Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Edition: The Satanic Verses: A Novel

The Satanic Verses was published in 1988 (Rushdie's fourth novel). Its publication met with great controversy, resulting famously in a fatwa placed against Rushdie by leaders of radical Islam like the Ayatollah Khomeini. Rushdie's portrayal of the prophet Mohammed (as Mahound) was particularly controversial and considered to be blasphemous.

I. The Angel Gibreel
Two men, Gibreel Farishta, and Saladin Chamcha, are the sole survivors of a hijacked plane, the Bostan AI-420 bound for London, miraculously falling from the sky and emerging unscathed. Gibreel was a famous Indian actor, who had little regard for the women he bedded down with. One woman, Rekha Merchant, plunged to her death from a tall building along with her children in an act of protest against Gibreel. As he falls from the plane, Gibreel sees Rekha on a magic carpet, vowing to follow him with her vengeance. This section gives details on Gibreel's childhood and rise to fame, his spontaneous recovery from spontaneous hemorrhaging, among other things. Chamcha's history is one of rejecting his homeland, desiring to leave behind his past and become a true Englishman after one particularly traumatic encounter of sexual abuse. After a few years of education in London, Chamcha becomes estranged from his Indian parents, particularly his father. Chamcha's mother dies choking on a fishbone while refusing to hide during a Pakistani air raid; no one had come to her rescue because they were all hiding. Chamcha's father re-married another woman of the same name, and Chamcha goes of to settle permanently in London, becoming a voice-actor (and unable to land screen roles generally due to racism). Chamcha, bent on his own Anglicization and assimilation, marries a white, English girl, Pamela Lovelace. On a trip back to Bombay, a woman named Zeeny Vakil tries to "convert" Chamcha back to his roots but fails, despite a love affair that the two embark on. Chamcha is on his way back to London from this trip when the plane crashes.

II. Mahound
In a town called Jahilia, "built entirely of sand," the poet and satirist Baal is forced to write verses for the Grandee Abu Simbel against the prophet Mahound and his followers. Mahound's primary disciples are Khalid, a water-carrier, Salman, a Persian immigrant, and Bilal, a slave. Mahound preaches monotheism against the primarily polytheistic town and so does not have much luck. Abu Simbel suggests to Mahound a compromise: if his all-powerful Allah will accept three of the city's lesser Gods, he might win more followers and continue to live there. Mahound's uncle tells him he should consult the archangel Gibreel. Mahound goes in search of the archangel, who is reluctant to be summoned by this demanding Mahound. Hardly knowing what he is doing, Gibreel delivers the message that Lat, Uzza, and Manat are  to be accepted gods, not on the level of Allah, but under him. When Mahound returns to the city, the message is met by taunts and rioting; he is rescued by Hind, Abu Simbel's wife, who tells him that Al-Lat demands equality with Allah. Mahound sees Gibreel again, and this time he gets the idea that the first message was actually from Shaitan, the evil archangel (Gibreel knows that it was him both times, actually). He goes back to Jahilia to reveal this new message. Again, Mahound and his followers are persecuted, and forced to leave the city altogether.

III. Ellowen Deeowen
Rosa Diamond, a woman of 88 years, claims to see ghosts, so she isn't all that surprised when she picks up Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha (both transformed into a kind of good angel, bad angel during their falls). Gibreel has a sort of halo surrounding him, and Chamcha has horns. The police come and arrest Chamcha, and for some reason, Gibreel is transfixed by Rosa and does nothing to help Chamcha. The central story in Rosa's life has been her brief encounter with one Martin de la Cruz, a married man with whom she had a brief tryst in Argentina, while herself being married to Henry Diamond. The narrative strongly suggests that Gibreel was Martin in a past life, and that is why Rosa has such power over him. Gibreel stays with her for a while, even making love to the old woman a little bit before she dies. Meanwhile, Chamcha is taken to a hospital detention center where he is shocked to discover that there are other changes to his form other than the horns (including new hoof-like feet). It turns out that there are other animal-men in the ward, and together, they hatch up a plan of escape. After the escape, Chamcha returns to his wife, Pamela, whom he finds in bed with his friend, Jumpy Joshi, a frail man who had always been unpopular with the ladies. Gibreel, after Rosa's death, gets on a train, where he runs into a man named Maslama, who recognizes him as Gibreel Farishta, famous actor but also treats him like some kind of deity. The scene shifts to Allie (Alleluia) Cone, a woman who climber Mount Everest with whom Gibreel is in love. In a classroom-full of young girls, Allie thrills them with stories of her climb and ghosts in the mountains. Gibreel finds Allie in London.

