Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Satanic Verses

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

1988, 561 pp.

It is difficult for the thoughtful and informed reviewer to find much that is new and useful to say about a book this notorious. Like Ulysses and Lady Chatterley's Lover and even Catcher in the Rye, this novel has become such a cause célèbre and such an object of vitriol for so many for so long that to a certain extent it is necessary and expected in literary discussions to have an a priori opinion on it. This is of course unfair to the work and to the author, and even to the reader, who is likely to be either confused or disappointed by the book not turning out to be what it was described as by people who hadn't read it either. I will attempt in this review to keep my goals constrained: this is a review, not a work of literary criticism, and therefore the purpose is to explain what the book is like to read and how well it succeeds at what it sets out to do.

The answer to the first question is simple: it reads like a Salman Rushdie book. There are the usual rococo flourishes, the aural playfulness, the blending of Indian diction, the strange names and repetitions of increasing complexity. As ever, Rushdie is intensely conscious of internal rhyme, startling dichotomies, and the polyglot aural potential of words. There are common Rushdie motifs: movies, storytellers, hidden identities, confusion of imagination and reality. The prose here is decidedly more mature than in Midnight's Children and more taut than in The Enchantress of Florence, but it is definitely Rushdie prose all the same. Like those other two books, it is exhilarating and fascinating for about three hundred and fifty pages, then overstays its welcome for the following two hundred. This is particularly problematic in this book, which lacks the forward momentum of the other two. Midnight's Children was built around the history of modern India and a coming-of-age story framed by the first person narrator's contemporary reflections, so we knew where we were headed. The Enchantress of Florence involved a mystery and a puzzle, so we knew that by the end it would be solved. The Satanic Verses involves two quite-opposite Indian actors who miraculously survive a plane exploding over the English Channel. One, the Bollywood superstar Gibreel Farishta, takes on the aspects of the angel Gabriel and begins to hallucinate (or dream or experience) his other appearances in history; the other, a stodgy, conservative radio actor named Saladin Chamcha, finds himself transforming into a corporeal manifestation of a devil. There are fascinating digressions and the dream sequences are at once profound and irreverent, and the exploration of the themes of alienation and emigration are splendidly executed, but it is never clear where, if anywhere, the plot is going. This lack of forward momentum leaves Rushdie's recondite prose rather spinning its wheels and leads the reader to run out of patience much too early.

But the point of the book is not the plot, it is the themes, and at this Rushdie scores a brilliant success. Farishta and Chamcha are both fleeing an India which is changing and which they no longer recognise, and neither have homes they can go back to. Both have been in love with English women, and both straddle an uncomfortable divide between Indian and English cultures. They experience in a magical and miraculous rendition of common immigrant experiences, and the magical hyperbole allows Rushdie to personify and magnify the problems and discomforts of that transition. Rushdie apparently feared, though, that the reader may not grasp all this talk about alienation and cultural disconnect, so in a fit of post-modernism the figure of God (who appears briefly around the mid-point) turns out to be the same voice as the narrator, who addresses the reader personally, discusses how the characters represent different ideas, and seems to respond to implied questions from the reader. Gibreel Farishta, it seems, is true to himself and his origins, so he is genuine and therefore good, while Saladin Chamcha does not and (though Rushdie/God never actually uses the word "assimilate") attempts to destroy his identity beneath the trappings of another one. These two possibilities represent the dichotomy of the immigrant experience, and their conflict is the fundamental source of the alienation which results from implantation in a new culture. I picked this up from the action of the book, though, and was not entirely sure why Rushdie felt the need to spell it out: it seemed to me to be an admission that he was not entirely confident that he was succeeding and wanted to cover his bases.

Of course it is impossible to review this book without discussing that man with the silly hat and the stellar sense of humor. The bits of the book which caused that spot of bother take place in a dream or hallucination had by Gibreel which concerns a "former businessman" named "Mahound" who brings a new religion to two cities called "Jahiliya" and "Yathrib." The episode of the satanic verses is recreated quite faithfully to the source documentation, and Mahound/Mohammad is generally presented in a fairly positive, if authoritarian light. There is only one stretch quite late in the book which is critical of religion (and coming on the heels of José Saramago's winning prizefight against God, it seems like Atheist Little League) and even that derives from Islamic tradition:

"...Salman the Persian got to wondering what manner of God this was that sounded so much like a businessman. This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled that of course Mahound himself had been a how excessively convenient it was that he should have come up with such a very businesslike archangel, who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, if non-corporeal, God."

There is, however, a brief section spent ridiculing a figure simply called "the Imam" who lives in paranoid exile in London. This cannot be anyone other than Khomeini, and while reading it I wondered if perhaps Khomeini found out about it and trumped up the whole blasphemy charge because Rushdie hurt his feelings. There is also a general argument that revelation is necessarily false, self-serving, and dangerous, as is indicated by the increasingly disturbing sections describing a prophetess who leads a village on a pilgrimage to the sea. Rushdie demonstrates a pervasive skepticism of self-appointed holy men, and it is impossible not to notice that the Khomeini-proxy is singled out for specific ridicule.

But then we all know that Ruhollah Khomeini did not read this book, nor did many of the lunatics who burned it, nor did the thugs who murdered Rushdie's translators and publishers. The sick irony of the entire incident is that Rushdie's characters and themes seem addressed directly at the angst and anxiety of those impoverished, dislocated, marginalized Muslims who paraded him around in effigy. He explored their problems with insight, wit, humor, and sympathy. Rather than reading his book and thinking about it, thousands of the faithful thought murder and arson was the answer, thereby perhaps behaving more stupidly than anyone has for centuries. Rushdie himself spoke of his regret that the controversy fed the Western stereotype of "the backward, cruel, rigid Muslim, burning books and threatening to kill the blasphemer," but of course it was not a stereotype; it was an actual instance of backward, cruel, rigid Muslims burning books and threatening to kill a blasphemer. Based on this behavior, the secular humanist can only conclude that organized religion is simply an enormous mechanism for the militant assertion and propagation of poor literary taste.

At any rate, The Satanic Verses is an excellent book, if a bit over-long and under-plotted, but for anyone finishing Midnight's Children and wanting more, this is a good place to turn next.

No comments: