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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Shalimar the Clown

Salman Rushdie

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To purchase Shalimar the Clown

Title: Shalimar the Clown
Author: Salman Rushdie
Genre: Novel
Written: 2005
Length: 398 pages
Availability: Shalimar the Clown - US
Shalimar the Clown - UK
Shalimar the Clown - Canada
Shalimar the Clown - India
Shalimar le clown - France
Shalimar der Narr - Deutschland
Shalimar il clown - Italia
Shalimar el payaso - España

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Our Assessment:

B : many fine ideas and parts, but doesn't quite work as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Atlantic Monthly . 9/2005 Christopher Hitchens
Christian Science Monitor . 6/9/2005 Erik Spanberg
The Globe and Mail . 10/9/2005 Annabel Lyon
The Guardian . 3/9/2005 Natasha Walter
The Independent A 9/9/2005 Suhayl Saadi
Independent on Sunday . 4/9/2005 Matt Thorne
London Rev. of Books . 6/10/2005 Theo Tait
The LA Times . 4/9/2005 Jonathan Levi
The Nation . 3/10/2005 Lee Siegel
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 14/1/2006 Angela Schader
The New Criterion . 11/2005 Max Watman
New Statesman . 26/9/2005 John Mullan
The NY Observer . 12/9/2005 David Thomson
The NY Rev. of Books . 6/10/2005 Pankaj Mishra
The NY Sun . 2/9/2005 Adam Kirsch
The NY Times B- 6/9/2005 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. . 23/10/2005 Laura Miller
The New Yorker . 5/9/2005 John Updike
The Observer A 11/9/2005 Jason Cowley
Outlook India . 12/9/2005 Amit Chaudhuri
San Francisco Chronicle A 11/9/2005 Tom Barbash
The Spectator . 17/9/2005 Francis King
Sunday Express . 21/8/2005 Nilanjana S. Roy
Sunday Times F 11/9/2005 Peter Kemp
The Telegraph . 11/9/2005 Caroline Moore
The Telegraph . 11/9/2005 Philip Hensher
The Times A 27/8/2005 Justine Hardy
TLS . 9/9/2005 Marco Roth
USA Today . 5/9/2005 Deirdre Donahue
The Village Voice . 8/8/2005 Joy Press
The Washington Post A 11/9/2005 Ron Charles
Weekly Standard . 31/10/2005 Randy Boyagoda
Die Welt . 28/1/2006 Elmar Krekeler
Die Zeit . 5/1/2006 Thomas E. Schmidt

  Review Consensus:

  Not quite a consensus, but many quite impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a highly serious novel, on an extremely serious subject, by a deeply serious man. It is not necessary to assimilate all the details of the conflict in Kashmir in order to read it. (...) Rather than seek anything as trite as a "message", I should guess that Rushdie is telling us: No more Macondos. No more Shangri-las, if it comes to that. Gone is the time when anywhere was exotic or magical or mythical, or even remote." - Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly

  • "(A) devastating if at times heavy-handed examination of a doomed love and doomed region. (...) Shalimar the Clown isn't a story. Rather, as the movie people describe such segments, it is back story." - Erik Spanberg, Christian Science Monitor

  • "In the end, there's something a little too neatly schematic about this novel: Muslim man murders Jewish man over Hindu woman. But if you can ignore the geopolitics-as-love-triangle, read Shalimar the Clown for the effervescent fun factor that is always present in Rushdie's work (...), and for its devastating portrait of the destruction of Kashmir." - Annabel Lyon, The Globe and Mail

  • "(F)rom the beginning the prose seems to be straining to live up to expectations, and slipping into hyperbole as a result. (...) (L)ose sight of the lecture, and you are left with an increasingly absurd plot and a style that is more and more mannered." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian

  • "Shalimar the Clown is a brilliant symphony with some bum notes. Its shuddering epiphany and dynamic immediacy are exceptional, and the characters of the villagers are drawn with humour, intelligence and intense emotional power. With fewer of the stylistic irritations of his previous fictions, this is one of Rushdie's best novels yet." - Suhayl Saadi, The Independent

  • "Rushdie addresses many geopolitical, philosophical and theological questions in his novel but this is not polemic. There are intensely passionate anti-war passages, but they somehow don't impact on the main narrative in quite the way they might." - Matt Thorne, Independent on Sunday

  • "The sentences, by Rushdie’s standards, are short; there are fewer bells and whistles (although, by normal standards, there are still a lot of bells and whistles). He even tries to generate tension. The result is very peculiar: a cross between a piece of magic realism which displays all the worst vices of the style, and the contemporary international thriller. It is passionate, well-informed and sometimes interesting; but also hackneyed, simplistic and often very, very silly." - Theo Tait, London Review of Books

