The Satanic Verses has been attacked by many critics as incoherent, as a disorganized mixture of plots, themes, and characters. Even a cursory survey of the preceding notes reveals that Rushdie has sought to knit together the various threads of his novel by introducing a host of cross-references, repeating the names of characters, catch phrases, and images in a complex network of allusions and echoes. Yet these might be viewed as desperate attempts to give a surface appearance of unity to a basically chaotic work.
I am persuaded that The Satanic Verses is indeed unified by a related set of topics, all of them widely acknowledged in earlier criticism, but perhaps not arrayed in the way I do here. This is my personal understanding of what holds the various plots of the novel together in a way that articulates a consistent world view.
Rushdie says that novels do not lay down rules, but ask questions. In fact he claims that by asking questions, good fiction can help to create a changed world. Novels like The Satanic Verses don’t settle debates: they articulate the terms of debate and ask hard questions of the opposing sides, thereby helping to usher “newness” into the world. One of the unifying themes of The Satanic Verses is newness, or change. It attacks rigid, self-righteous orthodoxies and celebrates doubt, questioning, disruption, innovation. This much is obvious.
But Rushdie is focussing on a particular set of issues relating to rigidity and change: those identified with what is sometimes called “identity politics.” It is unfortunate that this term is primarily associated with the opponents of such politics because it so aptly sums up what feminism, Afrocentrism, gay pride, national liberation movements and a host of other causes have in common.
People who find themselves excluded or suppressed by dominant groups try by various means to find an effective voice and tools for action to create power and authority for themselves. It is these struggles that are the basic underlying matter of Rushdie’s novel. The question that is asked throughout this novel is “What kind of an idea are you?” In other words, on what ideas, experiences, and relationships do you base your definition of yourself–your identity?
People who find themselves identified as “foreigners” or “aliens” often find unwelcome hostile identities imposed upon them. The common catch-phrase in literary theory these days is “demonization,” and it is this term that Rushdie makes concrete in his novel by turning Saladin, the immigrant who is most determined to identify with the English, literally into a demon. (Of course he is also able to earn his living only by taking on the guise of a space alien.) The other immigrants who assume horns later in the novel express the same satirical view of English bigotry. But this is only the beginning of Rushdie’s exploration of the theme of identity.
In the distant past, European observers writing about people in colonized nations often distinguished between “unspoiled natives” who dwelled in childlike, ignorant innocence which was part of their charm, and others who had been “spoiled” by contact with a European civilization they could mimic but never truly master. This formula not only justified the colonial domination of colonized “children” as a form of parental concern, even charity (“the white man’s burden”), but rationalized measures taken to prevent inhabitants of the colonies from gaining the education and jobs they would have needed to rule themselves in the modern world.
Less obviously vicious but still prejudicial was a later formula according to which writing about what is now called “postcolonial” literature emphasized the position of writers from the “third world” writing in English as exiles, uprooted and stranded in alien, often hostile cultures far from home, working in a language that may not have been their own. Immigrants were called “exiles” whether they had actually been driven from their homeland or–as was much more common–they had sought increased opportunity by voluntarily moving abroad. “Exile” is a weak image, and Rushdie rejects it. His immigrants are sources of energy and creativity, busily redefining the culture of their adopted homelands.
In a more recent period, the standard formula has referred to the “center” and the “periphery.” Europe and the U.S. constitute the center, writers from nations like Nigeria, Jamaica, and India belong to the periphery. Their voices are said to have been “marginalised,” thrust from the center, forced into the margins. People using this language do so with more or less irony; but all too often it becomes just another way of saying that we should pay attention to our less fortunate fellows. The challenge of “marginalised” voices is to find the center, or shift it to themselves, seize the podium, and speak their piece.
What Rushdie does in The Satanic Verses is to reverse these terms. He challenges the English/European/white sense of identity. He rejects its claims to centrality. London is changed into an exotic land where people follow strange customs (wiping themselves “with paper only” and eating bony fish). People of traditional Anglo-Saxon stock are almost entirely absent from the London of The Satanic Verses. Instead the city swarms with immigrants: Indians, Bengalis, Pakistanis, Jamaicans, German Jews, etc. He reminds the English that they too were colonized, by the Romans and the Normans.
