There is no one quite like Salman Rushdie; nor any writer, currently at work, attempting quite the same thing. This, his tenth novel, Shalimar the Clown, has already been the subject of fierce rumour, the consensus about its quality being that it was Rushdie at full tilt, on top form, and that Shalimar was up there with Midnight's Children – his second, published in 1981, winning the Booker and later, in 1993, the 'Booker of Bookers'. For once, the rumours are true. It's also to my mind the most fantastic demonstration of the sheer power and vitality of the written word - a literary triumph, or, more properly speaking, a triumph for literature.

As the great John Updike said: "An absolute freedom exists on the blank page, so let's use it." Rushdie certainly does that; and of course, is only too aware of the consequences of doing so. There's much in Shalimar the Clown that will undoubtedly cause contention. The character of the title, his specialty the high wire act, whose real name is 'Noman', is tutored by an 'iron mullah' and later assassinates one of the world's most powerful men, Max Ophilus. Max is Jewish, from the disputed territory of Strasbourg, was a hero of the Resistance, a philanderer, and US Ambassador to India. Kashmir becomes his area of special interest when he falls in love with a Kashmiri dancer, Boonyi, Shalimar's wife. Boonyi becomes Max's mistress; they have a daughter, India.

The novel goes full circle; the wheel turns, at times with the fast pace of a thriller, at others with the measured exactness of poetry; always, it seems to me, with a kind of determined love and unalloyed pleasure in the story's progress, the way the best books grip and linger, both in the writing of them and the reading: it's urgent that you see them through; but it's the kind of urgency that takes time. At just under 400 pages, reading in this case becomes a kind of pause: look, this is what I mean…you may be gone some time. These are just the very barest bones. The brilliance of the novel is in its sleight of hand: at one point, it's stated 'their characters were not their destinies', and the play of emotion is in the story's presentation of character - show character, you allow for motive, and at the same time imply free will. As Henry James put it, a novel is 'morality in action' - an essentially humanistic form which relies absolutely on a base level of sympathy, without which it's just not readable, not engaging; a way of being inside the mind of both the killer and the killed.

The main drive of the story is revenge as a dish best served cold, and as such the novel is Rushdie's rangiest yet, both in terms of geography, high and low culture, myth, dreamscapes, fairytales. He crosses all these borders to deliver up his tale. (At one point he even does a great Sebastian Faulks; elsewhere, a still better Borges.) By the end, and after much cooking and feasting, you're left with the sense that the novel could not have happened any other way: it's the sum of its parts, and its parts are multitudinous.

It's a vexed expression, but the dish is definitely multicultural. So the novel itself is a kind of QED. It is its own defence: as one of the characters says, '"everywhere was part of everywhere else". The fact that the places are translatable - or, put another way, deliciously edible - is a kind of literary incarnation, the word made flesh, the novel essentially humane: everyone is part of everyone else too.

For these reasons also, Shalimar is a triumph. It shows up literature's great relevance to life, and its immense hardiness. It's not something that goes on politely in libraries. It's the thing that grabs a person by their hearts and minds. It mirrors the state we're in, and in doing so, reminds us that the mirror is a metaphor: it's not life, it's literature; and, conversely, that bombs are not fiction, but fact. To discern the difference, to be able to distinguish between the two, is to have received what the American poet Robert Frost called an 'education by metaphor' - art as the bedrock of civilisation; civilised society is not possible without it.

William Faulkner put this better than anyone in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in 1950. Five years after Nagasaki and Hiroshima, he called for young writers to take courage, and "leave no place in their workshop" for the fear of living with the bomb, but to attend instead to "the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing."In this superb novel, Rushdie is certainly doing all that. We are lucky to have him. Incidentally, it's a damn good read.