Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Golden Bow

Cupid draw back your bow and let your arrow go
Straight to my lover’s heart for me

   Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown is a novel of revenge. Set primarily in India’s Kashmir, a territory beset by cycles of violence among Muslims and Hindus, Rushdie’s is a tale of two protagonists, each crying out against injustice, each seeking revenge. Shalimar, an acrobat from the Kashmiri village of Pachigam, seeks revenge for his wife’s betrayal by killing her and her lover, a counterterrorism official who was once the United States ambassador to India. Shalimar seeks to further avenge himself by killing the couple’s daughter, called India. India, then, desires revenge upon Shalimar for the murder of her parents. Her desire is both urgent and confused: “Where were the forces of justice, where was the Justice League, why weren’t superheroes swooping down out of the sky to bring her father’s murderer to justice?...she wanted dark superheroes…She wanted avenging angels…She didn’t know what she wanted.” (Shalimar the Clown, Random House, 2005, p. 331)

Once aware of the other’s existence, Shalimar and India engage in a protracted duel, taking aim at one another whenever possible. While Shalimar plots her murder, India strikes out at him, now clandestinely, in letters, now openly, in court. Sentenced to death at trial, Shalimar escapes prison. In the book’s final scene, he comes to kill India, now called Kashmira, in the high-security compound of her dead father’s house. In the last paragraphs of the novel, the two armed opponents confront one another with their chosen weapons.
   Shalimar carries a knife: “her stepfather was coming in, knife in hand, neither the knife that had killed her mother nor the knife that had killed her father but a third, virginal blade, its silent steel intended just for her.” (p. 397) Shalimar may already have slain Kashmira’s guard dogs: “Were they lying on the lawn with arrows through their throats?” (p. 397)
    Traditionally, when challenged to a duel, the person who is challenged has the choice of weapons. And indeed, it is Shalimar who has initiated this last duel to the death. Kashmira owns a gun, but she is also a practiced archer and “the arrow was her weapon of choice.” (p. 397) As the assassin enters her bedroom, Kashmira, wearing night-vision goggles, holding her golden bow, is poised to strike.
   Shalimar the Clown is both a tale of primitive revenge and a story about modern terrorism. Disillusioned by life and love, Shalimar leaves his small village to train as a terrorist. Shalimar the Clown was first published in 2005, four years after the destruction of September 11, sixteen years after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, and seven years after the lifting of the fatwa. 

Cupid please hear my cry

And let your arrow fly Straight to my lover’s heart             

 Two recent novels that describe cycles of violence offer intriguing parallels with Shalimar the Clown. Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) is, like Shalimar the Clown, a story of love gone wrong; its engine is a variation on the revenge plot, and in its climactic scene, one of the main characters slays his victims with a bow and arrows. In David Vann’s Caribou Island (2011), the author builds the climactic scene around a narrative of escalating violence in a natural setting.


Caribou Island, off the Alaskan coast, is the remote setting for David Vann’s drama of family dysfunction. There domestic drama reaches a climax of mythic proportions.  Propelled by a manic episode that culminates in the wish for vengeance, a housewife with very bad headaches becomes a weapon-wielding Agave whose temporary madness delivers a spurious catharsis.
   In these novels of revenge, what does the protagonists’ choice of weapons signify? The use of bow and arrows in the climactic scenes of all three novels is notable since their stories are set in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
   Of course, the archetypal dramatization of narrative climax with bow-and-arrows induced carnage happens in the homecoming scene of Homer’s Odyssey. In Homer’s epic, the bow and arrows have utility in daily life, and are integral to the functioning of society. Odysseus, as returning war hero, would have used a bow and arrows in the Trojan War. Just so, on the occasion of his homecoming, he will prove his identity by stringing a bow and sending an arrow through twelve axes.
   In the build-up to the climactic scene, Odysseus’ wife Penelope sets up an archery contest, vowing that she will marry the man who strings the bow easily, and sends an arrow clean through all twelve targets. In Odyssey Book 19, Odysseus, disguised as a stranger, advises her: “do not put off this contest in your house any longer./Before these people can handle the well-wrought bow, and manage/to hook the string and bend it, and send a shaft through the iron,/Odysseus of the many designs will be back here with you.” (Odyssey, Book 19,lines 584-587)
  The climactic moment in which Odysseus strings the bow –– and shoots an arrow –– is beautifully described in a simile in Book 21: “As when a man, who well understands the lyre and singing,/easily, holding it on either side, pulls the strongly twisted/cord of sheep’s gut, so as to slip it over a new peg,/So now without any strain, Odysseus strung the great bow.” (lines 406-411) He then tests the bowstring, and it resonates “like the voice of a swallow.”
   Homer uses rich symbolism to draw parallels between stringing a weapon and stringing a musical instrument, between Odysseus’ skill and that of a singer. The description is both visual and auditory. Odysseus lets the arrow fly through the targets and says: “I missed no part of the mark.” (Odyssey, Book 21, line 425)

