Saturday, July 12, 2008

Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses": Book Review

Two decades after its controversial release, does this novel merit the considerable attention it demands from any reader taking on over five-hundred pages of often densely Joycean, exuberantly Dickensian, or meditatively magic-realist prose? I think the stories in isolation have many moments that reward careful examination. However, they are dispersed among long sections in which not much happens of any account, so far as the reader's concerned. Rushdie seeks to make a statement about the clash of East and West, the formation of Islam, a surrealistic trek from Pakistan to the Arabian Sea, and London's multicultural ferment. He does manage to explore all these realms, but only with intermittently engrossing scenes.

This novel took me days to finish. My favorite parts probably overlapped those that earned its author greatest hatred among Muslim critics: how the Prophet started Islam under the dictation of Angel Gibreel for me sustained my interest most consistently. The clash of Al-Lat, the female goddess worshipped in Mecca, and Al-Lah, the god who allows no competition, makes for intriguing tension as Hind, the representative of the polytheist old guard, squares off against Mahound the Messenger, who finds himself soon entangled in the dictations and prevarications of Gibreel. "The war between us cannot end in truce." (123) Rushdie contrasts this 7th-century reimagining of how Islam began with contemporary scenes set in London, that intensify other ideological clashes.

In one vignette, Pamela, the lover of Saladin, offers a poignant eulogy for the post-colonial era: "It has been quite a culture, brilliant and foul, cannibal and Christian, the glory of the world. We should celebrate it while we can; until night falls." (190) In exile in London, an Imam's condition spurs this reflection from the omniscient narrator: "In exile no food is ever cooked; the dark-spectacled bodyguards go out for take-away. In exile all attempts to put down roots look like treason: they are admissions of defeat." (190) I found such observations more durable than the fictional post-modern tricks that Rushdie used to keep the stories moving, as these often thwarted easy identification by the reader and wearied me.

Such narrative leaps are acknowledged, as Mimi notes: "I have read 'Finnegans Wake' and am conversant with postomodern critiques of the West, e.g, that we have here a society capable only of pastiche: a 'flattened' world." (270) "Salman the Persian," an early witness to Mahound's claims of being a chosen mediator between Al-Lah and the people of Mecca, suspicious of how the Prophet in seemingly contemporary fashion appears to be angling the revelations supposedly received from Gibreel as a divine messenger to suit his own mortal situation, observes: "This was when he had the idea that destroyed his faith, because he recalled of course that Mahound himself had been a businessman, and a damned successful one at that, a person to whom organization and rules came naturally, so 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." (376)

This astute judgment makes it hard to take the Qur'an at face value anymore. Salman begins to insert what are called the "satanic verses" into the oral revelation, at first as a little joke, then as a way to bring down the pride of the Messenger whose fame and power increase as he is judged the recipient of the divine Revelation of Submission, the new faith that ousts Hind and the goddess-worshippers and the prostitutes-- an episode that numbers among the best in this tale. Mahound is determined to avenge himself in the name of Allah upon Salman and Hind and their kind: "Writers and whores, I see no difference here." (405) This contention between those who understand human desire and cater to mortal weakness against those who dominate the temptings of the flesh with the demands of the spirit-- all the while making exceptions for their own positions of power-- make for thoughtful pages here.

Finally, as with a nod to Nabokov, who'd I'd been thinking about when trudging on through Rushdie's increasingly complicated storylines, Saladin as Chamcha explodes in frustration at this knotted Arabian concatenation of one episode after another: "I give up, anyway. How are you supposed to read a man who writes in a made-up lingo of his own?" (456) This applies to portions here as much as "Pale Fire." The later section on the pilgrimage to the sea by Mishal and her contingent, as they plod on to the Arabian Sea, suffers by comparison with the more evocative scenes from the labyrinthine brothel or even the set-piece of a miniature London at a party on the sets of Shepperton studios. Rushdie has too many balls to juggle in the air, and it's still eighty pages to go. Still, it's probably rewarding enough for the patient.

The glimpses may be worth it, of Alleluia Cone's Himalayan portage, of Chamcha's polyphonic chaos caused at the expense of his rival and one-time pal Farishta, and of their exchanges on the relative distinctions of life lived in Bombay vs. London. No reader will fail to be moved by such chapters, but there's lots of languor intervening that challenges the casual visitor to this audacious and multi-levelled novel. It's all summed up to the moment, 90% through, on pg. 472 of the paperback in case you're totally at sea, however. Gibreel's dreams multiply as he faces the final apocalyptic (of course) showdown with rival Saladin.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

No comments: