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Random House, $25.95, 398 pp.

A novel has to start somewhere, but even the most indulgent reader will question why Shalimar the Clown has to begin in L.A. Salman Rushdie’s ninth novel is a characteristically overstuffed saga that surveys some 80 years of semi-imaginary history and alludes to millennia more. It traverses three continents, several wars, and numerous geopolitical catastrophes. It invokes the ancient epics of India, Greece, and the Celts, as well as current events up to and including Sept. 11, 2001. Yet it begins with the rat-a-tat-tat delivery of a comic on a late-night talk show—every host from Johnny Carson to Jay Leno to Craig Kilborn flickers through the text—and a flood of name-dropping, and the sort of L.A. local color that any Entertainment Weekly reader could duplicate. Rushdie offers breathless catalogs of local landmarks and a pocket history of Santa Monica; on one page alone, he air-kisses the cheeks of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, Mandela, Spielberg, and Mike Tyson. It’s a relief finally to leave Los Angeles, a place about which Rushdie seems to know a lot, but nothing remarkable.

The book is divided into five sections, each named for a major character; that L.A.-stuck opener is titled “India,” after its 24-year-old protagonist, who will also be known as “Kashmira.” Although raised in Britain and California, India is a child of Kashmir, which is the novel’s home ground. Dedicated to Rushdie’s “Kashmiri grandparents,” Shalimar the Clown is a lament for a land—now a ravaged province bisected by India and Pakistan—that supposedly once experienced a “Golden Age” of Hindu and Muslim (and Sikh and Jewish) accord. Every other disaster recounted in the book—from the Holocaust to the Rodney King riots—merely underscores the ruin of that Himalayan kingdom.

Rushdie’s paradise in microcosm is the village of Pachigam, where Hindus and Muslims not only lived in close proximity but also worked together to produce great banquets and performances. There, a Muslim boy called Noman (an apparent reference to the name Odysseus used to identify himself to the Cyclops) becomes a great acrobat and takes the alias Shalimar the Clown. His fated partner—born right next to him in a garden on the night of India’s partition—is the Hindu girl Boonyi, a great dancer and a greater beauty. The youngsters’ passion, consummated at Boonyi’s insistence when they are almost 14, is equated with the love of the Hindu gods Ram and Sita and Krishna and Radha. Boonyi is also compared to Anarkali, the dancer heroine of the Bollywood classic Mughal-e-Azam. But this more earthly counterpart is conjured only after Boonyi, eager to know more of the world, decides to abandon Shalimar and become the mistress of the American ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, an Alsatian-born Jew, mythic World War II fighter, and inveterate womanizer. Returning to the Ramayana, Rushdie calls him “the American Ravan,” referring to the demon who spirits Sita away from Ram.

Pachigam is such a model community that the plot of Romeo and Juliet does not lead to feuding and death: The village elders sagely agree that the Muslim boy and Hindu girl should marry. It’s only when he’s jilted by Boonyi that Shalimar is transformed into a creature of rage who vows to kill her, Max, and their possible descendants. While awaiting the ideal opportunity, he becomes a radical-Muslim assassin, doing the bidding of an “iron mullah,” whose designation is not metaphorical. Shalimar assassinates from Kashmir to the Philippines yet never becomes a fully trusted member of the international jihad. Rushdie, who spent nearly 10 years under an Islamic death sentence, even imagines Shalimar killing him—or someone very much like him: “a writer against God” who “sold his soul to the West.” That the victim is North African rather than Indian hardly makes this murderous aside any less intimate.

So this parable is a private matter, not just for Shalimar but also for his creator. It’s a vision of a world where people can be tortured and killed for who they are, what they say, or what they believe. Although everything that happens in the novel is backstory to the rape of Kashmir, the implications are broad, especially now that the U.S. military has officially joined the Gestapo and the Indian Army in Kashmir on the list of armies of occupation that employ torture. Shalimar the Clown is a study of political violence that encompasses the French Resistance, Che Guevara, the IRA, JFK’s assassination, Islamic suicide bombers, and The Manchurian Candidate—the original, not the remake. Remarkably, Rushdie doesn’t use the last reference as an excuse to mention Frank Sinatra.