   Yet for all the beauty of its description, Odysseus’ stringing of the bow and letting the arrow fly clean through the axes is about the violence to come. In Book 22, suitor Eurymachos begs for mercy, but Odysseus replies that he cannot be bribed with all Eurymachos’ possessions: “even so, I would not stay my hands from slaughter,/until I had taken revenge for all the suitors’ transgression.” (lines 63-64) And so the slaughter begins.
   Flash forward in time to a tiny island in remotest Alaska, where an American couple has tried with great difficulty to construct a log cabin. At the end of a long tale of bitterness and failure, resentment and regret, the wife, Irene, runs amok on the island. Irene explores Caribou Island with her bow and arrows, but finds that the island is not right for her. The trees, “too close, too crowded,” would entangle her bow if she were hunting moose. But Irene is not hunting moose.
   Exhilarated, Irene lets her first arrow fly into the trunk of a cottonwood tree fifty feet away. She watches its flight, so fast its path is beyond detection, its motion apparently motionless. Irene sees “The flight so fast it was instant memory, not something that could be experienced, only known afterward.” The fundamental paradox Irene experiences, however, is not the paradox of Zeno’s arrow, in which motion becomes motionlessness, but the paradox of Cupid’s bow, in which love is expressed through violent imagery. Cupid’s bow, that classic love symbol, has become such a stereotype that we hardly notice the paradox of the lover pursued with a weapon. Cupid’s bow is, in effect, not just a symbol of love, but of ambivalence, love and hate:

Cupid, draw back your bow, and let your arrow go

Straight to my lover’s heart for me

Cupid, please hear my cry, and let your arrow fly

Straight to my lover’s heart for me

   Irene lets arrows fly into tree trunks. Giddy from sleeplessness and persistent headaches, she feels the island is capsizing. She is not too giddy, however, to remember to save two arrows, since “she would take Gary with her,” an ominous thought from the depressive daughter of a suicide. Approaching the cabin, Irene recalls “hunting, as she had once hunted with Gary, making no sound…” Once inside though, her resolve wavers–wavers, that is, until the supremely petulant Gary tells her, “I love you.” At which point Irene draws Cupid’s bow, freighted with resentment, and releases an arrow straight into Gary’s chest. In a sadistic finish, she then nails him to the floor with her last arrow. Ultimately her exhilaration fades, and Irene hangs herself, perpetuating the pattern of family violence.
   In Homer’s epic, Odysseus’ bow and arrows have a full, resonant symbolic value precisely because they are such a familiar part of Homeric society. Everyone in Homer’s audience would have known what it is to string a bow, what it is to string a lyre, and how a swallow sounds. Likewise, Odysseus’ homecoming has a communal significance: the return of the rightful king to rule his people. Odysseus’ revenge, however personally motivated, has a moral purpose, that being the restoration of the social order to Ithaka. 
   At the other end of the spectrum, Irene’s revenge comes across as excessive, ill conceived, and biochemically determined by her headaches and her sleepless mania. A further note of determinism is provided by Irene’s hereditary depression. Caribou Island is thus not a revenge drama in the classic sense, for the revenge drama, in its pure form, entails tragic consequences upon a choice freely made. Caribou Island is rather the tale of a couple who become ever more isolated from society–too isolated on their small island to get medical help for Irene’s severe headaches. Irene’s use of a bow and arrows to bring about their double demise comes across as quixotic and improbable. She may wield her bow like a hunter; she may be a pioneer at the farthest outpost of the American frontier; she may run about the island like a maenad, but Irene is still a very ill housewife yoked to a spiritless husband.


