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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Shalimar the Clown

As it turned out, Shalimar was anything but a clown. True, as a young man he was well known for his antics on the high wire that were so funny that they made everyone forget just how dangerous they were. But when he and fellow Kashmiri Boonyi Kaul were just fourteen years old, they fell in love and Shalimar’s life was changed forever. The two married soon after and settled into a life in rural Kashmir that included working together as regional entertainers.

All went well until Boonyi, a talented dancer, made the first of two fateful decisions. She decided to make the most of her dance talents by moving to India without Shalimar in order perform on a bigger stage. There she caught the eye of American ambassador Max Ophuls and made her second decision, one that would ultimately change Shalimar from clown to assassin. She decided to become the ambassador’s mistress.

Shalimar the Clown begins and ends with the assassination of Max Ophuls. At the time of his death, Ophuls is an old man living in Los Angeles near his beautiful daughter, India, and his government career has included a stint as U.S. counter-terrorism chief. His brutal murder, in the style favored by Islamist terrorists, at first leads authorities to believe that he was targeted because of his roll in developing U.S. counter-terrorism policy. Little did they know that the assassination of Max Ophuls had been set in motion decades earlier.

This is complicated historical fiction covering the period during which Kashmir changed from a relatively peaceful place in which Muslims and Hindus successfully coexisted to the self-destructive region of the world it is today. Rushdie tells Kashmir’s story through the eyes of those who lived through, but did not always survive, those violent years. He has written a political thriller filled with enough interesting side stories and flashbacks to put the tragedy of Kashmir into an understandable context for Western readers. That alone makes Shalimar the Clown a remarkable book. But what makes the book truly special is the way that Rushdie uses so many unforgettable characters to explain how, and why, the world has changed for the worst over the last two decades.

The audio version of Shalimar the Clown is read by Aasif Mandvi, a movie, television, and radio actor and successful writer and producer. Mandvi does such a wonderful job reading Rushdie’s words that I have to wonder if I would have enjoyed reading the book nearly as much as I enjoyed listening to Mandvi breathe life into each of Rushdie’s characters. He slips effortlessly from one accent to the other and uses tone and cadence in such a way that even the longest and most complex Rushdie sentences are clearly understood. As a reader, I would have had a difficult time, probably to the point of distraction, with some of the place and character names that are so integral to this story. Mandvi’s reading made sure that did not happen, another reason that Shalimar the Clown is an excellent choice for fans of audio books.

Rated at: 4.5

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