Let us begin (although Salman Rushdie doesn’t) with the affair of the Satanic verses, revealed in the second part of his new novel, The Satanic Verses. This second part is entitled “Mahound,” a disrespectful name for Muhammad, found for example in Spenser to signify a heathen idol by whom wicked characters swear, and likewise, though perhaps also as a metrically convenient alternative to “Makomete,” in Chaucer. The Satanic Verses has been banned in India on the grounds that it is offensive to Muslims, but in fact nobody in it is treated with very much respect; gods, angels, demons, prophets, they are all of them all too human, and most of the time unable to distinguish between good and evil. If they can’t, how can we ordinary mortals be expected to?
The magical city of Jahilia is composed wholly of sand, together with its derivatives, glass and silicon, and the great enemy is consequently water. Mahound, “businessman-turned-prophet,” is engaged in founding one of the world’s greatest religions, in the face of the city’s swarming gods, all 360 of them. He and his three followers are clearly trouble-makers, if only because they are forever washing themselves with water. However, the Grandee of Jahilia, the head of the ruling council, offers Mahound a deal: if Mahound’s Allah will receive a mere three of the local gods into his monopantheon, then the new religion will be recognized and Mahound given a seat on the council. The gods in question can be given the rank of archangels, since there are already two of these: Gibreel, the Voice of Allah, and Shaitan, the latter described in the Koran as a disobedient jinni who refused to bow down before Adam. Or better, since the gods happen to be goddesses, they can be styled the Daughters of Allah.
Mahound’s followers protest that this cannot be, for the essence of their faith is that there is no god but Allah; but Mahound sees the arrangements as a useful maneuver, a small concession that will bring in large numbers of converts, and he climbs Cone Mountain to consult the archangel Gibreel, Angel of the Recitation. Seemingly Gibreel speaks, and Mahound returns to Jahilia and announces the verses given to him by the angel: “Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other? They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.”
The grandee’s name is Abu Simbel. Is he, one wonders, a historical or legendary figure? Or can it be that Rushdie, having invented him, has named him after the village in Egypt that was flooded when the Aswan High Dam was created in the 1960s and its temples removed to higher ground? For we hear that the sea and maritime developments are robbing sandbased Jahilia with its camel-train economy of the city’s old ascendancy. Questions of this kind raise their heads everywhere, and if the reader stops to puzzle out the answers he will never finish the book.
In accordance with an Islamic tradition, Mahound later returns to Mount Cone and is given to understand that the supposedly divine message came from Shaitan, the Devil, posing as Gibreel, whereupon he revokes the “Satanic” verses and promulgates the true ones, which supplant the earlier set in the Koran. In N.J. Dawood’s translation of the Koran we read:
Have you thought on Al-Lat and Al-Uzzah, and, thirdly, on Manat? Is He to have daughters and you sons? This is indeed an unfair distinction! They are but names which you and your fathers have invented: Allah has vested no authority in them. The unbelievers follow vain conjectures and the whims of their own souls, although the guidance of their Lord has come to them.
The “unfair distinction” relates to earlier reiterated and indignant denials in connection with Jesus, that Allah has a son: “When He decrees a thing He need only say: ‘Be,’ and it is…. That they should ascribe a son to the Merciful, when it does not become Him to beget one!” To make out that he has daughters is to add insult to injury.
In the subsequent turmoil Mahound and his followers leave Jahilia for the friendly oasis of Yathrib, thus paralleling the official account of the hegira, Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina, which was known at that time as Yathrib. But Gibreel—whom we suspect is no archangel but more like a battered Indian ex-actor whose vocal chords are taken over by an extraneous power—reveals in an intriguing and (you could say) prophetic coda that both messages came out of his mouth: “it was me both times, baba, me first and second also me…both the statement and the repudiation, verses and converses, universes and reverses, the whole thing, and we all know how my mouth got worked.” Actually we don’t all know, but it appears we are to infer that God is Satan, Satan is God. Which adds up to one form of monotheism.