  • "There are few writers who can pull off such an act. But Rushdie defies gravity and dispatches his characters on journeys leading up to the assassination, leading away from the assassination, entertaining and dazzling, but all the while guiding us on an examination of this precarious high wire we find ourselves walking in the 21st century." - Jonathan Levi, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Alas, there is not a single real, intimate moment between characters in this book; not a single scene or situation unfolding according to its inner laws, away from the disheveling hurry of the novel's judgments and opinions; and barely any dialogue. Shalimar the Clown is nearly all exposition." - Lee Siegel, The Nation

  • "Vor allem aber wird das Buch -- obwohl ein ehrliches Engagement des Autors herauszuspüren ist -- seinem Thema nicht wirklich gerecht." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "I felt as if I were on my way to something good. And as soon as I felt it, it began to disintegrate. (...) The deeper into this book one goes, the more it seems like jacket copy for some crazed James Bond ripoff." - Max Watman, The New Criterion

  • "You want to admire this passionate book, whose engagement with urgent issues -- religious fundamentalism, the influence of America, the psychopathology of terrorism -- is so uncontrived. Here is a novel that is heartfelt, anxious, anything but complacent. Yet Rushdie's ambitions threaten to crush his characters and buckle his prose." - John Mullan, New Statesman

  • "Max is as hollow as Shalimar, and a fatal sign of Mr. Rushdie’s uneasiness with male characters when they’re meant to carry a great deal of narrative energy. And here’s something of undermining importance. Mr. Rushdie is a magical writer: I say that not just in easy reference to the boisterous gaiety of his surrealism, but because of the enormous sprightliness of his language." - David Thomson, The New York Observer

  • "Rushdie's tone also changes with bewildering freqency, from the solemn and portentous to the flippant. (...) Rushdie barely lingers over the inner lives of his characters, or the everyday experiences that might constitute his basic material." - Pankaj Mishra, The New York Review of Books

  • "In fact, it is precisely because Mr. Rushdie does what he does so well in Shalimar the Clown that the book so clearly exposes the limitations of his style. (...) Shalimar the Clown, like all Mr. Rushdie's best work, has the energy and color and speed that only cartoons can offer." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun

  • "Shalimar the Clown is hobbled by Mr. Rushdie's determination to graft huge political and cultural issues onto a flimsy soap opera -- a narrative strategy that not only overwhelms his characters' stories but also trivializes the larger issues the author is trying to address. (...) (A)mbitious but ham-handed" - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "It gets better, but reading the first 100 or so pages of Shalimar often feels like wearing an ill-fitting, itchy sweater. (...) But if Rushdie cannot make you see and smell and feel the loveliness of life in Kashmir, he does, finally, make a commanding story of its loss." - Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Verbal hyperactivity of the sissy-Assisi sort nudges the hip reader on page after page (.....) His fascination with fame and theatricality, movies and rock music predated the fatwa, and gives his fiction a distracting glitter, like shaken tinsel." - John Updike, The New Yorker

  • "Writing in several different registers, Rushdie combines the wonder of fairy tale with the grittiness of hard, political realism; at times, especially in the long section recounting Max's wartime experiences, it reads as something close to reheated journalism (.....) Shalimar the Clown is Rushdie's most engaging book since Midnight's Children. It is a lament. It is a revenge story. It is a love story. And it is a warning -- to Muslims and to secular pluralists alike." - Jason Cowley, The Observer

  • "Rushdie, here, sounds less like himself than a writer who’s under the compunction to manufacture a ‘major’ work." - Amit Chaudhuri, Outlook India

  • "For all its darkness, and this book has it in spades, Shalimar the Clown also is a carousing, if overcrowded, entertainment, and, like much of Rushdie's work, often extremely funny. (...) (A) vast, richly peopled, beautiful and deeply rageful book that serves as a profound and disturbing artifact of our times." - Tom Barbash, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "(T)he lyricism with which he idealises the paradise is as unpersuasive as the vehemence with which he excoriates the hell. Something even more noticeable here than in his other novels is Rushdie’s insecurity with dialogue." - Francis King, The Spectator

  • "The over-the-top exaggeration and exuberance of Shalimar the Clown is trying, though much more coherent than Fury. Rushdie’s characters rattle around in the cages of symbol and metaphor; his style has all the subtlety of a smalltown marching band, making this novel a devastatingly easy target for parody. (...) It’s a deeply angry, sometimes clownish, often rough novel that marks just a return to form, not a return to the peak of that form." - Nilanjana S. Roy, Sunday Express