 Where should We Need to Talk About Kevin be placed along the spectrum of symbolic meaning and its relation to revenge? Kevin, a sullen boy who massacres his classmates, is a trained archer–archery being his high school sport–so his choice of weapons is at least as plausible as that of Kashmira in Shalimar the Clown and Irene in Caribou Island.

 But however plausible Kevin’s choice is on the practical level, the question remains: what does the bow and arrow signify in a contemporary novel? For it is notable that the bow and arrow is arcane weaponry for the 20th and 21st centuries. The bow and arrow has no key function in modern society, and its use requires special training appropriate to a hobby or sport. Contemporary fictional characters trained as archers are thus equipped with unusual skill and potency. The skill they possess underlines their individuality, and allows the authors of these fictions to associate their bow-and-arrow wielding characters with a heroic past. Kashmira arms herself against her assassin with a golden bow. Irene, in the course of inflicting violence, fleetingly sees herself as a “giantess”–until her mania bottoms out.
   Moreover, the logistics of using a bow and arrow–the strength and skill it requires–and the symbolic meanings that have accrued to this weaponry over time, invite the authors of these contemporary novels to build richly constructed, suspenseful climactic scenes in which the symbol of bow and arrow is available for the adumbration of deeper layers of meaning. 

   After the Odyssey, the Western text that most closely associates skill at archery with heroism is Robin Hood, long a popular folktale before it attained written form. Robin Hood’s bow, like the bow of Odysseus in the homecoming scene, is the effector of social justice. In the world of the Odyssey, social justice means restoring the rightful king to his land and his people and punishing those who transgressed against his kingship. In Robin Hood’s England, in feudal Nottingham and in the safety of Sherwood Forest, social justice means restoring the balance of power between the nobles and the common people. Unlike Odysseus, Robin Hood must remain an outlaw in order to restore the people of medieval England to their proper estate.

 Lionel Shriver makes use of the myth of Robin Hood to develop the character of Kevin. Kevin is a virtual outlaw from the beginning of his story, as told by his mother, Eva Khatchadourian. A sociopath, Kevin gets darkly into trouble even as a small child, and is evicted from the small children’s community. The author uses the Robin Hood story to prepare the reader both for Kevin’s modus operandi at the climax, and for the violent outbreak itself. From the beginning of his perplexing existence, Kevin is a model of alienation, apathy, and acedia, a Latin term for spiritual sloth, an indifference so profound medieval churchmen deemed it one of the seven deadly sins. 
   When Kevin as a child falls ill and feverish, his mother, often hostile to her son, becomes close to him for the duration of his illness while reading him the adventures of Robin Hood. Uncharacteristically, the ill Kevin takes an interest in something, and his fascination with the Robin Hood story leads him to develop his interest in archery, and ultimately leads to the literal slaying of his despised school mates, and the figurative slaying of his mother.
   So yes, Kevin is an outlaw of sorts, but in contrast to the motives of his childhood folk hero Robin, Kevin’s reasons for existing at the margins of society are entirely self-serving. Beyond the pale, Kevin is best able to plot his incursions, inflict his curses, implement terror, and remain just detached enough to despise the imperfect weaklings he might otherwise come to love.
   Does the choice of weapons – the bow and arrows  – ennoble the characters in these contemporary novels?  In fact there are significant differences here between the Rushdie novel and the novels by American authors. In Shalimar the Clown, the character India, like her mother Boonyi, an acrobat, and the other artists of Pachigam, is trained in a time-honored skill; the literature of India is replete with rich cultural associations to the bow and arrows.

