Thursday, March 7, 2013
The Satanic Verses
The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie
I find it hard to believe that it has been 24 years since this book came out and that it has taken me this long to get around to reading it. I guess my expectations of the book had been somewhat dampened at the time, having overheard conversations, one in particular where the quality of the book and Rushdie's own personality were called into question by people who, nevertheless were loudly condemning the Fatwa and defending Rushdie. Not that they should like the book, or Rushdie, to object to the Fatwa but it lowered my expectations. Which is a good way to approach a book.
The book opens with two men falling from an aeroplane that has blown up. Both are Indian, both are actors, although one has based himself in London and the other has been one of the biggest stars in Bollywood. As they fall a force takes over the bowler hatted Saladin Chamcha's body and "once it was sure of its dominion it spread outward from his body and grabbed Gibreel Farishta by the balls. 'Fly,' it commanded Gibreel. 'Sing.'"
He does and as he flaps his arms their descent slow until "the two of them were floating down to the Channel like scraps of paper in a breeze." Rushdie constantly refers us back to the fact that this is a story by using images such as the above. We are never in any doubt that we are in a story, often in a story within a story, or a dream, or hallucination. The book does not make claims to be realist but it is filled with reality as well as fantasy. It is clear that Rushdie was writing about identity, his own and the identity of other immigrants in Britain. To create a multidimensional view of identity, he recreates with some liberties taken, some of the foundational stories behind his characters identity. This includes a version of the life of Muhammed, called Mahound in the book.
The Mahound story is one of a number that run throughout the book, all featuring parallel characters and events. Gibreel, after falling from the sky, feels himself to be the Archangel Gibreel / Gabriel. He shuns sleep, as in his sleep he is dreaming a continuous dream, which is the story of Mahound in Jalalia (a version of Mecca), a city of sand which could be washed away by rainfall and where water is seen as necessary but dangerous. Mahound regularly climbs a mountain to hear the divine word, which is relayed through the Archangel.
The waking Gibreel in modern London seems to have a light behind his head and some are prepared to follow him, At times he believes himself the Archangel but most of his attempts to exercise his power end in abject failure. He was an actor in India, famous particularly for playing Gods, and has dropped out of that life in order to pursue Alleluia Cone, a woman mountaineer who has conquered Everest. He has long suffered from a fear that love is passing him by and sees Alleluia as his true love.
His early life as an aspiring actor and ladies man is described in a passage that contains the seed of all that is to follow:
"Off screen, he lived alone in two empty rooms near the studios and tried to imagine what women looked like without clothes on. To get his mind off the subject of love and desire, he studied, becoming an omnivorous autodidact, devouring the metamorphic myths of greece and Rome, the avatars of Jupiter, the boy who became a flower, the spider-woman, Circe, everything; and the theosophy of Annie Besant, and unified field theory, and the incident of the Satanic Verses in the early life of the Prophet, and the politics of Muhammad's harem after his return to Mecca in triumph; and the surrealism of the newspapers, in which butterflies could fly into young girls' mouths, asking to be consumed, and children were born with no faces, and young boys dreamed in impossible detail of earlier incarnations..."
Saladin Chamcha is returning to London after a rare visit home to Bombay where he was disturbed to find himself slipping into his old accent: "the vowel sounds, distinctly unreliable. Watch out, Chamcha, look out for your shadow. That black fellow creeping up behind." He makes his money as a voiceover artist and there is a clear sense of him needing to find a voice of his own. He has, bowler hat and all, embraced a version of Englishness largely abandoned by the English. When he gets together, in Bombay with his childhood friend Zeenat Vakil, she tells him "'You know what you are, I'll tell you. A deserter is what, more English than, your Angrez accent wrapped around you like a flag, and don't think it's so perfect, it slips, baba, like a false moustache.'"
After his fall he finds horns growing on his head and his feet become cloven. In this form he is mistreated and imprisoned by the English police and renounced by his English wife. He must enter the world of his fellow immigrants in order to find shelter. He must embrace his shadow to become complete.
Voices are the beating heart of this novel. From the singing of Gibreel as he flaps his arms; the use of advertising doggerel; to scenes where the voice of revelation fills the mythological Gibreel to bursting point; the satires of Baal.... Voices are also the main currency of identity, with immigrants often identifiable by the echoes of their home in their speech. And it is around the exploration of identity that all these voices gather. Identity is difficult to pin down, like trying to map the contours of a river surface, destined to failure. It is a fluid and abstract notion and it is the significant achievement of this novel that it manages to give a vivid sense of the forces at work in the creation of cultural identities.
The story of Mahound centers on the move from multiple gods to a single God. This can be seen as representative of the historical tendency to construct national and regional Identities. Whether it is a religion or brand of crisps, or pint, certain things become indicators of belonging. Old advertisements; the fairytales we are told as children, the fairytales we are told as adults; the topography of demolished streets; the names of TV shows; the names of saints; the words of our local deities; songs; laws; how we use toilets; taboo words and subjects; all these and much, much more shared knowledge are the material used to build a shell of shared identity around the kernel of the trembling individual.
This performs the function of bodily mutilation in certain tribal societies -marking us as belonging. When identities become too powerful they can demand obesiance even from those who place no faith in them or value upon them. This is what happens in Jalalia when Mahound returns in triumph and destroys the myriad statues of other deities. Earlier he had recited verses which would have allowed three female deities to co-exist with Allah as lesser gods. These are then retracted, the voice that time was Shaitan, apparently, and not Gibreel. These are the Satanic Verses of the book's title.
That voices we use, are they good or evil? How can we tell? Rushdie, who as a copyrighter had smuggled phrases into the heart of English culture, would be more aware than most of how we can be manipulated to think in ways that others desire us to. The book dives into these troubled waters, asking that we acknowledge the light and darkness within us; our multiple identities; the failure of a single system of belief or belonging to work for the multiplicity of mankind. It shows us the need for tolerance, even of our own hidden selves.
As for beliefs, there is another parallel story in the actor Gibreel's dreams, featuring a girl who speaks with the Archangel Gibreel and who leads her village on a pilgrimage to Mecca. She is followed, in a mercedes, by the local landowner, who is distressed that his wife is on the pilgrimage and that scientific reason has been abandoned by the villagers. She is also followed by a flock of butterflies who at one point will take on the shape of the archangel. Rushdie brings this story to an open ended conclusion, allowing space both for scientific reason and for faith.
Unfortunately The Satanic Verses will be remembered for the response to it, the attempt to enforce a single voice on the use of a shared story. Non believers need not apply. It is worth remembering that the 'crime' of being an atheist is punishable by death in Iran and other theocracies. It's legacy may well be many books which will be hamstrung by their attempts to please everyone, or at least not overly displease certain groups. (An example, in my view, would be The Kite Runner).
This feels like little more than an initial skirmish with this book. I hope, given headspace and time, to return to it in the near future. It is a book that offers a rich and rewarding engagement. If you haven't read it already I recommend it strongly.