The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie)

Posted: July 18, 2014 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Is it possible to discuss this book without using the phrase magical realism? I don’t believe so, and now that I’ve used it once, you’ll forgive me for describing the phenomenon without reusing the phrase.

I also don’t believe that it’s possible to discuss the novel without mentioning the controversy around it. Some see it as a harmless work of fiction; some as a work of dangerous blasphemy. Not liking extremes, my point of view is somewhere in the middle. To those who do not see it as blasphemous, I must ask, Do you know anything about Islam? Do you know what blasphemy means? Rushdie achieves blasphemy in the first chapter when there is a miraculous intervention to save the lives of two unbelieving ex-Muslims (miracles are for the faithful), and then again in the second when he compares an actor, in terms of fame and public adoration, to God (nothing can be compared to God). Things run downhill from there, as the two protagonistic antagonists become avatars of the archangel Gibreel and the first djinn to refuse to submit, Shaitan (the concept of the avatar is Hindu; supernatural beings do not embody themselves in pre-existing humans). It’s a lot easier to be an angel, because you can fly and have light that emanates from your head, than to be a devil, what with the horns and the goat feet and the tail and all. Then, when Gibreel visits The Prophet (peace be upon him), dreaming himself back in time, the representation of The Prophet (pbuh) is not entirely complimentary. Showing him unfaithful to his own cause is blasphemy, and I don’t think that anyone who considers himself One Who Submits will enjoy it.

However, is blasphemy dangerous? I mean, there’s nothing insidious about it. To someone familiar with Islam, the blasphemy is obvious. Don’t read it if you don’t want to. Encourage others not to read it. If you sell books, don’t carry it. But deciding that the author has to die and that all copies of the book should be destroyed? No, I won’t go that far. I think that people should have a choice as to what they consume, and destroying every copy of the book robs people of their right to choose. Killing an author creates a martyr and draws attention to a book that may have otherwise subsided into obscurity. It’s not just wrong; it’s counterproductive. I can respect a plan that, if implemented, will actually achieve its goal, even if I think the goal is morally wrong, but killing an author for writing blasphemy is not such a plan.

Some examples of Rushdie’s blasphemy:

Gibreel commenting on his role as God’s messenger:

Being God’s postman is no fun, yaar.

Butbutbut: God isn’t in this picture.

God knows whose postman I’ve been.

And later:

Damn me if I know from where that girl was getting her information/inspiration. Not from this quarter, that’s for sure.

If every revelation that people claim comes from Gibreel doesn’t come from him, and if Gibreel isn’t always God’s messenger, then what does that say about the Qur’an? Blasphemy, that’s what.

The narrator (often implied to be the real Shaitan/Satan/Devil) commenting on the tactics of God:

Question: What is the opposite of faith?

Not disbelief. Too final, certain, closed. Itself a kind of belief.

Doubt.

The human condition, but what of the angelic? Halfway between Allahgod and homosap, did they ever doubt? They did, challenging God’s will one day they hid muttering beneath the Throne, daring to ask forbidden things: antiquestions. Is it right that. Could it not be argued. Freedom, the old antiquest. He calmed them down, naturally, employing management skills à la god. Flattered them: you will be the instruments of my will on earth, of the salvationdamnation of man, all the usual etcetera. And hey presto, end of protest, on with the haloes, back to work. Angels are easily pacified; turn them into instruments and they’ll play your harpy tune. Human beings are tougher nuts, can doubt anything, even the evidence of their own eyes. Of behind-their-own eyes. Of what, as they sink heavy-lidded, transpires behind closed peepers . . . angels, they don’t have much in the way of a will. To will is to disagree; not to submit; to dissent.

I know; devil talk. Shaitan interrupting Gibreel.

Me?

And again:

Then how unconfident of Itself this Deity was, Who didn’t want Its finest creations to know right from wrong; and Who reigned by terror, insisting upon the unqualified submission of even Its closest associates, packing off all dissidents to Its blazing Siberias, the gulag-infernos of Hell . . .

But this is a description of the Christian God, though I suppose parts of it could be applied to the Muslim One as well.

What happens if we disengage from the blasphemous magical realism for a bit, and focus on what really happens? This is a novel about the problems with racism and immigration in 1980s London. The focus is on the Indian population of Brickhall, but it’s clear that the problems Rushdie portrays affect all non-white populations of the city, possibly of the nation. Police brutality, white gangs, the dehumanization of immigrants, all of which leads to an explosion of violence in a very hot summer. Rushdie places some of this conflict at the level of language:

“But how do they do it?” Chamcha wanted to know.

“They describe us,” the other whispered solemnly. “That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.”

And the immigrants become literal monsters. Or:

But you bastard you rummage in my drawers and laugh at my stupid poems. The real language problem: how to bend it shape it, how to let it be our freedom, how to repossess its poisoned wells, how to master the river of words of time of blood: about all that you haven’t got a clue. How hard that struggle, how inevitable the defeat.