The bow, foremost among the deadly weapons described in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata (circa 8th century B.C.E.), is deployed in the battle between the five sons of King Pandu and the hundred sons of King Dhritarashtra. Indeed, the bow constituted the classical Indian weapon from the time of the Vedas to the advent of Islam.
According to Islamic tradition, the bow was the pre-eminent weapon given by the Angel Jibrail to Adam in Paradise: it was not to be surpassed on Earth or in Paradise, where the blessed practice archery. By tradition then, the bow is a deadly weapon, a sacred weapon, and also for sport. Archery contests play an important role in the literature of Indian antiquity: in the Mahabharata, the warrior Arjuna wins his bride, Draupadi, in an archery contest.
The princes vying for Draupadi's hand had to shoot five arrows at a revolving target, while looking only at its reflection in a bowl. In the Ramayana (circa 4th century B.C. E.), hero Rama wins his bride Sita in a bow-bending contest.

   As a trained archer, India is able to channel her energy and direct her purpose to the ultimate showdown with Shalimar, who is trained as an artist, but also as a terrorist.
The ultimate showdown in Rushdie’s novel is intensely personal as well as allegorical. Shalimar, robbed of his beloved wife Boonyi by American diplomat Max Ophuls, embodies the terrorist solution to sectarian strife, but also terrorism as a response to exploitation and domination by the West. Max Ophuls and Boonyi, the ‘stolen bride’, easily represent Western imperialism and the seduction of India by the West. Rushdie’s heroine, India – the offspring of Imperialism-Globalization and a ravaged subcontinent, is both Shalimar’s opponent in the contest for India’s soul, and the avenger of her murdered parents. In addition, India has re-named herself Kashmira; thus when the final duel pits a knife-wielding Shalimar against the drawn bow of Kashmira, a further symbolism: the sword of Islam versus the bow of Hindu antiquity, suggests itself.
   By contrast, the use of the bow in Caribou Island and We Need to Talk About Kevin lacks the rich cultural associations of the bow as a signifier built up during millennia of Indian culture. Without a cultural context, the use of bow and arrows by the protagonists of the American novels is idiosyncratic at best. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the avenging bow of Robin Hood – outlaw and people’s champion – is travestied when Kevin turns his skill in archery to entirely destructive means; any pretense of even a twisted revenge plot is then dissipated in chaos. Similarly in Caribou Island, when Irene wields the bow, her biochemically-induced rampage, over-determined, ceases to be a performance of revenge, degenerating instead into a confusion of mental dysfunction and love gone wrong. Not only is the energy of the bow-wielding American protagonists dissipated into destruction and chaos, it is energy unleashed against the defenseless. In the climactic scenes of the American novels, the bow is deployed neither as a weapon of war nor as archery equipment in a high-stakes contest. Instead, the bow becomes a tool of carnage turned against unarmed victims. The American novels climax not in a duels between armed opponents, but in slaughter and massacre.
   The contest between Shalimar and India, however, will not result in slaughter or massacre. It is a duel to the death, and will end only with the destruction of one of the two opponents. On one level this is the contest between two embodiments of modern India; on another level, it is the archetypal contest between good and evil. Bent on avenging the murder of her father at Shalimar’s hands, India is relentless, the bow her closest ally. Towards the end of the novel, she besieges the imprisoned Shalimar with letters:

                               My letters are poisoned arrows…Now you are my target and
                        I am your marksman however my arrows are not dipped in
                        love but in hatred. My letters are arrows of hate and they will
                        strike you down.
                                                Shalimar the Clown, p. 374

