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[208] The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Satanic“For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow? — One seeking to be transformed into the foreignness he admires, the other referring, contemptuously, to transform; one, a hapless fellow who seems to be continually punished for uncommitted crimes, the other, called angelic by one and all, the type of man who gets away with everything.” [441]

The effort to read The Satanic Verses is mountainous, let alone making sense of the meaning out of Salman Rushdie’s disorganized mixture of dream-narratives and themes and writing a review. The stream of scriptural cross references and incarnations of characters over time, as well as a contrived repetition of catch phrases and a philosophical inquiry (what good is the distinction between good and evil?) make this book very inaccessible. The proliferation of plots, modern and historical, might spin out of control at a glance, but it converges to a theme that invites vehement controversies from the Muslim world: Ubiquity of faith has become the lowest of instincts.

The chaotic work begins with a terrorist bombing (note: this novel was published in 1988) on New Year’s day. A London-bound jetliner blows up midair, sending pieces of debris nosedived to the water of Great Britain. The two survivors, both Indian actors, one specializes in portraying deities, the other a voiceover, transform into living symbols of what is angelic and evil. Saladin Chamcha is determined to transform into the English foreignness that he admires, putting an ocean between him and his father, with whom he bears no pleasant memory. Gibreel Farishta rediscovers his capacity to love, repenting from the avalanche of sex that a film star is privileged to have. Chamcha seeks revenge of his unfaithful wife, and Farishta wishes to set things right. But good and evil aren’t really clear-cut. From the very beginning of the book, Rushdie has posed the query of ambivalent duality, that it’s irrelevant to classify humanity into good and evil.

. . .or their blast-delirium that spared them full foreknowledge of the imminent . . . but for whatever reason, the two men, Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha, condemned to this endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall, did not become aware of the moment at which the processes of their transformation began. [5]

The crossover of these men, who are supposedly the opposite of one another, suggests both goodness and evil are double-sided: They have to co-exist in order to entail meaning. As the two survivors assume physical attributes of an angel and devil, a halo and horns, respectively, Rushdie takes his readers to series of dream-sagas that cause the Muslims’ vehement protest against the novel. Gibreel dreams of Mahound, a Crusader derogatory term for Mohammad who founded Islam in 7th century, realizing devil has come to him in the guise of the archangel. The verses for Qur’an that Mohammad has spoken, regarding the intercession of the three goddesses, Al-lat, Uzza, and Manah, were diabolic opposite to what should be conceived. They were not godly, but satanic. The Muslims take to mean Rushdie claim verses of the Qur’an, in fact the whole book, is the work of the devil.

Controversies shoved aside, The Satanic Verses, despite its chaotic and incendiary nature, does converge to a single cause. Instead of arguing the interpretations of Qur’an and settling doctrinal differences, the novel advocates for transcendence over this vague notion of good and evil because division of humanity into good and evil is no longer useful, resonating the same call of The Master and Margarita, which inspired Rushdie to write this book. As Gibreel, who is the archangel, snaps in and out of these dreams, his is seized by the terror of losing his mind to a paradox of being unmade by what he no longer believes existed.

When a man is unsure of his essence, how many he know if he is good or bad? [198]

Likewise, Chamcha has gained the beastly, goatlike image of a devil whose arrival is not recognized by those who greet him. Rushdie turns Saladin Chamcha, the immigrant who is most determined to identify with the English, literally into a demon. He is demonized because he finds unwelcome hostile identities imposed upon him. Centrality of the white race, centrality of the one true religion—these are all satirized and renounced by Rushdie. What Saladin set off with a good morality to pursue his idea of the good turns to be evil in the eyes of others.