  • "What is dismaying to discover is that a trend swelling through Rushdie’s recent novels -- an attempt to compensate for the sameness and repetitiveness of his themes by deploying ever more strident sensationalism -- is here given wholesale headway. Deploring the damage done by gulfs between creeds and cultures, he opens up a crevasse between the seemingly serious intent of his novel and the trumpery nature of its techniques. (...) Any inclination to take any of this seriously is rapidly seen off by the kitschy dreadfulness of much of the writing. Gothic tosh is frequently given vent. (...) The novel’s feeblest feature is its humour." - Peter Kemp, Sunday Times

  • "There is plenty to enjoy in this characteristically daring walk along the tightrope of fiction, strung between the Himalayas and Laurel Canyon. But Rushdie wobbles perilously when he approaches the peg-poles of real life." - Caroline Moore, The Telegraph

  • "For the main part, one thing disqualifies the book: the writing is astonishingly full of clichés." - Philip Hensher, The Telegraph

  • "This book is a colossus almost bestriding the great and growing rift, though sometimes losing its balance. We have a double helix that spins together information and misinformation. Perhaps Rushdie expects us to be able to distinguish between truth and fiction, almost line by line. But this is a novel, and that must not be forgotten, particularly when it turns from tightrope to razor’s edge in the most powerful parts of the book, the ones that will be written about and argued over most." - Justine Hardy, The Times

  • "Wasn’t it supposed to bring us the news about the fate of Kashmir, the origins of global Islamic terrorism and the resentments caused by the careless lust and greed of great powers ? We find it so hard to grasp the motives for suicidal violence that any attempt to imagine them would be welcome. Instead, the novel is by turns satire, old-fashioned revenge romance and Hollywood action movie, and it seems to flaunt its determination to put as much padding as possible between readers and feelings." - Marco Roth, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The genius of Rushdie's new novel comes from the writer's ability to illuminate a global disaster through a microcosm. (...) Rushdie proves himself to be a master of the global novel." - Deirdre Donahue, USA Today

  • "Rushdie heaps divinations and omens until the novel resembles a 10-prophecy pileup. Every bit player in this sprawling saga hauls his or her own intricate backstory onto the stage. (...) Unfortunately, the usual glorious torrents of slanguage and gouts of Rabelaisian humor are largely missing in Shalimar the Clown. (...) Even more than usual, the characters seem allegorical, passion-play placeholders for the grand ideas and currents buffeting the world. The result is an honorable failure, a garbled book for garbled times." - Joy Press, The Village Voice

  • "Shalimar the Clown seems to have allowed Rushdie the time and space to sublimate his terrors into a story of deep humanity and unsettling insight. (...) Yes, Rushdie has written an intensely political novel, infused with recent events, but its emotional scope reaches so far beyond our current crisis and its vision into the vagaries of the heart is so perceptive that one can imagine Shalimar the Clown being read long after this age of sacred terror has faded into history." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post

  • "The world used to take notice of a new Salman Rushdie novel, and often with good reason. His latest, however, is cause for neither concern nor excitement. He has written a big bland airplane novel that labors across time-zones, its effects turbulent and tiring." - Randy Boyagoda, Weekly Standard

  • "Dieses Buch ist ein Mythos. Ein magisches Märchen. Es ist Politroman. Ein Kaschmir-Roman. Ein Europa-, ein Amerikaroman. Es ist eine Geschichte der Fälschungen, der Doppelgänger, der Spione. Eine Liebesgeschichte. Eine Rësistancegeschichte. Es ist eine Weltgeschichte. Ein Essay über den unheilvollen, unvermeidlichen Krieg der Religionen, einer darüber, wie das Böse, wie der Haß und der Wahn in die Welt kommt, ein Buch darüber, was die Geschichte aus Menschen, aus Familien, aus Dörfern machen kann. Eine Komödie und eine blutige Tragödie. Er ist ein Pamphlet. Eine moderne Ringparabel. Eine Anklage. Ein Nachruf. Eine Verzweiflung. Ein großes Allesmögliche." - Elmar Krekeler, Die Welt