IV. Ayesha
In Gibreel's dreams, an exiled Imam (likely based on Ayatollah Khomeini) in London. Gibreel carries him to Desh, where he wars with the Empress Ayesha. Gibreel fights on the Imam's side, and defeats Al-Lat, Ayesha's deity. The rest of this section is about Mirza Saeed in London on his fortieth birthday, and how he sees outside of his window a beautiful girl named Ayesha eating butterflies in the garden. He is filled with great desire, and out of guilt, commences on a period of making love passionately to his wife Mishal. Mishal gets breast cancer, and has little time left to live. At the same time, Mishal has struck up a close friendship with Ayesha. Ayesha eventually says that the angel Gibreel has told her that the town must take a pilgrimage to Mecca, and that the Arabian Sea will part for them as they walk across. Mishal's cancer will be cured if she goes on the pilgrimage, Ayesha promises.

V. A City Visible but Unseen
Mishal in this section is the daughter of one Muhammad Sufyan, the proprietor of Shaandaar Cafe. His wife's name is also Hind. Sufyan and Hind have a rather unhappy marriage, characterized, among other things, by bad sex. Chamcha arrives before this family looking for a place to live; they allow him to stay. He talks to Mimi, his previous co-worker, on the phone to see if he might get a job again. The show which he had been on, The Aliens Show, was unfortunately cancelled. Gibreel, on the other hand, has been making new films, including one where he is an archangel in a city of sand, conveying messages to a prophet. Gibreel has told the media that he is alive because he never got onto the plane. During the time of Chamcha's stay, Mishal (who is just seventeen) confesses that she has been having sexual relations with a lawyer named Hanif Johnson. Both Mishal and her sister Anahita are fairly considerate of Chamcha, beauties tending to a beast. Eventually, Chamcha grows too big for the house and must leave--by this time, he has made quite a splash in London, a sort of devil-cult has grown up around him, his image plastered onto various commercial venues. Chamcha is moved to a nightclub where there is more space. The narrator offers Allie Cone's history in this section: her father was of Polish ancestry, and like Chamcha, wanted to blend in so he changed their names from Cohen to Cone. Allie had a sister, Elena, who had become a successful model but who had died in an "acid bath" at the age of twenty-one. Allie's career capitalized on her image as the "ice queen," and like Gibreel, managed to have many rather meaningless sexual liaisons. Allie found a different sort of passion with Farishta, however. Gibreel soon thinks that he hears God telling him to do work for him, to leave Allie. He commences on some delusional attempts to convert people, humorously thinking that he will redeem the city, a London A-Z map in his pocket. Rekha continues to show up to mock him. Eventually, Gibreel ends up once again with Allie after being hit by a car during his "missionary work." The man who hit him, Whisky Sisodia (who has a stutter), a filmmaker who thinks that Gibreel should return to the big screen. Gibreel is soon fully back in the business at Sisodia's urging, though Allie and Gibreel become more estranged as a result of his career. The doctors generally think that Gibreel's "visions" are due to schizophrenia.

