If I tell you up-front that the ambassador is murdered, I'm not revealing any secrets. The act takes place in the very first chapter, and Rushdie himself mentions it several times before it happens. Nor am I giving anything away if I tell you that the murderer is Shalimar the clown. Rushdie reveals that in several hints, the most astonishing being a vision seen by the ambassador’s daughter. The reader of this novel is not asked to look for the “who,” as in a typical murder-mystery, but the "why," as an apparent political assassination turns into something deeply personal.
As he answers the question of how a personable acrobat becomes a professional assassin, Rushdie lets the story shift fluidly back and forth in time and place. It begins in Los Angeles in 1991. Shalimar the clown slashes the throat of the former ambassador, Max Ophils, Resistance hero and architect of the free world, as he is on his way to visit his daughter, India. The murder sets off not only the expected police investigation, but also Rusdhie’s investigation of Ophil's life, and the story goes back to Kashmir to pick up the thread of India’s mother’s story. All India knew of her mother was that she had died giving birth to her. She was buried "under a pyramid of silence," as Rushdie says in his elegant prose, the deadest kind of deadness.
As the thread connecting these characters—Ophils, India and her mother, and Shalimar the clown--is untangled, startling connections become clear. This intense personal drama takes place against the backdrop of some of the century's most notable conflicts: the resistance movement in France during World War II, India and Pakistan's bloody fight over Kashmir, and the Cold War.
Rushdie's mastery of language is unforgettable. He slips into a playful mode sometimes, as in his brilliant tautological argument of why the Indian occupation of Kashmir was in truth unpopular but in integrity popular, dwelling on the hairline differences in the definitions of truth and integrity.
And yet, he captures the pathos of the destruction of a Kashmiri village in a description which is at once strangely detached yet horrifically personal.
He also walks a fine line between harsh reality and fantasy, as he blends an element of magic into the story. It begins with the description of India’s second sight and the amusing potato magic practiced by her landlady, but it deepens into the realm of prophecies, communication with the dead, and telepathy. Rushdie gives a mystical quality to a story which deals with pure history and manages to make it credible.
Shalimar the clown is seldom called by anything by his full title, his profession as an acrobat in a village troop providing a harsh contrast to his later role as a freedom fighter and assassin. It is only one example of the clash between appearance and reality in this book: India’s gift (or curse) of the second sight, Shalimar, the perfect body servant readying the assassins’ knife, and India’s mother, whose freedom becomes her prison.
Rushdie may never be able to overcome his reputation as the author of the Satanic Verses and the media coverage of the subsequent threats on his life. It was the sort of publicity that made him a household name but might actually have taken away from his potential readership. That is a shame, because he has a delightful gift for narrative. If you know nothing of Salman Rushdie other than the furor generated by his notorious book, Shalimar the Clown is a wonderful introduction to one of the great storytellers of our day.