  • "Rushdies Perspektive auf die Unversöhntheit unserer Welten ist nicht die des Ästheten, des Inders oder des Briten, sondern eine Allperspektive, ostwestlich. Das macht den Reiz des Buches aus, strapaziert es aber gewaltig. (...) Überkomplex erscheint das Buch durch die pinzettenhafte Auflösung der Handlung, die sorgsame Auspolsterung durch Nebenfiguren und Anekdoten. Aber dann ist man von dem simplen allegorischen Raster, das die multikulturelle Konstruktion zusammenhält, wiederum enttäuscht." - Thomas E. Schmidt, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Shalimar the Clown is, ultimately, a very old-fashioned revenge saga. The book begins near the end: the first section quickly gets the central act of retribution over with, with most of the rest of the book then describing what led up to it.
       Rushdie concentrates his story on four characters, each at the fore of one of the book's five sections (with one a central figure twice). A story of love, passion, honour, betrayal, much is intimate and personal -- but Rushdie frames this story within geopolitical and contemporary contexts, attempting to tie it in with something much larger (though part of what he is trying to do is to show that history is always also very personal). Max Ophuls, for example, is a statesman, the diplomat who replaced John Kenneth Galbraith as ambassador to India in the 1960s; he was also a hero of the French Resistance. Shalimar the Clown, born Noman Sher Noman (a doubled no-man), the wronged man who exacts his revenge, is long active in an international Islamic terrorist network. Even Max's daughter is burdened with more than just a name, one which is also a place-name, India.
       Rushdie doesn't focus on the most prominent festering insurgencies of our time -- Palestine, Afghanistan, now Iraq -- but rather on Kashmir, an area of tension since the India-Pakistan partition, and one in which violence escalated dramatically in the past two decades. The books best scenes are set in these parts, and describe the destruction of this idyll. It is, if not entirely a paradise on earth, at least a place where people do get along, coexisting relatively happily (and humbly).
       Shalimar and the girl called Boonyi, whom he falls in love with, are from Pachigam, a small but renowned town of entertainers and caterers. They are of different religions, but the biggest problem that poses is how their wedding ceremony should be performed: the villagers are understanding, flexible, and there is solidarity against outsiders -- be they the nearby competing village of Shirmal or more sinister forces from farther afield, the Indian army or the insurgents.
       Shalimar and Boonyi's love looks to be a fairy-tale story, but it sours quickly: Boonyi realises -- a bit too late -- that marrying Shalimar condemns them: "to a lifetime jail sentence". She has grander ambitions than the small town she'll be stuck in for the rest of her life allows for. So from that moment on she's on the lookout for a chance to escape.
       Opportunity finally comes in the form of Max Ophuls, newly appointed American ambassador to India, who comes to visit Kashmir and is immediately taken by the beautiful dancer. Ophuls was born in Strasbourg, in the Alsace, another area that, like Kashmir, has been fought over and to which different countries lay claim (Germany and France, in this case). Before the war his Jewish family was in the printing business, giving him hands-on knowledge of how to forge papers that eventually proves useful in the Resistance. (Rushdie occasionally gets carried away, having Ophuls first learn "about blowing things up" and actually carrying out a bombing himself; the Resistance would never have risked a man with his precious talent (forgery) on such a task.) He is a wartime hero, his exploits the stuff of legend -- and he also marries another Resistance legend, Peggy Rhodes (known as the Rat -- or, affectionately, Ratty), who unfortunately proves not to care too much about sex (while Max certainly does).
       Rushdie does the international-conflict scenes of World War II quite well as well, but Ophuls' (and the Rat's actions) are basically simply described, without any regard for the moral implications. (Having him toss a bomb - one of Rushdie's missteps -- is one of the few occasions morality comes up, allowing him to claim: "he personally could not get over the moral hurdles required to perform such acts on a regular basis" -- an odd take on morality that isn't explored any further. And again Rushdie does not follow through: the fact that debonair Ophuls has no problem facilitating considerable carnage (as he does throughout his career, even if for arguably the right reasons) as long as he doesn't literally get his hands dirty needs to be addressed but isn't.) Ophuls is clearly in the right -- the Nazis are an evil that must be brought down at all cost -- but Rushdie makes no effort to consider how the other conflicts addressed in the book -- all morally more ambiguous -- are to be considered. The beliefs -- often sincere, even if misguided -- that lead the terrorists and other actors to do the horrendous things they do perhaps deserve no respect, but they are barely even considered in Rushdie's equation. The militants, mullahs, and officers are all obviously second-rate figures (while Ophuls' only real flaw is his womanising), not worthy of being taken seriously. Rushdie doesn't worry nearly as much about the human toll in World War II: outrages serve as a trigger, but the consequences are glossed over, Rushdie going so far as to basically airlift Ophuls out of Europe before the war is even over, so that the devastation left behind can simply be left behind. Not so in Kashmir, revisited again and again.
