and her writing power at full throttle.

        And my first attempt at Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber, didn’t go so well; I didn’t like most of the stories. Which makes me feel like a blogger outcast! lol But I do want to try again and have Nights at the Circus waiting for me.

        I just thought of a book that’s a bit magical realist-y that you might like: New Moon’s Arms by Nalo Hopkinson. It does involve a mermaid (and the best backstory for mermaids EVER) but the narrator is this crotchety middle aged woman who is definitely like “Why does this boy seem like a mermaid? What the hell?” and she has to deal with hospitals, and social workers, and the kind of stuff people in real life have to deal with when they find a random little boy on the beach.

        The funny thing is, even though I lurve magical realism, I can totally see why it drives so many readers batty. 😉 So I’ll stop pressuring you now, hehe.

  12. I am late in commenting, Jenny, but I enjoyed reading your review. I haven’t read any book of Salman Rushdie till now, but I hope to read ‘Midnight’s Children’ and ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ one day (because both of them have been recommended by friends and bloggers I admire) and ‘The Satanic Verses’ (because I want to know what the fuss is all about). For some reason I don’t like Rushdie as a person – maybe because he once made a comment that books written in Indian languages were worthless and only books written by Indian writers in English were worth talking about it. I found this comment quite preposterous and annoying, because for someone who doesn’t know a single Indian language, Rushdie seemed to be making sweeping generalizations and judgements. I know a few Indian languages myself and I think they have some awesome literature which is undiscovered by an international audience. But I think I will still give a go at some of Rushdie’s books sometime. Thanks for this interesting review 🙂

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