Where does this hatred come from?  In the case of India and Shalimar, it comes from centuries of sectarian rivalry. Both India and Shalimar are bereaved by cyclical violence. Of the two, it is Shalimar who becomes the instigator of the next murderous cycle. Shalimar the Clown is about the making of a terrorist: one who takes deadly aim at society in the course of settling personal scores. A post-9/11 novel, Shalimar treats the theme of terrorism head-on.
     We Need to Talk About Kevin is also about the making of a killer: Kevin becomes a mass-murderer whose psychopathology is attributed in equal parts to love gone wrong (his mother’s rejection of him as an infant) and the false values of American society (covering a wide swath: everything from the aesthetics of contemporary house design to the untested optimism and upbeat patriotism of Kevin’s father). The time frame of We Need to Talk About Kevin runs from the narrative of the beginning of the story, the years preceding Kevin’s birth, to the dénouement in which Eva visits Kevin in prison and prepares for his release. It is significant, then, that even as the time frame of We Need to Talk About Kevin encompasses September 11, 2001, the destruction of that day, the trauma, and its unfolding significance, is passed over in silence.
   It suits the narrative purposes of Kevin author Lionel Shriver to excoriate the United States of the 1980s–90s for its cultural shallowness and economic and environmental excesses without confusing the picture by evoking America of 2001: ambushed, and in that terrible unawareness, defenseless: attacked on her own soil. In 2011, Shriver was commissioned by BBC Radio 4, as one of five “internationally acclaimed authors,” to write one of “The 9/11 Letters” –  short fiction reflecting on the global consequences of the September 11 attacks. Given the opportunity to go on record concerning Al-Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Shriver came up with a story called “Prepositions.”
   “Prepositions” is the self-pitying letter of a woman whose husband died on September 11, 2001, but not in the September 11 attacks. While not quite constituting a reproach against those killed in the attacks, Shriver’s story is mean-spirited, straying far from the heart of the matter: catastrophic loss and social upheaval. This letter from Rachel, the accidental widow, to Sarah, the 9/11 widow of David, bemoans the fact that a 9/11 widow can dine out on her story, while the widow of a man who happened to die on 9/11 cannot. In fact Rachel has heard Sarah’s story so many times at so many dinner parties that she can recite it verbatim – and does so, in telegraphic style. Pointing out that “In New York, there are thousands of stories like David’s now,” Rachel proceeds to tell the story of her loss. Shriver uses Rachel’s envious persona to belittle the victims of 9/11. “Everyone who died in 9/11 is described as a “hero,” Rachel complains, “If you don’t mind, David did nothing but go to work.” “Prepositions” uses displacement – displacement from the catastrophic loss suffered by thousands to the idiosyncratic complaints of the Rachel persona – to deny the victims of the 9/11 attacks the appropriate memorial of collective grief. Freed from the temptation to say that her fellow citizens, victims of terrorism, are not grievable, Shriver achieves a comparable effect by insisting on the pathos of one woman whose husband died on September 11, and who does not have the solace of a public commemoration.
    Why is Shriver driven to ignore or displace the events of 9/11? Very likely because the mythos surrounding that day directly conflicts with the mythos of her novel, in which one of the roots of Kevin’s violence is the false gods of the USA, worshipped by Kevin’s father Franklin, but not by his mother, Eva, whom we suspect of articulating the author’s point of view. This is important, because one of Shriver’s tasks is to persuade the reader into a covert identification with Kevin – an identification with a quintessentially unappealing character that only becomes plausible to the extent that the reader can be convinced that Kevin is himself a kind of victim – of American dysfunction.  Just as the author of “Prepositions” displaces the September 11 tragedy of collective loss onto an account of one anomalous bereavement, so the author of Kevin displaces the tragedy of a mass killing onto the anomalous tale of a sociopath with twisted motives for revenge.   