The only major character with a traditional English heritage is Pamela, who is striving mightily to escape that very heritage and mistakes Saladin for an exotic “alien” who can link her to India, when the main reason he is drawn to her is that she represents escape from the Indianness he is trying to flee. (This same sort of cross-purposes Indian-European relationship is also dealt with in a Raja Rao’s remarkable 1960 novel The Serpent and the Rope.) Rosa Diamond is an Englishwoman yearning to become Latin American or to be conquered by invading Normans. The bigots who beat Chamcha in the police van are all–as he notes–no more English in their heritage than he, but his color and identity as a postcolonial immigrant allows them to treat him as a complete alien.
Minor Anglo-Saxon characters are venal (Hal Valance), bigoted (the punks who spit on the food in the Shaandaar Café), tyrannical (Margaret Thatcher), or stupid (Eugene Dumsday). Rushdie has turned the tables on Anglo-Americans. Their travel writers have for generations dwelt on the failings of the benighted natives of far-off lands: it is now their turn to become a set of cartoons, to provide the background for the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the really important characters.
But Rushdie does not engage in this sort of caricature to privilege his immigrants as somehow morally superior. They are all morally flawed as well, though treated in a more complex manner. He is not saying that being from a former colony of Britain grants one any particular virtue; it is only that he is interested in focussing on such people. Of course he is perfectly aware that by doing so he is disorienting his “mainstream” English and American readers, giving them a taste of what it feels like to be bit players in a drama which is not essentially about them.
Further, he is not asking how immigrants can become “English” (in the way that Otto Cone strove to become English); he is instead asking how immigrants can create an identity for themselves in England which is richer, newer, more interesting than the traditional stereotypes associated with the old center of empire.
One traditional strategy of oppressed or marginalised groups is to try to create a sense of identity by dwelling on their shared history. Sometimes this takes the form of referring back to a historical period of suffering, as in the case of African-Americans finding a common ground in their heritage of slavery. This can be a powerful move when one belongs to a minority with a commonly recognized shared past of suffering. But this strategy has some often-noted unfortunate by-products. For one thing, it relies for its effectiveness on the hope that members of the majority group will accept the responsibility for their ancestors’ deeds. Even when majorities acknowledge the injustices of the past, guilt is not an emotion that can often motivate action to atone for those injustices. The Hindu miners in the Titlipur story who hark back to their suffering under Islamic rule to justify their attacks on the Muslim pilgrims illustrate the all too common phenomenon of historical grievances being used by one group to justify atrocities against another. Another instance in the novel is the group of Sikh terrorists who blow up the plane at the beginning. During the riot, whites emblazon their apartment houses with references to nineteenth-century wars in South Africa, posing as beleaguered English South African settlers surrounded by hostile Zulus (461). In our time Northern Ireland and the Balkans have provided vivid European examples of the deadly effects of this sort of thing.
The politics of shared grievance also focus attention on the past rather than on the future. Rushdie wants people to remember that Union Carbide’s neglect cost the lives and health of thousands of Indians in the Bhopal disaster (and he clearly wants the company held responsible), but he does not want the very identity of India to be defined only by a chain of misfortunes. The most important aspect of the Indian cultural heritage for him is its rich, creative variety. Its history is more than a mere list of the crimes committed against it by others; and he is prepared to add the crimes committed by Indians against each other to its portrait as well.
Another approach to identity politics is to hark back to a positive historical heritage instead of to a time of suffering. Thus the black Caribbean immigrants in the novel seek to emphasize an African heritage which is actually very distant from their lived experience. Chamcha mentally mocks them for singing the “African National Anthem.” The black leader originally named “Sylvester Roberts” has chosen the absurd name “Uhuru Simba” in an attempt to “Africanize” his identity. It seems clear that Rushdie shares at least some of Chamcha’s reservations about Afrocentrism in the scene of the defense rally for the arrested Dr. Simba (413-416). Choosing Chamcha as his point of view character allows him to critique the limits of such ideas even as he acknowledges the justness of their cause.
In the first chapter of the book, George Miranda and Bhupen Gandhi match Zeeny’s proud references to Indian accomplishments and her list of crimes against Indians with their own examples of atrocities committed by Indians (54-57). Bhupen ends his tirade against modern India (56-57) by asking the emblematic question, “Who do we think we [are]?”