VI. Return to Jahilia
This section is again narrated as part of Gibreel's dreams. Many changes have come to Jahilia; it is now no longer a "city built of sand," but a rather destitute, "prosaic" town. Hind has not aged at all, though her husband Abu Simbel has--she is the de facto ruler. Salman, the Persian immigrant, is telling Baal the poet that Mahound will soon return from exile. Salman's account of Mahound is now negative, having lost faith in the prophet's power because the rules that he receives from Gibreel always seemed so oddly convenient to him. Salman had tested the "word of God" by replacing words in Mahound's verses as he wrote them down to see if Mahound would notice. He didn't. After Mahound's return, Jahilia is subject to a number of new, strict rules. Baal spends a lot of time behind The Curtain, a whorehouse. The whorehouse happened to have twelve whores, and Mahound twelve wives. The members of the brothel decide to each act the part of one of Mahound's wives and to receive visitors as such. Baal is charged with marrying all of them, and thus becomes a gross parody himself of Mahound. Eventually, the brothel is shut down. The madame commits suicide, and the girls are taken to prison. Baal confessesto what has been happening behind the Curtain, and is sent to be beheaded. Soon afterwards, however, Mahound falls ill and dies.

VII. The Angel Azraeel
Chamcha finds his way to Pamela's house again and insists that he live there. She doesn't resist, though they don't rekindle a relationship--Chamcha allows Jumpy Joshi to continue to live there with his wife. Chamcha continues to work hard to reinstate his good-old English life, but generally fails. At a meeting where people were giving testimony in hopes to exonerate a man named Simba, Chamcha realizes that he lusts after Mishal Sufyan. He thinks he sees the angel Azraeel behind her though, signaling that she's off limits. Chamcha approaches Gibreel at a strange party (themed Dickensian times) and goes over to face his adversary, thinking to take revenge on him for betraying him at Rosa Diamond's. Before their encounter, the narrator embarks on a rather long exegesis on good and evil, and of how the two of them might be "different types of self," Gibreel a type which wished to remain continuous, and Chamcha a type which constantly preferred and selected for discontinuity. The actual encounter is a bit anticlimactic after all of this; Chamcha pretends to be an old friend, telling Gibreel about how his wife had left him for Jumpy Joshi. Gibreel, who had recently become very jealous because his career prevented him from watching Allie's every moment, goes after Joshi and hits him over the head and throws him into the Thames river (he survives). Chamcha is later invited into Allie and Gibreel's temporary home in Scotland. Chamcha works to make Gibreel crazy, impersonating voices of Allie's supposed lovers over the phone. Gibreel had been revealing many things in confidence to Chamcha about Allie's body when they made love, so Chamcha made the best of this information in his calls. Gibreel is particularly disturbed by Chamcha's impersonation of a poet who composes verses that suggest Allie is cheating on him. He can't get them out of his head and pretty much goes insane. The rest of the section is the scene of apocalypse: Simba is wrongly accused of being a murderer of Grandmothers (the Granny Ripper) and dies in jail. Race riots break out and buildings burn down. Gibreel takes on the role of Azraeel, angel of destruction, blowing his trumpet all over London. Gibreel and Chamcha meet again in the burning Shaandaar Cafe, where Gibreel forgives Chamcha and rescues him. In the fires, Joshi and Pamela die, as do Hind and Muhammad Sufyan.

VIII. The Parting of the Arabian Sea
This section returns to Ayesha's pilgrimage. Mirza tries to stop the pilgrimage, especially as it becomes clear that his wife is exhausted. Eventually, the old start dying, including Khadija, Sarpanch Muhammad Din's wife, and Ayesha says that there is no time to give her a proper burial. As more and more people die on the journey, doubts increase. There is a flood, and many of the pilgrims disappear afterwards. Mirza is about to convince Ayesha to give up, when miraculously, a bunch of butterflies bring back all of the remaining pilgrims. Doubts surface again, however, when Ayesha allows a baby found in the road to be stoned to death because it was likely "illegitimate." Desperate to make sure his wife is okay and an unbeliever, Mirza tries to make a deal with Ayesha, saying that he'll find a way to fly all of the pilgrims to Mecca--he suggests that she ask Gibreel, having the sneaking suspicion she'll give in because she might not be as confident about her notion that the sea will part as she was at the beginning. Ayesha resists the offer, and they reach the sea. As the pilgrims walk into the sea, they become dead, drowned bodies, but afterwards, eyewitness accounts by the survivors said that they had indeed seen the sea part. Mirza is the only one who did not see the sea part. Mirza subsequently starves himself to death, and on his last night of life, (fancies that) he sees the sea splitting apart, himself joining the rest.

