Hobbes in the Himalayas

The situation in horrible, magical modern Kashmir—where East battles East in a war that fuses the psychopathic and the apocalyptic—defies political analysis. But Salman Rushdie's new novel captures it as nothing else can

In a series of reports from Kashmir in The New York Review of Books in 2000, the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra came to the arresting conclusion that it was now impossible to know, or to discover, what was really happening there. If, say, a village was burned out, the number of possible competing perpetrators, and the number of "false-flag" tactics employed by them, made a mockery out of any analysis. Rushdie captures this Hobbesian nightmare very well, by means of a reverie of General Kachhwaha.

Already the army had made contact with renegade militants around the country and when extrajudicial activity was required these renegades could be used to kill other militants. After the executions the renegade militants would be given the use of uniforms and would bring the corpses to this or that house belonging to this or that individual and place the corpses in the same location with guns in their hands. The renegades would then depart and be relieved of their uniforms while the armed forces attacked the house, blew it to bits and murdered the dead militants all over again for public consumption.

Through this tournament of shadows the figure of Shalimar/Noman moves inexorably, kept alive by his unslakable thirst for private revenge on the American Jew who so deftly seduced his beautiful wife. From the frozen mountains of the north he beams a telepathic message to Los Angeles: "Everything I do prepares me for you and for him. Every blow I strike, strikes you or him. The people leading us up here are fighting for God or for Pakistan but I am killing because it is what I have become. I have become death."

That last line is easily recognizable from another Indian epic, the Bhagavad Gita—"I am become death: the shatterer of worlds." These, as I recall, were the very words mouthed by Robert Oppenheimer as he saw the flash and felt the fire at Alamogordo.

This fusion of the psychopathic with the apocalyptic—surely the essence of "terror" in our time—is transferred to America by another "factive" passage, this one interleaving Noman's presence in Los Angeles with the riots of 1992 and with the first attempt to bring down the World Trade Center, in 1993. Anonymous though he may prefer to be, Noman actually fits rather well into the crazed world of L.A. celebrity defendants, special wings for same in the L.A. county jail, and special attorneys for same in the L.A. courts. He also mingles fairly effortlessly with the city's proliferating gang-and-maximum-security scene. One of his targets, meanwhile (I seek to give away as little as possible), has become an adept in the parallel world of private security—the latter being an area of expertise in which Mr. Rushdie requires no lessons from anyone.

This is a highly serious novel, on an extremely serious subject, by a deeply serious man. It is not necessary to assimilate all the details of the conflict in Kashmir in order to read it. Nor is it necessary to favor one or another solution, though we get a hint from the epigraph page—Mercutio's "plague on both their houses," from Romeo and Juliet—of Rushdie's opinion of Indian and Pakistani policy. Rather than seek for anything as trite as a "message," I should guess that Rushdie is telling us, No more Macondos. No more Shangri-las, if it comes to that. Gone is the time when anywhere was exotic or magical or mythical, or even remote. Shalimar's clown mask has been dropped, and his acrobatics have become a form of escape artistry by which he transports himself into "our" world. As he himself says in closing his ominous message of Himalayan telepathy, "I'll be there soon enough."

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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