The novel itself begins in modern times and with a fall from the heavens, similar to other such falls, most recently the one with which Stefan Heym began his novel The Wandering Jew, but dissimilar in the outcome. A hijacked Air India jet is blown up over the English Channel and, “without benefit of parachutes or wings,” two passengers tumble unharmed to earth. One is Gibreel Farishta, the other Saladin Chamcha, two real living men, we are told, though their downward progress is termed an “angelicdevilish fall.”
Gibreel is a famous and flamboyant Bombay superstar who has specialized in “God stuff,” portraying impartially such diverse deities of the Indian subcontinent as Krishna, Gautama Buddha, and Hanuman, in the popular genre known to the movie world as “theologicals.” He is traveling to England in pursuit of the beautiful “ice queen,” Alleluia Cone, climber of Everest. Saladin is returning, after an unhappy visit with his father, to London, where he lives, a self-made “goodandproper Englishman,” in love with “Bigben Nelsonscolumn Lordstavern Bloodytower Queen,” with his English dreamland of equilibrium and moderation. He is an actor too, of the invisible kind, a voice, a thousand voices, much in demand on radio and in television commercials. He knows how a ketchup bottle should talk, or a packet of garlic-flavored potato crisps; “once, in a radio play for thirty-seven voices, he interpreted every single part under a variety of pseudonyms and nobody ever worked it out.”
If, as seems likely at this stage, the angelicdevilish conglomeration is to be sorted out and divided between the two of them, then Gibreel, a violent character and unconscionable womanizer, is in the running for the role of devil, and Saladin, mild and worrying, for that of angel. Yet when they land on an English beach Saladin finds he has grown horns, cloven hooves, and a monstrous phallus, whereas Gibreel is now wearing a halo. Despite his bowler hat, Saladin is arrested as an illegal immigrant—which one might interpret as a sign of injured innocence—while Gibreel bedazzles the police, treacherously disowns his compatriot, and goes free. Messages must have got mixed up once again. Rather than cudgel one’s brains over their theological status, it is wiser to think of Gibreel and Saladin as the bookends between which a series of hectic and mysteriously linked narratives is to be uneasily held.
Particularly striking is the two-fold story called “Ayesha,” whose first and fearsome half concerns a “bearded and turbaned Imam” in exile from his homeland, called Desh, biding his time in infidel London, or Sodom as he sees it. He is “a massive stillness, an immobility. He is living stone.” When the revolution begins in Desh, the overthrowing of the Westernized and hence corrupt Empress, Ayesha (that this was the name of Muhammad’s favorite wife must be beside the point), the Imam flies there on Gibreel’s back—the so-called archangel is, as ever, bemused, reluctant, put-upon, no matter that he may be dreaming it all—and we see the people being slaughtered as they march on the palace gates.
The revolution prevails, Ayesha turns into Al-Lat, one of the false daughters of Allah, and is destroyed in a combat involving thunderbolts and comets, and we see the people marching into the mouth of the Imam, grown monstrous, and being swallowed whole, just as earlier they had marched into the Empress’s guns, martyrs still. The Imam’s pronouncement becomes fact:
After the revolution there will be no clocks; we’ll smash the lot. The word clock will be expunged from our dictionaries. After the revolution there will be no birthdays. We shall all be born again, all of us the same unchanging age in the eye of Almighty God.
Gibreel has earlier mused on the curious circumstance that people who claim to believe in God should be possessed by demons. Yet later an Indian intellectual contends that we cannot “deny the ubiquity of faith” nor should we mock at the masses for what we see as their deludedness. Rushdie’s book is copious in thesis and antithesis, but, not too surprisingly, synthesis hovers beyond it.
