Books · Gender

Theatres of cruelty

Shalimar the ClownShalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this a lot. Compared to Rushdie’s style in The Satanic Verses his magical realism here is more subtle and toned down to the point where it enhances rather than disrupting my suspension-of-disbelief. At one point magic even forms the case for the defence in a trial in an entirely believable way: the argument is, as my friend Alicia pointed out to me recently “If people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.

The magical strand helps to creates a wonderful, unsettling sense of the fragility of truth. Rushdie also revises interpretations by giving two characters’ thoughts on the same thing: he does an unnecessary author-voice thing like ‘but Firdous saw more clearly; she knew…’ that strategically offers comparative, but never definitive judgement. Nonetheless, this isn’t one of those works that casts the reader into despair by dispensing with a stable timeline of events. Rather, it shows how conflict and slaughter rewrite history by erasing memory.

I enjoy how he moves between different styles of dramatising events too, for example when he describes the Indian army crackdown on the Muslim population he does so in a style of utterly transparent propaganda that enables him to describe horror wittily, creating a distance that stops it from being unbearable to read. This is similar to the technique used by Voltaire in
Candide
. Kashmir descends into violence, and Rushdie can only show how it happens. In
Orientalism
Said points out that any distinction tends to polarise (orientalism makes the Orient more oriental AND the West more western). Here religion turns into a polarising division because it is politicised in the precious materiality of the land. Thus it becomes the defining feature of the bodies of believers…

The vortex of violence in Kashmir is centred on two intense characters, Boonyi and Shalimar. They can be read as ordinary, elevated only by the author’s attention (ie everyone is endowed with certain transformative capacities) or as magical beings, foci of passionate energy and power. Kashmira and Max are on the same plane. All of these characters exhibit ruthlessness and the ability to channel all of their resources obsessively to a single end.

I find Rushdie an interesting writer of gender. I don’t see this as a sexist book, but as a masculinist one. It’s interesting that the person who seems most despicable to the novel’s internal poetic(?) morality(?) is an asexual, unmotherly woman. Shalimar also seems minimally sexual, but this feature defines him much less than his brutality. Boonyi’s sexuality is her power and it directs her fate; while Max is even more insatiable than her, and the contrast between their downfalls – he never loses agency, is always subject rather than object – is an indictment of patriarchal gender roles. Kashmira is so ‘unfeminine’ that she takes no interest in clothes and at age seven tells her father she likes ‘bows and arrows and slingshots and excaliburs and guns’ (I wonder why she calls our attention to King Arthur). He is unfazed, telling her to use the doll he has brought her for target practice. Poetic(?) justice(?) rewards Kashmira’s warrior qualities in a literally penetrative climax.

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