There has always been an odd innocence about Salman Rushdie's novels. His satire is obvious, his allusions are unrestrained; he revels in his digressions. Rushdie's prose accumulates details rather than selects them. His narrative voice allows for sarcastic interjection or delighted hyperbole. He does not flinch from telling rather than showing. He openly fashions his plots to accommodate the issues that he cares about. You can invariably see just what he is up to.
So it is in his latest novel, Shalimar the Clown. You want to admire this passionate book, whose engagement with urgent issues - religious fundamentalism, the influence of America, the psychopath-ology of terrorism - is so uncontrived. Here is a novel that is heartfelt, anxious, anything but complacent. Yet Rushdie's ambitions threaten to crush his characters and buckle his prose.
The narrative takes us to the roots of a murder. In the opening scene, India Ophuls sees her father, Maximilian, a retired diplomat and spy, butchered at the entrance to her swanky Los Angeles apartment. The assassin is his ever-polite Kashmiri driver, Shalimar. The explanation for this terrible act will emerge from the novel's various narrative strands, one of which uncovers the secret of India's parentage. Illicitly "conceived in the East", India was named after the country where her father was American ambassador. Shalimar, we discover, was her mother's husband.
So we travel back in time to Kashmir, and to the origins of a tragic family history. With typical ingenuous excess, Rush- die describes the "earthly paradise" that Kashmir was before it became a war zone. It is a place of orchards and crystal rivers, where people of different religions live together beneath the encircling mountains. Here, in a village, a Muslim boy, Abdullah Noman, falls in love with a Hindu girl, Boonyi. They innocently make love and their families decide to exonerate rather than condemn them. They marry, their wedlock a symbol of the community's happy tolerance.
Inevitably, however, there is a Fall. India and Pakistan go to war over this paradise, and its valleys fill with military metal. In the village, the iron mullah arrives, with his "beautiful pale eyes that seemed to look right through this world into the next one". A new kind of "saint", he teaches good Muslims to forgive their neigh-bours nothing. Meanwhile, disastrously, Max Ophuls, passing through on a diplomatic mission, takes a fancy to Boonyi. She yearns to escape her little world, and elopes to be his mistress in sinful Delhi. Noman, who renamed himself Shalimar after the garden in which he consummated his love, bends himself to revenge. We follow his induction into an Islamist terrorist network. He becomes the agent of sinister plotters, but we know that his murderous passion, personal in origin, will be vented only many years later, in Santa Monica.
Thus, Rushdie seems to be taking us into the mind of a fundamentalist killer. Yet the hatred that motivates his assassin is curiously harder to understand than any religious zealotry. Shalimar wants to kill the man who cuckolded him; he wants to kill his wife (who returns to Kashmir to live a half-life in a hut up a mountain); he wants to kill the daugh- ter born of the adulterous affair, India. He becomes a psychopath, and in the novel's final section indeed comes to resemble a terrifyingly robotic killer from a Thomas Harris thriller.
You know that Rushdie wants us to see these events through different eyes: the five parts of his novel are named after his leading characters, as if the story were divided between their viewpoints. Instead of extending any real sympathy to them, however, Rushdie provides his characters with "histories". These begin with their names. India was given hers by Max's unloving English wife (a parody figure who talks like an Enid Blyton games mistress); her real mother called her Kashmira. To Kashmir, then, she must eventually travel, in order to understand her story.
To India's charming father, Max Ophuls, Rushdie gives the name of a German/ French film director - and, distractingly, some aspects of his biography. The name is there, one presumes, to carry the weight of history that the novelist wants to impart. Max, originally from Stras-burg, represents bourgeois European sophistication. His back story involves some rapidly sketched exploits with the French Resistance, including his seduction of a terrifying female SS officer (an episode that even Ian Fleming might have resisted). Meanwhile Max's civilised but foolish parents fail to flee Strasburg in time, and perish. Later, Max discovers that they had been used for Nazi medical experimentation. Disconcertingly, we learn nothing of how he finds this out, or how it influences him; it is never mentioned again.
Often you sense Rushdie pressing his case: "Everywhere was now part of everywhere else. Russia, America, London, Kashmir. Our lives, our stories, flowed into one another's, were no longer our own, individual, discrete. This unsettled people." These are supposed to be India's thoughts, but they feel like the author's. While they reveal Rushdie's aspirations for his novel, they also reveal its biggest flaw - why his characters cannot be themselves.
John Mullan is professor of English at University College London