Rushdie seems to be trying to say that Indians, like all human beings, are both victims and criminals, both creators and destroyers. He is not proposing a sort of bland homogenized theory of original sin according to which all people are equally guilty and none specifically to blame: clearly he cares passionately that wrongs be righted and criminals identified and punished. Rather he rejects both martyrdom and triumphant nationalism as inadequate foundations for a satisfactory self-identity.
Another common source of identity is, of course, religion. Who would have thought that in the latter part of the twentieth century, so many conflicts would come to be defined in religious terms? Israeli Jews vs. Palestinians, Sikhs vs. Hindus, Hindus vs. Muslims, Serbs vs. Croatians, Irish Catholics vs. Irish Protestants–we seem to be embroiled in a new age of Wars of Religion. For Rushdie, orthodox religion signifies intolerance, repressiveness, rigidity. Dumsday represents the know-nothing Christian right and the Imam fanatical Muslim extremism. The Imam’s hatred of the former Shah of Iran and SAVAK is no doubt shared by Rushdie; but his alternative is even more monstrous: a giant insatiable maw devouring the people it claims to save. It is one of the more poignant ironies of “the Rushdie affair” that Khomeni evidently died without ever realizing that the novel he had denounced contained a devastating portrait of him.
If Rushdie had only denounced such fanaticism, few in the Muslim world would have endorsed Khomeni’s fatwa. But Rushdie goes on to call into question the credibility and beneficence of orthodox, traditional Islam. Gibreel’s dreams challenge the Qur’an’s claims to infallibility, accuse Islam of the repression of women, call into question the probity and honesty of the Prophet himself.
Rushdie does not create these dreams out of a simple desire to blaspheme for blasphemy’s sake. He is following in the footsteps of the great eighteenth-century Enlightenment critics of religion like Voltaire who sought to undermine the authoritarian power structures of their day by challenging their religious underpinnings. So long as the Church endorsed slavery, the divine right of kings, and censorship, the sort of liberating changes the rationalists yearned for could not come to pass, unless the Church’s authority could be called into question. Similarly, Rushdie sees modern societies like Iran and Pakistan as cursed by religious convictions that bring out the worst qualities in their believers. (In The Moor’s Last Sigh he challenges Hindu fanaticism as well.)
The entire novel strives to break down absolutes, to blur easy dichotomies, to question traditional assumptions of all kinds. There are to be no simple answers to the query, “What kind of an idea are we?” Demons can behave like angels and vice versa. High ideals can lead people to commit terrible crimes. Love can be mixed with jealous hate. Exalted faith can lead to tragedy. Just as Rushdie strives to destroy the distinction between center and periphery, so he challenges easy distinctions between good and evil.
At the end of the novel, Saladin returns to India, finally to reconcile himself with his father. But this is no simple return to his roots. The father with whom he is reconciled is a changed man. Saladin could not have loved him until he had become the enfeebled, benign shadow of his former self on his deathbed. Part of his heritage–the lamp–proves deadly. His inheritance does not include the home he grew up in. Zeeny, who elsewhere warmly urges his Indian roots on him, has little use for sentimental attachment to Peristan. Let it make way for the new, she says. Saladin seems finally to agree. He is ready to put aside not only the “fairy-tales” of religion but his personal history as well. In the end he opts for newness, for “If the old refused to die, the new could not be born” (547).
In the end, despite the postmodern trappings of Rushdie’s narrative, the values of the novel seem remarkably traditional: belief in individual liberty and tolerance, freedom of expression, skepticism about dogma, and belief in the redemptive power of love. Lest we too quickly claim triumphantly that these are distinctively European values, Rushdie reminds us of the remarkably intelligent and innovative Mughal ruler of India, Akbar, who challenged the orthodoxies of his time and brought more than his share of newness into the world (190).
One could derive from the book a sort of existentialist morality: there are no absolutes, but we are responsible for the choices we make, the alliances we forge, the relationships we enter into. Our choices define us. We cannot shift the responsibility for our actions to God or history. “What kind of an idea are you?” is a question addressed not only to immigrants, but to all of us.
Created by Paul Brians