Olsson's Book Bits

by Greta Olsson

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Viking Penguin Group, publisher, 1989.
ISBN: O-67O-82537-9; 547 Pages,

Rushdie bio: Nationality: British, English, Indian. Born June 19,1947. Birth place: Bombay, Maharashtra, India. Education: King's College, Cambridge, M.A. (history with honors). Married 4 times, possibly 5. Recently a wife, Padma Lakshmir, very young and glamorous, left him - or was it a fifth wife? Some background: actor, Fringe theater, London, England; honorary visiting professor of humanities, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993, 2O07; Writer-in-Residence, Emory University.

Rushdie's Satanic Verses strikes me as on a par with some of the more complex Shakespeare comedies and histories. I taught a class in Shakespeare for several years, using recordings of the plays with high school youngsters following along in their books. Although I'd heard and read one play many times, on one occasion a line jumped out at me, a line which I would have sworn in court was not in the scene before then. What the words did was underline one of my own recent life experiences. Until I'd lived through that event, the line went right by me as though it wasn't there.

During an evening's talk at UCLA, a producer and/or director from a theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, told us about having to read a particular Shakespeare play eleven times in order to understand it well enough to put it on. I was ecstatic, having thought myself stupid for not getting it all in a couple of readings.

My purpose in sharing the above with you is that I believe that Rushdie's masterpiece is on a par with Shakespeare's complexity and humor. Having read it only once, and also lacking a good background in politics and history, I beg that if you have more knowledge than I about this Boston Legal, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest crazy story, you will help me enlighten Intertel with your more insightful observations.

The depth of my ignorance shows in that it is completely beyond my understanding why anyone would wish to kill the author. I found Rushdie's humor marvelous, and some of his lines memorable or poetic. For an example, to describe a very heavy rain that caused a flood: "The sea fell out of the sky." But can you imagine Shakespeare mentioning Lana Turner, Buster Keaton, James Mason, Christopher Reed, Finnegan's Wake, or even Dr. Strangelove in any of his works? Obviously I mean people and works comparable to my list, that existing during Shakespeare's time.

Mine will be a literary, not political or historical critique. We have two main characters, both men. One was attacked as a "Charlatan! Poser! Fake! You claim to be the screen immortal, avatar of a hundred and one gods, and you haven't a foggy!" The madman knocked Gibreel Farista's hat off during their scuffle and then dropped to his knees. Gibreel thought he must be picking up his hat, but soon realized that the man was worshiping him. "In the glass of a sliding door, he saw that the halo around his hair was back." But is Gibreel God or the devil? The main theme seems to be that good and evil war in each person.

The second man is as different from Gibreel as are Alan Shore and Denny Crane. Yet the upright, "Anglophile supreme" Saladin Chamcha gasps as his legs grow hairier, his feet turn into hooves, and horns appear at this temples. Supposedly one man represents good and the other evil, but which man is truly which? Can demons be angelic? Can angels be devils in disguise?

Other characters are equally colorful, fascinating, and wacky. Ayesha is a butterfly-shrouded visionary who leads an Indian village on a pilgrimage, expecting the sea to part for her group as another body of water did earlier for the Jews. Alleluia Cone, also known as the Icequeen Cone, climbs Everest solo. Central to the story is Mahound, the Prophet of Jahilia, the city of sand - "Mahound, the recipient of the revelation in which satanic verses mingle with the divine."

Other less important characters are Pimple Billimoria who wants a good movie part, and will to do anything to get it; Rekha on a red carpet floats in and out of scenes usually making a difference by influencing others' thinking. There is even an unquiet horn named Azreel that goes everywhere with Gibreel, and becomes the exterminator, blowing up and thus wiping out an entire group of people.

The novel opens with a hijacked jumbo jet blowing apart 3O,OOO' above the English Channel. Everything - people, plane, luggage, and accouterments - is lost except for Gibreel, who tumbles first spread-eagle and then somersaults towards certain death, and Saladin, as straight as a needle, every button buttoned up to his neck, heading downwards, head first One man is screaming at the other to keep away from him to no avail. They collide in midair, and hang onto each other tightly, nose to toe so-to-speak. One has divine power, and is able to slow their descent as they come close to their safe landing. Neither dies. The Indian movie star and the man of a thousand voices are locked together until the story's conclusion.

There are many stories, some humorous, some sad, with people changing their names and/or their characters. Gibreel, fed up with movies, tosses his Oscars into the toilet. Rekha Merchant, who committed suicide because of him, comes back to seek revenge, asking him whether he preferred to "go on being lost in this craziness, becoming not an angel but a down-and-out hobo, a stupid joke?" If he will only say that he loves her, she will "terminate the insanities of the city, with which I am persecuting you, nor will you be possessed any longer by this crazy notion of changing, redeeming the city like something left in a pawnshop; it'll be calm-calm...."

"Gibreel moves as if through a dream, because after days of wandering the city without eating or sleeping, with the trumpet named Azreel tucked safely in a pocket of his great coat, he no longer recognizes the distinction between waking and dreaming states - he understands now something of what omnipresence must be like, because he is moving through several stories at once, there is a Gibreel who mourns betrayal by Alleluia Cone, and a Gibreel hovering over the death bed of a Prophet, and a Gibreel watching in secret over the progress of a pilgrimage to the sea waiting for the moment at which he will reveal himself, and a Gibreel who feels, more powerfully every day, the will of the adversary, drawing him ever closer, leading him towards their final embrace: the subtle deceiving adversary, who has taken the face of his friend, of Saladin his truest friend, in order to lull him into lowering his guard. And there is a Gibreel who walks the streets of London, trying to understand the will of God.

"Is he to be the agent of God's wrath?

"Or of his love?

"Is he vengeance or forgiveness? Should the fatal trumpet remain in his pocket, or should he take it our and blow?"

The author now injects his own words, a fact I find endearing. ("I'm giving him no instructions. I, too, am interested in his choices - in the result of his wrestling match. Character vs destiny: a freestyle bout. Two falls, two submissions or a knockout will decide...")

"Wrestling through his many stories, he proceeds."

"The people's wishes are made known to Gibreel without their words." He blows the horn and exterminates them. Gibreel may be an archangel but is that not a "puppet a marionette. The faithful bend us to their will. We are forces of nature, and they our masters. What desires, what imperatives are in the midnight air? He breathes them in. And nods, so be it, yes. Let it be fire. This is a city that has cleansed itself in flame, purged itself by burning down to the ground... 'This is the judgment of God in his wrath,' Gibreel Farista proclaims to the riotous night, 'that men be granted their heart's desires, and that they be by them consumed.'"

In the end Gibreel saves Saladin in the fire, but later sticks a gun in his own mouth and pulls the trigger. Is God not against suicide? Does he even kill himself? Oh for some Cliff Notes or an Intertel member by my side now to help me understand it all!!

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