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Ho-ji! A cross-cultural examination par excellence,
This review is from: The Satanic Verses (Paperback)
What's the basic set up?
Well, kicking things off with a bang: a hijacked plane, the Bostan, explodes over the English channel sending two men, unscathed it seems, tumbling Earthward. One is Gibreel Farishta: Bollywood superstar, money-maker supreme-oh, man-who-can-do-no-wrong. The other is Saladin Chamcha: self-styled 'man of a thousand voices' who works on radio shows and advertisements, a Eastern man playing the role of Western men, peas and other material goods day in and day out. They survive the fall into the channel, and as each man makes his way into London (by very different means) he slowly finds himself transformed. Gibreel acquires a glow, angelic wings and a halo. But, this is not all he acquires; he begins to have mystic, prophetic visions that occupy the other chapters of the narrative: one a retelling of Mohammed and The Satanic Verses themselves, and one concerning a prophet and the pilgrimage of an entire village. Saladin meanwhile, finds himself spouting horns, hooves and a tail ... a picture of the very Devil himself.
What purpose does that serve?
Just as Rushdie himself was persecuted and demonised for the publication of this novel, morphing into the alias of Joseph Anton, Saladin Chamcha transmogrifies, perhaps unfairly, into a Demon. And, if there is one thing that we must take from this novel, it is this: the Devil may not be the two-dimensional beast that he appears to be. In this respect, for all the accusations levelled at Rushdie for being anti-islamic, THE SATANIC VERSES is, at it's very heart, a novel written in defence, and bursting with love for, Indian culture.
This is because what Saladin, in his love for England, cannot see, is that he is the greatest imitator of them all; the simulacrum-devil incarnate. You see, Saladin has transformed already before the novels opening, from his Indian-self into his English-self. 'The mutation of Salahuddin Chamchawala into Saladin Chamcha', is one in the biological sense of the word; a cultural meiosis in which, over time, the genetic alleles of old Bombay are repressed, beaten down dirty and dumb by the dominant ones of Proper London. And crucially, it is this cultural transformation - from Indian into English, not from human into Devil (unless of course they are one and the same) - that Rushdie explores with the most palpable sensitivity. Critics of the novel need to be aware that whatever Rushdie's relationship to Islam is, his views towards India the country and Indian culture are, if THE SATANIC VERSES can serve as any evidence at all, ones valuing preservation and pride.
With this in mind, the story of the Satanic Verses themselves involved Mohammed confirming our world as a polytheistic one - a suggestion he later recanted, citing the tale as a lure of the Devil. The answer as to why this bodes relevance within the main narrative may revolve around the fact that Rushdie's universe is certainly poly- (and not mono-) cultural. We exist in a time where we are exposed to a multitude of contradictory cultural guides to life, and it seems hard to decipher which one, if any, is the true pathway.
Who do I recommend this for?
This is a particularly compelling read for those interested in how cultures interact within our increasingly connected world. THE SATANIC VERSES interacts heavily with ideas surrounding the processes of cross-cultural exchange, such as the immigrant experience and the successes and failings of cultural inhibition and hybridity.
With that said: this is not an easy read. There are no easy solutions, and the split narratives may prove jarring for some. It is however, wholly worth it. Darkly comic in tone, Rushdie navigates the geography of two cities in the eighties with a playful sensitivity not recognised due to the tragic scandal that arose upon publication.