Book # 203
I attempted this novel once, back in college, and gave up on it – like many other people, I know! So this time before I began reading it I took the time to do a little research, and I’m so glad I did. I also think it didn’t hurt at all that it’s more than a decade later – I’m a much wiser and more attentive reader than I once was.
One bit of research I did ahead of time was to gain a simple understanding of what “the satanic verses” are in Islam. One whole plot line of the novel is basically a wildly creative, dreamy reflection of the origins of Islam and the proselytizing of the prophet Muhammad. So a very basic understanding of this helped me understand Rushdie’s version in the novel. For a super quick overview of the satanic verses, check out page 30 of this PDF: http://public.wsu.edu/~brians/angloph…
There are also two quotations from Salman Rushdie I came across in my research that helped clarify the novel’s structure and goals for me before I started and helped me pay attention to what I was delving into. First, on the structure. In an interview (found here: http://www.subir.com/rushdie/uc_maps….), Rushdie talks about his influences. He talks about James Joyce, and their joint interest in stuffing their respective novels chock full of references. But he also says this:
“Well, take Fielding; the thing that’s very impressive about Tom Jones is the plot, that you have this enormous edifice which seems to be so freewheeling, rambling — and actually everything is there for a purpose. It’s the most extraordinary piece of organization which at the same time seems quite relaxed and not straitjacketed
by its plot. I think that’s why the book is so wonderful.”
I think that’s part of why this book is so wonderful too. The world of the novel is highly imaginative/creative, and anything goes in the way of magical realism. That said, it’s a bit zanier than any magical realism I’ve read before, perhaps even too zany. Lots of it is thought-provoking, other parts are just fun/funny, and a few parts just seem silly and not much else. But the undertaking of creating several worlds (the real world – in India and London, and various dream worlds) that are occupied by overlapping characters, and ensuring these worlds and characters build on and reflect back on each other is a fantastic, immense achievement.
As the novel moves between them, dropping information and picking it back up later, equating various characters with their counterparts in other worlds (by name or action or common characteristics), the sheer puzzle it must have been to put this all together is incredible to me. But Rushdie managed it. Over and over as I read I’d see those brilliant little connections running all over the novel. It can feel a little intense and overwhelming for the reader, but I found the experience fun. How can I describe the experience? Most books you read, you’re walking down a path from point A to point B, beginning to end. As you follow the path, occasionally it loops back on itself, revisiting and building upon a key theme or idea here and there. In this book, you’re walking down three or four paths at once, each of them looping back, around and through each of the others almost constantly.
I also love Rushdie’s loose, informal, yet highly complex writing style. He runs words together, invents words, takes them apart, and makes ample use of slang, repetition, conversational/stream of consciousness tone, to express exactly what he wants to say. He also makes grammar his slave (rather than being a slave to it). He breaks a million rules, but this actually just adds to the clarity of his writing rather than subtracting from it.
The second quotation from Rushdie that shed a lot of light for me going in is as follows, from “In Good Faith,” an essay Rushdie wrote about The Satanic Verses:
“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. Standing at the centre of the novel is a group of characters most of whom are British Muslims, or not particularly religious persons of Muslim background, struggling with just the sort of great problems that have arisen to surround the book, problems of hybridization and ghettoization, of reconciling the old and the new. Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.”
I would have picked up on this theme anyway (at least I think so!) but it was helpful to be able to watch for it as I read. Coupled with this theme, was a sense of the need for transformation that migrants feel, from deep within themselves (like the character Chamcha) or from the world around them (like Gibreel). I was really engaged by the ways that all of the various characters struggle with their identities as they straddle the line between their backgrounds and their new homes. Each character takes a different path on this, with a different amount of success or failure that is attributable as much to the character’s identity as to the amount of transforming they do. In other words, the novel makes clear that there’s no right answer, that there is no one path:
“‘The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. 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.'”
This novel is also very much tied up in religion and politics, from a very contemporary and international perspective. Having been written in 1988, I was surprised by how modern and relevant Rushdie’s ideas still are today about how we view each other’s cultures and faiths. In the novel, Rushdie writes: “…because what you believe depends on what you’ve seen, — not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face.” To me this expresses a key truth about how we misunderstand each other, fostering fear, contempt and violence. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that the novel’s first section includes a hijacking of an airplane by terrorists; this scene may be even more relevant post-9/11 than it was in 1988.
Of the terrorists, Rushdie writes this: “What did they want? Nothing new. An independent homeland, religious freedom, release of political detainees, justice, ransom money, a safe-conduct to a country of their choice. Many of the passengers came to sympathize with them, even though they were under constant threat of execution. If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it to their will.”
The third sentence in that quotation has given me quite a bit of food for thought. Terrorism is a transformation strategy, it’s brought on by misunderstanding and fear, but it’s also an attempt to have a little power and control over your own life. We all do this in small ways – mostly non-violently, and hopefully in morally good and compassionate ways, but we’re all shaping our worlds the best we know how.
I hope the links I’ve included here are helpful to anyone who has struggled with this novel – it’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth the undertaking. That said, even though I really appreciate what Rushdie has accomplished here (and even enjoyed it), Midnight’s Children is still my favorite novel by Rushdie.