IX. A Wonderful Lamp
Chamcha is called back to Bombay to see his estranged father who has only a few days to live, having contracted cancer. On the plane, Chamcha runs into Sisodia. Back in his childhood home, father and son are reconciled. Changez, Chamcha's father, dies with terror on his face for a moment, but then his mouth curved up into a smile. Chamcha wonders what it all means. His father's rather "radiant death" brings Chamcha together with Zeeny--he somehow feels that he has found himself and no longer needs to take on multiple identities. He joins Zeeny in a Communist Party event: a human chain of people linking hands throughout the whole city. This demonstration is interrupted by the news that Gibreel and Allie Cone were in Bombay, and that Allie had been thrown out of a window, and Sisodia shot, while Gibreel disappeared once again. Chamcha (the inheritor of his father's wealth) finds Gibreel in his house. Gibreel tells him in garbled and broken sentences how he had been plagued by the verses that he heard and that it was not he that pushed Allie over the edge but Rekha. At the very end, Gibreel takes Chamcha's father's (magic) lamp, which contains a gun. Gibreel places the gun in his own mouth and shoots himself. The novel ends with Zeeny calling Chamcha away, telling him, "Let's get the hell out of here" (which has a double meaning given Chamcha's association with the Satanic).  

Rushdie himself offers perhaps the most helpful comments as to how to read his book:

"If The Satanic Verses is anything, it is a migrant's-eye view of the world. It is written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition, and from which, I believe, can be derived a metaphor for all humanity."

Rushdie's comment does the work of linking post-colonial concepts (migrancy, uprooting, metamorphosis) with post-modern concepts (disjuncture, metaphor for all humanity). As many critics have noted, perhaps the aesthetic achievement of The Satanic Verses is proving that a post-colonial novel can be simultaneously post-modern, implying, more importantly, that the lives of post-colonials might actually serve as not marginal, but central and universal. The multiply hybrid nature of these characters (on almost every imaginable level--race, culture, class, gender, religion, sane/insane, human/animal, human/angel) represents the instability of identity in a post-modern world. It isn't at all a story of center and margin, the results of the colonial encounter. Characters in Bombay and London in The Satanic Verses feel equally migrant, uprooted, and in a word, unstable in a world where individuals just can't be pinned down by systems previously believed to be stable like Culture or Language.

The Satanic Verses goes even further, however, than to deconstruct the ways in which people identify themselves by culture or language. Its radicalism is in its deconstruction, through magical realism, of man's very material being--Rushdie's novel takes post-modernism to its logical extreme. If such categories as culture or language fail to identify us for who we really are, then perhaps what we believe to be the very materiality of our bodies can't identify us for who we really are either. The concept is radical, but it is also funny (Rushdie himself has noted the intended playfulness and comic elements of his work). Gibreel's surprise when the questions of Mahound intrude upon his body or Chamcha's horrified discovery his new goat's body in the hospital detention center are comic scenes wherein human bodies realize that what they thought to be fixed boundaries in fact were not. Immaterial bodies like Rekha's ghost, for example, are also decidedly comic rather than horrifying; she keeps showing up at Gibreel's side, nagging and mocking him but not being particularly scary.

What might be the function of comedy and playfulness in this work? In the scene before Chamcha and Gibreel's confrontation at the "Dickensian Times" party (also funny), the narrator breaks in to offer a suggestion:

"What follows is tragedy. --Or, at least the echo of tragedy, the full-blooded original being unavailable to modern men and women, so it's said. --A burlesque for our degraded, imitative times, in which clowns re-enact what was first done by heroes and the kings."

Essentially, the tragedy of good versus evil to be played out between Gibreel and Chamcha has been repeated so many times that there isn't room for anything else but imitation and parody. Relatedly, the post-modern divorce between sign and signified and the rejection of the possibility of getting to any sort of stable Truth claim about the Human Condition which the divorce perpetuates prevents belief in grand struggles of good and evil. Everything then becomes rather light and playful, when the depths of Truth either don't exist or aren't accessible to the world.

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