As demonstrated above, he plays with the hybrid, immigrant, pidgin nature of the English language and represents authentic speech patterns of the Bombay/London population. The language is used against them, but it doesn’t remain unchanged, ideal, pure. If his characters don’t have complete control over their own language, the author certainly does. Language and accent represent national identities, and contact produces change. As much as Rushdie destroys the credibility of faith in God, he also destroys the credibility of faith in an incorruptible England. It’s quite a blow for an American liberal; we tend to see Europe as the haven of liberal values and a lifestyle healthier and more integrated with history and with the future than what we live in the United States, and since England is the part of Europe most easily accessible to us, who have such a poor record of language learning, we tend to exalt the Britishness our ancestors fought so hard to divest themselves of. There’s a reason BBC America is so popular. Seeing that they have the same social issues, the same riots, the same violence that we do, is kind of like finding the birth control in your parents’ bedroom: you gain a more realistic view of people that you had previously seen primarily as ideals or concepts. Heroes become human, and we realize that the ocean between us is really just a pond.

While the ethnic Indians are represented as individual and diverse, the tendency is to flatten the British populace to a single identity, one of imperial guilt mixed with racial intolerance devoid of national pride.

For a man like Saladin Chamcha the debasing of Englishness by the English was a thing too painful to contemplate.

The few Americans don’t come off much better:

The incident struck him as Darwin’s revenge: if Dumsday held poor, Victorian, starchy Charles responsible for American drug culture, how delicious that he should himself be seen, across the globe, as representing the very ethic he battled so fervently against. Dumsday fixed him with a look of pained reproof. It was a hard fate to be an American abroad, and not to suspect why you were so disliked.

Dumsday is a creationist scientist bent on disproving Darwin in favour of the Biblical narrative of geological history, which has always struck me as quixotic at best. He loses his part of his tongue in an accident and doctors replace it with flesh from his behind, so that for the rest of his life he is literally talking out of his ass. But he is a good example of one of the things to enjoy about this book: the minor characters are so delightful. Rushdie really pays attention to the details, with great one-liners like

The world is finite; our hopes spill over its rim.

Or:

You can’t judge an internal injury by the size of its hole.

Or:

Like, anyhow, a character in a story of a kind in which she could never have imagined she belonged.

And aren’t we all that, at least occasionally?

There are a number of other excerpts that were touching and important, including a couple on the subject of exile that became poignantly ironic when this book led Rushdie into exile, but I’ll limit myself to just this one, when the Gibreel who isn’t sure if he’s a Bollywood actor or the archangelic representation of God’s power makes a decision about London.

 Gibreel enumerated the benefits of the proposed metamorphosis of London into a tropical city: increased moral definition, institution of a national siesta, development of vivid and expansive patterns of behaviour among the populace, higher-quality popular music, new birds in the trees (macaws, peacocks, cockatoos), new trees under the birds (coco-palms, tamarind, banyans with hanging beards). Improved street-life, outrageously coloured flowers (magenta, vermilion, neon-green), spider-monkeys in the oaks. A new mass market for domestic air-conditioning units, ceiling fans, anti-mosquito coils and sprays. A coir and copra industry. Increased appeal of London as a centre for conferences, etc.; better cricketers; higher emphasis on ball-control among professional footballers, the traditional and soulless English commitment to ‘high workrate’ having been rendered obsolete by the heat. Religious fervour, political ferment, renewal of interest in the intelligentsia. No more British reserve; hot-water bottles to be banished forever, replaced in the foetid nights by the making of slow and odorous love. Emergence of new social values: friends to commence dropping in on one another without making appointments, closure of old folks’ homes, emphasis on the extended family. Spicier food; the use of water as well as paper in English toilets; the joy of running fully dressed through the first rains of the monsoon.

Disadvantages: cholera, typhoid, legionnaires’ disease, cockroaches, dust, noise, a culture of excess.

Standing upon the horizon, spreading his arms to fill the sky, Gibreel cried: ‘Let it be.’

And as for Rushdie’s novel, Let it be. I must confess that I rather like blasphemous magical realism, the implication that beliefs affect the mundane world and are no less real. We shape our reality by what we choose to allow to be true about it. I’m also strongly attracted by the idea that God is not the exclusive possession of a few ascetics who hide from what the world has to offer. The world is a big and wonderful place, full of pleasure, pain, and beauty. Hiding in the desert doesn’t strike me as the best way to honor this diverse creation.

I don’t know if God is there. If [insert pronoun here] is, I don’t know if The Almighty cares much about the blasphemies of a book [iph] permits to continue in existence. But I do know, that The Satanic Verses is a well-written book that deserves its praise, and its condemnation. Like a person, it’s part angelic and part demonic, good and evil all mixed up together, funny and sad, theological, scatological, offensive, beautiful.

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Comments
  1. pinkagendist says:

    Ick- I hate Rushdie.

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