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EVERY WEDNESDAY-we write about books we just read. Post opinions/recommendations/etc in the comments. Please.

  • BOOK TYPE: that age old-story; boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, girl runs off with diplomat, boy becomes super-terrorist and hunts down diplomat, spawn of illicit relationship between girl and diplomat seeks revenge, and everyone dies unhappy.
  • You may enjoy this if you liked: Magical Realism in all varieties, general pretension in all varieties

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Rushdie was on a five-year losing streak when this novel came out, late in 2005. Both the self-indulgent “The Ground Beneath Her Feet,” and the pointlessly vapid “Fury” showed an alarming trend towards believing his own press. I mean, before “Ground,” I thought he could do no wrong, and his name was being bandied about as the world’s most deserving recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature that has yet to receive one (Dario Fo, anyone?). After, well, I figured someone was giving him bad advice, especially in “Fury,” to write about the modern world and leave behind all the baggage of extended digressions and
magical realism.

All credit to Rushdie, then, for a jolting return to form with “Shalimar.” This portrait of evil on a regional (Kashmir) and personal (Shalimar) scale is incredibly relevant today. As painful as it is to compose such a banal sentiment, I think it’s necessary. I think it’s quite brave of an author whose fame is regrettably and inextricably linked not to his astounding facility with words and stories, but instead to his personification of the conflict within Islam, to write fiction about the creation and spread of the deadly virus of fatal fanaticism. Indeed, through his now-familiar method of weaving a tale of community via magical realism, and then casting it within Kashmir, Rushdie makes comprehensible without justifying or simplifying, the conflict within human hearts that turns men to mass murder. Not via economic forces, nor through an inevitable clash of civilizations, but through the more familiar and despairing forces of over-familiarity, desire, envy, jealousy, love, misunderstanding and hatred.

At the same time, Rushdie fuses this story of communal paradise, lost, with a very personal disaster and relationship’s collapse, and, against all odds, associates the two flows without cheapening the former nor an ennobling of the latter. The result, for the reader, is a feeling of inescapable sadness, inevitability, and disappointment for the collective and enduring failure of man; an appreciation for the tragedy in Kashmir, and a very, very personal understanding of why some men turn to madness. The story is that age old-story; boy meets girl, boy proposes to girl, girl runs off with diplomat, boy becomes super-terrorist and hunts down diplomat, spawn of illicit relationship between girl and diplomat seeks revenge, and everyone dies unhappy. This being Rushdie, everyone has a weird name (Max Ophuls – more on that later, India, Boonyi, Shalimar), an incredible back-story (the diplomat was a hero of the French Resistance, for instance), and wondrous digressions abound. That said, the novel takes a little getting used to. I spent the first few chapters wondering if this was going anywhere interesting at all. Perseverance paid off massive dividends, as this is a thoroughly engrossing and enjoyable, if sad, novel. By the time I reached the Iron Mullah and his bastard minions, I couldn’t put the novel aside until finished.

I hate to speak in such glib terms, but I would go so far as to say that this novel is powerful and timely. The strange affectations of Rushdie’s writing come across as lost friends. The strangest is the naming of the protagonist “Max Ophüls,” seemingly with no more meaning than a showy flourish of the pen. Ophüls, as I’m sure you know, is one of the greatest film directors of all time. As a German Jew in World War II, he fled Germany, after making some very good films, for France, where he more good films, fleeing the Nazis a second time for the United States, where he made the breathtaking “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” returning to Europe to make two or three of the greatest movies of all time (c.f., The Earrings of Madame de…, La Ronde, Lola Montes). I can think of no reason why Rushdie would use a name so fraught with incredible history only to create a memorable character of his own with a different, but also remarkable, back-story.

Regrettably, “Shalimar” is likely to be considered a timely book for decades to come. Would that murderous religious fanaticism were a hopelessly outdated concept.

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