The second half begins charmingly, in a village where butterflies abound, and the landowner Mirza Saeed is devoted to his wife, Mishal. A young peasant girl appears, an epileptic, an eater of amenable butterflies, and to his horror he lusts after her. Mishal is found to have inoperable breast cancer, and Ayesha—for that is the peasant girl’s name—declares that she is married to Gibreel and the archangel has told her that the village must go on a pilgrimage to Mecca, on foot, for the Arabian Sea will open to let them through. As did the Red Sea for Moses and the children of Israel in the Koran as well as the Bible. “Everything is required of us, and everything will be given.” The sequel, recounted in a later chapter, is protracted, disjointed, and ambiguous: perhaps the pilgrims crossed the sea, perhaps the pilgrims drowned in the sea. In the ritual opening words of Arab storytellers, deployed repeatedly here, “It was so, it was not so.”
“Ellowen Deeowen”: as Mahound is to Muhammad, so is Babylon to Britain, whose capital city is Babylondon. The London scenes are both strong and weak, brilliant and muzzy, banal and inventive. Picked up as an illegal immigrant, though actually a British citizen (even a member of the Garrick Club), Saladin is beaten up nastily in the police van. While this looks like another instance of police brutality toward what are termed “ethnics,” the fact that he sports horns, cloven hooves, and an immense erection, and moreover litters the van with soft pellets of excrement, hardly augurs well for an easy ride. The policemen gloat over the effects of feeding their horses richly on the eve of expected trouble: getting showered with shit provokes the demonstrators into violence, “an’ then we can really get amongst them, can’t we just.”
This could be an attack on police methods; it could be a sendup of rightminded attacks on police methods. Blacks and browns, it begins to seem, are lovable rogues or displaced metaphysicians, and whites are racist yahoos or middle-class bigots, until they all dissolve into ultra-Dickensian phantasmagoria. The scene in the “ethnic” Club Hot Wax, where effigies of such villains as Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher (“Mrs. Torture”) are melted down to cries of “burn-burn-burn” and “the fire this time,” doesn’t contribute to racial harmony; and yet it might be thought that the engagingly wild, Westernized daughters of Muhammad Sufyan, proprietor of the Shaandaar Café, hold out some hope for a racially integrated future, more or less, after all. Saladin rhapsodizes over London’s record as an asylum,
a role it maintained in spite of the recalcitrant ingratitude of the refugees’ children; and without any of the self-congratulatory huddled-masses rhetoric of the “nation of immigrants” across the ocean, itself far from perfectly open-armed. Would the United States, with its are-you-now-have-you-ever-beens, have permitted Ho Chi Minh to cook in its hotel kitchens? What would its McCarran-Walter Act have to say about a latter-day Karl Marx, standing bushy-bearded at its gates, waiting to cross its yellow lines?
But Saladin is reckoned by some to be a “Brown Uncle Tom,” more English than the British. Rushdie is having it both ways again—“What one hates in whites…one must also hate when it turns up, inverted, in black”—and it won’t do to make heavy weather of light farce or break a hornet on a wheel. “I’m saying nothing,” is the author’s own message. “Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other, the time of revelations is long gone.”
In his angelic avatar, or his dream, Gibreel conceives the bright idea that the “moral fuzziness” of the English, their inability to make radical distinctions, their preference for compromise over truth, is due to their indeterminate weather, day no warmer than night, land no drier than sea. The tropicalizing of London will bring about moral precision, religious fervor, and political passion, as well as spicier food, an animated street life, and better cricketers. Dust, cholera, and cockroaches are a small price to pay for all that. It appears to be Saladin’s intervention that limits Gibreel’s operations to an unusually prolonged heat wave. No matter how many metamorphoses occur elsewhere, the English are not going to be turned into fundamentalists.