       Many of the militant figures in India are ridiculous, and many are active on one side or another (or at least go to the lengths they do) for what are obviously largely personal reasons: for example, the Indian Colonel (later General) Kachhwaha, responsible for the military actions in the region, was rejected by Boonyi (and the locals), and his crack-down seems motivated almost solely by these experiences. An Islamic radical is literally a tin-pot mullah -- though he is one of Rushdie's more inspired inventions in this novel, iron mullah Maulana Bulbul Fakh. And the biggest fraud of all is, of course, Shalimar the clown, who joins the fundamentalist terrorists not because he believes in their cause but for the sole goal of eventually having an opportunity to get at Ophuls.
       Shalimar is also wiling to do some terrible things, and gets involved in conflicts that have nothing to do with him, blinded by his one obsession. For a novel in which terrorism and militancy are so central, Rushdie does not explore the motivation behind it very seriously (not does he bother much with the personal consequence -- Shalimar is merely a revenge-machine; what he thinks about at night after he's committed some atrocity isn't bothered with).
       The novel moves along in fits and spurts, but Rushdie tells the local tales -- Ophuls' war exploits, events in Kashmir -- well and it remains fairly compelling throughout. The scenes in Pachigam and Kashmir, and the collapse of the town, are the strongest in the novel, Rushdie evoking place and slowly unfolding catastrophe well (with only a bit too much reliance on the supernatural). Ophuls' story, more broken up (only life in France and his time in India are really described; much of what he did after, though relevant, barely mentioned), is interesting enough, but not always comfortably fit into the narrative. Daughter India, yet another character who vows revenge, living in Los Angeles, also isn't ideally tied in.
       Ophuls' assassination isn't the final act: the novel goes more than full circle, continuing beyond it (as the vow Shalimar made extends beyond just the man who took his wife away from him), the ending a slightly disappointing showdown. It's not unexpected, but Rushdie has his characters jump through very unlikely hoops to set it up, making it seem slightly ridiculous, a final letdown.
       Bit by bit Shalimar the Clown is fairly successful. Local scenes and episodes are very well-done, and Rushdie offers some solid flights of fancy. The characters are also fairly compelling, from smaller local figures to Ophuls, Boonyi, and Ratty. (A major exception is Shalimar, who remains more of a shell than person, Rushdie unwilling to really consider his feelings and thoughts). Interestingly, few of the major characters are sympathetic, aside from the charming womaniser Ophuls. The women (though admirably very independent-minded), in particular, fare quite badly: both Boonyi and Ratty are bitches who do things that inflict great hurt (Ophuls does too, but almost always with great charm), though each is sympathetic at times. Ophuls is to blame for their worst troubles, but they got themselves into these messes. (The two central marriages in the novel -- Shalimar and Boonyi, and Ophuls and Ratty -- are both catastrophic; it's no surprise that Rushdie makes India wary of any relationship and, even when she falls in love, is happy to keep her man at a distance much of the time.)
       (The temptation to read autobiography into aspects of this is hard to resist: the public image of Rushdie's personal life is certainly very Ophuls-like (fatwa -- of a different sort -- and all), and his previous experiences with marriage (and the women involved) would seem to inform the marriages (and women) he describes here.)
       The bigger picture of Shalimar the Clown is less convincing. The basic story is relatively simple (love, betrayal, revenge), and the connexion to contemporary geopolitics uneasily grafted onto it. The severely underdeveloped character of Shalimar the clown is perhaps the major problem, but the refusal to consider why people kill each other in any depth also hurts the novel. Rushdie is consumed by the idea of killing for honour and revenge (the central reason for most of the many killings in the book), and even if all the conflicts he addresses could be reduced to that, he doesn't delve deeply enough into the passion honour and revenge can arouse in people.
       At times the book is poignant and convincing, the scenes in Kashmir seeming heartfelt and written with deep conviction. Moving elsewhere -- Los Angeles, in particular -- Rushdie seems far less sure of himself and what he wants to do (or rather: how to go about it). More significantly, Rushdie seems unsure of what kind of book he wanted to write: that simple tale of love, betrayal, and revenge, or a book that considers local armed conflict in the contemporary world. In imitation-epic style he picked both, but he should have chosen one or the other; the mix makes for a decent novel, but not an exceptional one (and some of the parts -- and some of Rushdie's previous work -- suggest he has the exceptional in him).

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Shalimar the Clown: Reviews: Salman Rushdie: Other books by Salman Rushdie under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Indian literature
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       Bombay-born Ahmed Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) went to school at Rugby and then Cambridge. He worked in advertising before turning to writing full time. Winner of the Booker Prize (for Midnight's Children), he has written a number of international bestsellers and several works of non-fiction. In 1989 Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa, sentencing Rushdie to death for alleged blasphemy.

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