Saturday, February 5, 2011

Shalimar The Clown and other January Reading

I received the novel, "Shalimar The Clown" by Salman Rushdie (Random House, 2005) for Christmas in 2006. Four years later I finally got around to reading it. Honestly, I tried to read it once before, but gave up about 20 pages in.

"Shalimar The Clown" is the story of two young lovers from a small village of actors and performers in Kashmir. Boonyi, a beautiful and semi-talented dancer sees her life as small, and wants to get out. Shalimar, sees his life as small yet valuable and wants to hold on to their way of life forever. Their story, along with that of Boonyi's future lover (an important diplomat and scholar) and his family, is tragic and the amount of people affected by her one decision is staggering. Meanwhile the political and social climate of Kashmir is one of upheaval, revolution and terrorism - the truth, but nonetheless a symbolic interpretation of the havoc and mixed emotions within each of the characters.

I want to start out by saying how much I really enjoyed and appreciated this novel. But I didn't love this story, and I think there are a number of reasons why.

First, I am in law school and my brain is exhausted by ten a.m. every day. I am somehow making it and I will graduate in May, but law school leaves very little room for intellectual stimulation of any other kind. It's kind of a jealous mistress in that way. So reading anything by Salman Rushdie was going to be a challenge.

Secondly, as noted above, I appreciated the art that is this novel. I appreciated the lyrical and poetic language. I appreciated the word paintings of Kashmir and India and Pakistan and all kinds of places I've never been or seen. It could not have been done better. The language, the phrasing, and even the punctuation was enough on its own to evoke emotion. There is one passage where the annihilation of a village is described with such sparse yet devastating language, and then suddenly there is no punctuation because the scene is moving too fast and it's impossible to focus on anything other than the terrible destruction. That passage left me breathless.

But ... I can appreciate art without fully understanding and feeling it. Some of the historical passages and descriptions were too long and too poetic for my overworked, tired brain to handle. I could tell I was dealing with something beautiful and wonderful, but I couldn't take everything in. Then I began to feel guilty that I was falling asleep after only ten minutes of reading. Then I began to resent feeling guilty - "why is it my fault that the author's words are making me fall asleep?" Like a petulant teenager, I was ready to give up altogether into the second part of the book.

Third, I'm not really the type that can give up on a book. Especially a novel like this - celebrated, obviously lyrical and poetic, and a story that is a strange combination of history and our current times. Having already given up once before, I would not be defeated by a novel - even if it is extremely cerebral! So I persevered, and I am so glad. The story began to move along and it's such a heartbreaking story. But because I felt like I HAD to finish, I was always thinking about just getting through it rather than enjoying myself while there.

Fourthly, the ending was so anti-climactic and disappointing. After all that work I put in, I wanted a big reward. In the end, I'm very happy I persevered. I know some of the images and characters will haunt me forever, but I really should have waited longer to read this. I should have waited until next year when I could have appreciated its beauty more.

It's like when I saw the artwork and architecture of Paris when I was in high school - I knew I was seeing greatness and that I was in a place where wonderful things have happened, but I didn't feel it. Instead I thought about my boyfriend back in the US the whole time. Reading "Shalimar The Clown," all I could think about was how much work I have to do for law school.

I did manage to get some other reading done in January. My school book group read "Gulliver's Travels," and we had a great discussion on that. That's a book I never read in school, amazingly enough. Several others had, and it was interesting to hear their new take on it. Also, I was surprised at how much law there was to discuss in the story - how different societies set up their legal systems, etc.

Also, I "read" (i.e. listened to an audio book of) "1984" by George Orwell. And I loved it. This is another book I never read in school, but always wanted to read. Although it could be the most depressing and soul-draining novel ever written, I still felt good after reading it. Maybe because no matter how bad things seem and even with Facebook making everyone's life public and banishing privacy, things can always be worse. I'm happy that I don't have a screen watching my every move.

There were a few things about the novel that disturbed me, though. I'm not a feminist really - I mean I'm glad women vote and we can choose basically any career we want, etc. - but I'm just not interested in thinking of everything on a man v. woman basis. Despite this, I was really upset about the portrayal of the one woman character in this novel. The one woman in the whole story is a lust-filled, greedy woman. She is not smart and doesn't want to talk about or think about anything intellectual or serious. I couldn't find one redeeming quality about her. How very disappointing.

Anyway, now it's February and I'll be moving on to my next few books. I will try to post more often, but I just can't make any promises. My life is nuts right now. Also, I realized something about myself yesterday that kind of upset me. I've gone from loving to read to loving the idea of reading. Let me explain.

I keep a spreadsheet of everything I want to read. I have a tab for me, for my husband, for my future children, etc. I have a tab for different types of books. I have tabs for each award offered for writing - Pulitzer, Man Booker, National Book Award, etc. I've got lists of books by authors I'm interested in, etc. I've become someone who makes all these great plans to read a lot, but I don't read near as much as I used to or want to. Part of this can be blamed on law school, but more of it is to be blamed on my OCD regarding list making.

I'm not sure what the solution to this is, but I'll try to think of something. If you have thoughts or advice, I'd love to hear it.


  1. Was 1984 more depressing than Ethan Fromme or Jude the Obscure?? Those were the most depressing books I've read. If it is, then I really want to read it. I've wanted to read it for awhile anyway, I just haven't gotten around to it yet.
    Don't worry about liking reading vs. liking the idea of reading...Your one of the most avid readers I know. I think you'll be able to read a lot more after you finish law school.
    I'm reading David Copperfield, as you suggested. It's good so far. Typical Dickens. I'm about halfway through.

  2. 1984 presents a really depressing and scary scenario, and the end is so disappointing. It is not depressing in the same way Ethan Fromme and Jude the Obscure are - those novels are more depressing because they are more real. While reading 1984, you know it's not true and it's not a possibility, so that saves it some. But if it could be true, it would be the most depressing story in the history of literature. Read it!