Angels in dirty places
Review of The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Friday 23 September 1988 16.55 BST
omebody switches on a tape recorder; a meretricious disco version of a psalm of David, 'How shall I sing the Lord's song in a strange land,' booms and twitters into a semi-apocalyptic version of London. Ellowen Deeowen, as the childrens' rhyme has it. And even in its vicious decay, Salman Rushdie still accords the glamour of a child's dream to this 'great, rotting, beautiful, snow-white, illuminated city, Mahagonny, Babylon, Alphaville.'
But the vexed question of the Lord's song and how to sing it in Mahagonny, Babylon, Alphaville, concerns most of the characters in Salam Rushdie's new novel, for they are mostly displaced persons of one kind or another. Expatriates, immigrants, refugees. Perhaps, finally, the answer lies in the 'satanic verses' of the title; might not the Lord's song be utterly transformed by time and distance, just as the two heroes of this long, complicated, exhilarating novel are transformed in the course of a journey.
Formally, The Satanic Verses is an epic into which holes have been punched to let in visions; an epic hung about with ragbag scraps of many different cultures. In Bombay, another city this novel celebrates, the beautiful Zeenat Vikal, doctor, activist and art critic, seeks 'an ethic of historically validated eclecticism, for was not the entire national culture based on the principle of borrowing whatever clothes seemed to fit, Aryan, Mughal, British, take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest?' Rushdie gleefully follows this prescription. The SatanicVerses, as if in tribute to Zeeny's Indian ethic, is eclectic as hell.
It kicks off in medias res, astonishingly: two brown men, clasped in a reluctant embrace, hurtle out of the clouds towards the English coast, singing at the tops of their voices inraucous discord. They have burst out of the exploded pod of a hijacked aircraft, to miraculously survive impact and be extraordinarily reborn.
Mind you, one of them, Gibreel Farishta, the movie star, has already scraped through a brush with death and is now prey not only to an obsessive, clearly doomed passion for the ice blondmountaineer, Allelia Cone, but also to hauntings from a former mistress who killed herself for love of him. In addition, he suffers from halitosis; and strange, terrible dreams in which he features as his own namesake, the archangel.
These dreams form a phantasmagoric narrative within the novel itself, with themes and characters that echo and reflect the rest of the action and inventions such as the city of Jahilia, 'built entirely of sand,' that gives a nod to Calvino and a wink to Frank Herbert; and a girl who subsists on a diet of butterflies such as might have sprung from the pen of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, himself another archangel.
These dreams have a cineramic quality that befits the unconscious of a Bombay superstar, even if their intellectual content seems pitched high for someone as gloriously, irrepressibly vulgar as Gibreel. Indeed, his vulgarity is so irredeemable, so comic, so full of vitality as to seem a kind of grace, and yet his author punished him for it with madness and a brief incarnation as Azreel, the worst of all possible angels.
Seduced at an early age by the imperial promise of those magic syllables, Ellowen Deeowen, he went to great lengths to tailor himself to fit his adopted city, paring down his hilariously unwieldy name to Saladin Chamcha, only to find the slimline version makes him a laughing stock - chamcha means 'toady' - when he returned to his native Bombay.
Like Gibreel, he is an actor but an actor in England; his face 'is the wrong colour for their colour TV' so he has pursued with success a uniquely late twentieth century career, that of delivering the voiceovers for television commercials. This week, he personates a ketchup bottle; next week, a packet of crisps. It is a bizarre way to sing the Lord's song and that return visit to Bombay has revealed his inner emptiness to him, whilst Gibreel, full of himself, is hastening to meet his love when he sits down beside Saladin on that fateful flight.
After they tumble through the air entwined, they find, when once again on terra firma, that one has grown horns and the other a halo.
At first the devil fares worse. Picked up as an illegal immigrant, Saladin joins in a mass escape from a detention centre - a scene of great power and strangeness. He finds his wife in bed with his best friend. And moment by moment he grows hairier, smellier, goatier. He takes refuge in the Shandaar Cafe, an establishment you might find in a Hanif Kurishi filmscript, or on the next corner - home cooking, skinhead whites who spit in the meals of Sikhs, roomsfull of backrent tenants upstairs, outside the mean streets of a marvellously evoked eighties London.
These means streets team with deracinated flowers who are tough as old boots. Mischal, for instance, the nubile daughter of the cafe, with her enthusiasm for the martial arts. And the clients of the Club Hot Wax, with its effigies of Mary Seacole, and Ignatius Sancho, and other, sometimes anonymous black men and women who once lived by the waters of Babylon. In this wilderness of a city, haloed Gibreel pursues a career as a full-fledged archangel that ends in blood and fire and disaster and a veritable massacre of supporting players before the two actors return, seperately, to Bombay, there to finally engage with the complicated dialectic of good and evil that occasioned their transformations in the first place.
The novel, after its rollercoaster ride over a vast landscape of the imagination, ends calmly - for one of the protagonists, at least - in reconciliation and home-coming and a necessary grief.
As to the fate of the other, and which one of the twinned pair of opposites it is who achieves such wholeness in the teeth of the mess and horror of the world, you must read this populous, loquacious, sometimes hilarious, extraordinary contemporary novel to find out.