    If the three contemporary novels under discussion can be likened, in some ways, to classic revenge tragedies, is it arguable that each of these realist tragedies offers the reader an experience of catharsis? An effective catharsis depends not only on the plotting of the climactic scene in each novel, but on the reader’s ability to identify with the key characters of that scene.
   Catharsis in Caribou Island might seem promised by the sheer wildness of the release of tension as Irene transforms herself from a vessel of pent-up passivity to a dynamic archer-avenger. Indeed, the novel may appear to mimic tragic rhythms in the determinism of its finish, whereby the family curse: a daughter discovering her mother’s suicide, is repeated in the next generation despite Irene’s conscious efforts to avoid just that eventuality. The novel’s finish, however, is closer to melodrama than it is to tragedy, with its atmosphere of over-kill in a very small world peopled by spiritless characters. Moreover, Irene is not an easy character for the reader to identify with. Depressed and seemingly helpless throughout the novel, her moment of ‘liberation’ is as dysfunctional as it is destructive.
   What about catharsis for the reader of We Need to Talk About Kevin? For the massacre carried out by Kevin in the high school gymnasium is an ambush as well-executed as the one in the Odyssey.  Like Odysseus, Kevin locks his assembled victims in a space where there is nowhere for them to run, nowhere to hide. Unlike Odysseus, however, Kevin does not slaughter the suitors who have been eating up his substance, courting his wife, and threatening his kingship. No, the human frailty that makes Kevin’s victims suitable candidates for slaughter is, in keeping with Shriver’s critique of American culture, their willingness to believe that they were chosen to receive a school award because they are special. For the reader who can succeed in despising a fictional group of wannabe special high school kids enough to identify with Kevin's motivation for the slaughter, the scene in the gymnasium may have some cathartic effect. The reader may experience fear and a derisory pity.
   What of the other scene of carnage in Kevin? Here Eva, the narrator, who has been describing her angst over their son in letters to her husband, is revealed to have been writing to a ghost. For she arrives home before the carnage that is to take place at the the high school, to find that Kevin has been busy with his bow and arrows in the back yard. Horrors abound: Kevin has slain his sister,  and Eva discovers her husband – Kevin’s father – pinioned by literal arrows perhaps analagous to Eva’s rhetorical pinioning of Franklin’s retrograde optimism, naiveté, and above all, love of country and patriotism. Again, for the reader who can succeed in despising this character as much as the author clearly despises him, the experience of catharsis is a possibility.
   And what does the reader experience of catharsis in Shalimar the Clown? For Rushdie steers clear of melodrama in this richly layered narrative in which every apparent extravagance, from the tale of the love affair of Shalimar and Boonyi – both born on the eve of Partition – to the story of the village where Hindus and Muslims feast together –  every suspected exaggeration – is masterfully incorporated into the realistic, historically attuned truth-telling corpus of the novel. Rushdie knows how to structure plot around character development, and amidst the beauty and lyricism of his writing, he does not forget how to build the story to a dramatic climax that also illuminates the novel’s themes.
   So how does the master dramatize the final confrontation between Shalimar and Kashmira: avenger versus avenger, each crying out for justice? Kashmira has to wait for Shalimar to come to kill her. She keeps her vigil. And she practices archery. When Shalimar finally comes for her, when the lights of the compound go out, she is ready with her night-vision goggles; she is perched and waiting with her golden bow.
   Some have argued that, unlike the showdowns in Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, Shalimar the Clown ends in a hung showdown. And it is true that the novel’s cinematic finish produces a blackout before the victor in the final contest is revealed. Thematically, too, it may be that the hung showdown best illustrates India as a nation in the balance, still represented as much by the Shalimars as by the Kashmiras.
   And yet there is another possibility. For the reader who has identified with India-Kashmira throughout, there is the possibility of catharsis with a different reading of the novel’s end. Let us look at the novel’s final words:

                                She felt the taut bowstring passing against her parted lips, felt the foot
                        of the arrow’s shaft against her gritted teeth, allowed the last seconds to
                        tick away, exhaled and let fly. There was no possibility that she would
                        miss. There was no second chance. There was no India. There was only
                        Kashmira, and Shalimar the clown.

   This is the stark contest between two rivals for India’s future. In this moment in time, only these two characters, these two archetypes, are present. The girl who was named India no longer exists. The woman of that girl does not claim to embody the soul of a subcontinent. She is Kashmira now, and her task is to defend her life. To do this she must kill. We hear her silently voicing-thinking the thought, “There was no possibility that she would miss.”  But this is also the voice of the author. Rushdie has prepared her for the final showdown, has given her a golden bow. There are no second chances, and there is no possibility that she will miss. After the cinematic blackout, victory belongs to Kashmira.

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