One of the book’s motifs is globalization, which explains why a Kashmiri tale has so many references to Western history, literature, and pop culture. Some of these expand the book’s thematic reach: Max Ophuls is a native of Strasbourg, for example, because that city passed frequently between French and German conquerors, thus paralleling Kashmir. And he’s Jewish because Europe’s Jews were tyrannized and massacred much like Hindus in majority-Muslim Kashmir—or Muslims in majority-Hindu Bombay, the principal setting for Rushdie’s analogous 1995 novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh. Yet there’s no particular reason why Max Ophuls shares the name of a noted German-émigré film director. Or why his creator distractingly incorporates Achilles, aristocratic British murderer Lord Lucan, or Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Once the stew starts simmering, Rushdie can’t resist dumping everything into the pot.

In his sheer garrulousness and zest for plot complications, the novelist is an heir to 19th-century British novelists, whose influence seems stronger in modern India than anywhere else that English is now widely spoken and read. Yet Rushdie is also a modernist, whose landscape-covering allusions and stylistic juxtapositions would be impossible without Joyce. He writes in an incantatory, poetically repetitive style that echoes the heroic epics to which he alludes, but his prose is laced with parodies, wisecracks, and vulgarities. Although their mood-breaking effect is usually fleeting, these can be unfortunate. The lyrical account of Shalimar and Boonyi’s first coupling falters when the young woman utters the phrase “lick and suck,” and during a psychological epiphany Boonyi’s future mother-in-law is incongruously deemed “a hardass bitch.” Also, Rushdie has significantly overestimated the hilarity of lampooning governmental acronyms, or of providing India an elderly Slavic neighbor who thinks the current American term for homosexual is “guy.”

Unlike the characters of, say, Dickens, Rushdie’s creations are not caricatures. They’re not even characters. Shalimar the Clown’s major players are all essentially reflections of their creator; that’s why not one speaks in an identifiable voice—and why each is so absurdly glamorized. Shalimar, Max, Boonyi, and India are all beautiful, charismatic, and, in their assorted ways, potent. Various improbable incidents spotlight their superhuman magnetism, skill, and courage. When India first meets the middle-aged but remarkably virile Shalimar, not yet knowing his story, she wonders if he has “a major penis.” During World War II, Jewish refugee Max not only escapes the Nazis but handily seduces a brutal female SS agent known as the Panther. And in the book’s final episode, a documentary filmmaker who just happens to have the honed skills of a Special Forces soldier awaits an assassin, equipped with night-vision goggles, arrows, and “a golden bow.”

Such moments combine primordial legends, pulp fiction, and Hollywood action flicks with hints of autobiography and flashes of wish fulfillment. It’s probably not a coincidence that men and women routinely exploit each other and most marriages end convulsively in a book by the thrice-divorced Rushdie, and the fantasy of sending away the bodyguards and braving alone a Muslim assassin must appeal to a man who survived a fatwa thanks to British security forces rather than his own bristling virility. Kashmir, it seems, is as much a metaphor for Salman Rushdie as it is the embodiment of his lost grandparents.

The personal is political and all that, and if Rushdie’s omnipresent sensibility sometimes hampers the novel, it is also a significant strength. His language is vigorous and intricate, his themes serious and complex, his storyline unflagging, and his command of diverse literary, historical, and geographic subjects almost unassailable. The book does inspire occasional doubts—What happened to the 1970s? Do cobras really live as high as 12,500 feet?—but mostly feels authoritative. Rushdie may be indulging his private obsessions, but he has an exceptionally rich trove of them.

What’s most disappointing about Shalimar the Clown is that it barely investigates the pious blood lust that drives many of the subsidiary characters. India, Shalimar, Max, and Boonyi are motivated by love, lust, ambition, curiosity, and self-preservation; although some of them are a bit mystical, none are especially religious. In the jihadist training camp, Shalimar’s motivation is analyzed by a Filipino Muslim who perceives that the Kashmiri seeks his own revenge rather than Islam’s glory. This is a story we know, one that’s been told by many of the novels, plays, films, and sagas Rushdie invokes. It would be more fruitful to try to understand the book’s most startling character, iron mullah Bulbul Shah, who issues a charge that’s as chilling as any fatwa: He says the people of Pachigam “mistake tolerance for virtue and harmony for peace.” This is the man Rushdie’s open, abundant, humane Indo-European-American culture must defy, and he won’t be brought down merely by gun, knife, or golden bow.

Salman Rushdie appears at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 13, at Temple Sinai, 3100 Military Road NW. For more information, call (202) 364-1919.CP