As we near the end of the novel we are bound to ask ourselves tougher questions about these two adversaries, or (it might be) two friends. In human form Gibreel is implicated in several deaths, but the most vicious, deliberate act of evil is that of Saladin, when he murders the love between Gibreel and Alleluia or Allie Cone—her name a conflation, for what that’s worth, of the archangel’s mountain and Al-Lat, the exalted bird, the desired—by whispering in Gibreel’s ear, anonymously, over the phone, a second and suggestive set of Satanic verses:
I like coffee, I like tea,
I like things you do with me….
Violets are blue, roses are red,
I’ve got her right here in my bed.
And yet Saladin is accorded the book’s least fantasticated, most human and affecting chapter, when he goes home to his dying father, from whom he has been alienated since childhood. “To fall in love with one’s father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling; a renewing, life-giving thing, Saladin wanted to say, but did not, because it sounded vampirish.” Death, he reflects, as friends and relatives gather around the sick man, brings out the best in people. Even, we could add, in writers.
Which of the two, Gibreel and Saladin, finally is good, which is evil? Computation won’t come up with an answer. Both of them are both.
Rushdie incorporates a decade’s headlines in his sprawling tapestry: the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, children massacred in Assam, the Falklands war, the Grosvenor Square demonstrations against American action in Vietnam, the yeti, drug addiction, the suspicious death of a black man in police custody, the fellow who conned wealthy women into giving him money to buy his soul back from the Devil, the recent phenomenon of multiple births, high-rise slums and the scandal of “temporary accommodation” in London…. He weaves in a plethora (some would say a plague) of jokes and allusions: the name “Othello” as a misspelling of “Attallah”; “kung-phooey” movies; “Whisky” Sisodia, a stutterer; the woman of property who owns a seacoast in Bohemia; the man (Saladin’s father) who considers books pernicious and acquires thousands of them in order to let them rot, ignominiously, unread; the fallen arches that make Allie feel she is walking on broken glass (cf. Hans Andersen’s humanized mermaid and the knife-pains she must suffer); a musical adaptation of Our Mutual Friend restyled Friend! (cf., rather obviously, Lionel Bart’s Oliver!).
All this, plus the trickiness, the occasional longueur, the tedious international four-letter language (though Rushdie is a smart linguistic mimic), and the recurring motifs of uncertain significance, would sink a less vigorous and fleet-footed piece of writing for good. Rushdie’s working motto could be Blake’s hellish proverb, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” or the one alleging that crooked, unimproved roads, and not the straight or straitened, are roads of genius. As it happens, there is a description of the Koran, prefacing the first English translation (1649), which could be—which is and is not—an adverse account of The Satanic Verses: “Thou shalt find it of so rude, and incongruous a composure, so farced with contradictions, blasphemies, obscene speeches, and ridiculous fables,” that it will surely “prove an Antidote,” confirming the reader in “the health of Christianity.” In the present case, confirming the reader of more conventional and temperate fiction in the healthiness of his literary tastes.
To put it another way, The Satanic Verses is a thousand and one nights crammed into a week of evenings, a fitting successor to Midnight’s Children and Shame (novels whose feasible successors it was hard to imagine), a book that nobody else in Britain (at least) would have wanted to write, or could have written. Whatever the whole may amount to, the sum of the parts is a substantial one. There isn’t so much to be said in the abstract about good and evil, except to acknowledge that they, or something very like them, do exist. “The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga,” says Otto Cone, ex-Cohen, a Polish émigré and Allie’s father. “Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, the inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.” Or a more Manichaean depiction of it.
Self-indulgent the author may be, but the reader is pleasured as well. The present reader is too old not to be grateful for that. No doubt rather more in the way of order and (what art can and ought to give us, although and because life doesn’t) of clarity would have been appreciated too. It is written in the Koran that poets—and the Mighty One would surely be pleased to include novelists—rove aimlessly in every valley, preaching what they never practice, and followed by none save erring men. If doubts assail us, if all else fails us, we can still tell ourselves that we have been watching a prodigiously sophisticated yet action-packed mega-“theological.”
March 2, 1989