—Whereas the migrant can do without the journey altogether; it’s no more than a necessary evil; the point is to arrive. [96]
Had he not pursued his own idea of the good, sought to become that which he most admired, dedicated himself with a will bordering on obsession to the conquest of Englishness? . . . Could it be, in this inverted age, that he was being victimized by—the fates . . . precisely because of his pursuit of ‘the good’? [265]

Saladin represents those who are suppressed by dominant groups, and who struggle to find an effective channel to resist, and to create authority for themselves. The underlying power to break away from these chains is to ask question, to doubt, to disagree, and to deregulate. The Satanic Verses challenges self-righteous orthodoxies and advocates questioning. The repetitive contradiction in Gibreel’s dreams and Saladin’s role imposes the question of what defines one’s true identity. An identity that is not tainted by religion, politics, and gender stereotype. It explains in particular that renouncing one’s faith doesn’t mean disbelief.

To will is to disagree; not to submit. [80]
. . .Gibreel appeared to the Prophet and found himself spouting rules, rules, rules, until the faithful could scarcely bear the prospect of any more revelation, Salman said, rules about every damn thing, if a man farts let him turn his face into the wind, a rule about which hand to use for the purpose of cleaning one’s behind. It was as if no aspect of human existence was to be left unregulated, free. [376]

Free. It might sound very morbid but the blown-up plane at the beginning of the novel denotes freedom from such regulation that has strong clutch on men. In midair the two survivors can start over, in freedom, to make the choices of their own. But these choices will eventually define who they are, because they have to take responsibility for their actions. Nobody can shift this responsibility for actions to God, history, or religion. The Satanic Verses is a significant book that speaks the truth of our adverse times, when our own false descriptions to counter the falsehoods invented about us only reveal our insecurity. The book is not easy to read, inaccessible at some points in fact, and requires readers’ undivided attention. Read slowly and pace yourself. I would like to thank and acknowledge Paul Brians whose notes have served a most valuable guidance to reading, understanding, as well as reviewing this novel.

561 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

11 Responses

  1. I’m not sure I would be cut out for such a novel. I’m still in literary high school, and I think this is PhD stuff. I’m afraid I would get lost and not appreciate it. I remember when this book came out, there was a huge uproar, and I can see why. Thanks for reading and interpreting!

  2. The first sentence of your review scares me already. This book does seem invincible and that is why I have hesitated picking it up. I have read, enjoyed, and understood (well, at least superficially) The Master and Margarita; but this book seems almost impossible.I understand this is a book to be read, especially it’s dealing with the adverse global environment but it is just plain intimidating!

  3. Thanks for reading this one for me!!! 🙂

  4. […] [208] The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie […]

  5. Very fine review. It’s obvious that it reflects much hard work. I can only echo the earlier comments; by your description, this seems a kind of “professional’s” book. I’m grateful to learn why all the fuss broke over it’s publication. I can see why this title would engender hostility among the orthodox. I suspect, though, it’s a valuable book to those willing to make the effort. Sometimes “simpler” books — like Master and Margarita — are in their way just as daunting, because subtly, over time, so many insights percolate gradually from the material.

  6. Your review was wonderful. I sort of echo Sandy’s comment though…

  7. This is a nice write-up, but don’t let your readers get scared away! If you can make it through the first chapter (which is the toughest, because you don’t know what’s going on and you’re still acclimating to Rushdie’s beautiful, frenetic prose), you are in for a treat. This is one of my favorite books!

  8. the book is not named after the so called satanic verses in the koran, the book itself is the satanic verses, a more carefull read of chapter one will show you who is writing the book in the first person.
    read the acknowledgements, final comments

  9. […] But Worth the Effort: Beloved, Toni Morrison Most Tedious But Probably Not Worth the Effort: The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie One Book That is Good to the Last Page: The Writing on My Forehead, Nafisa […]

  10. Great review. I think people really need to read this book once just to sort through the history, controversy and sometimes confusing story arcs and then a second time to take in, not only its beauty but the universal message and thoughts.

  11. […] the most over-written novel I have read for a long time, only second to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, both touch upon the subject matter of apocalyptic annihilation and millennial anxiety. It’s […]

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