“How does newness come into the world? How is it born? Of what fusions, translations, conjoinings is it made? How does it survive, extreme and dangerous as it is? What compromises, what deals, what betrayals of its secret nature must it make to stave off the wrecking crew, the exterminating angel, the guillotine?” – Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
Most of us in the business of writing readily assume that language is a reliable, stable, even objective, medium of communication. For most of us this is an axiom, an idea that, in itself, we accept as logically and self-evidently true. However, most of us also forget (or have failed or refused to study) that continental philosophers and philosophers of language such as Gilles Deleuze, Richard Rorty, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida have contended that language is essentially dynamic: language is not a “mirror of nature,” it is semantically self-contained, self-referential: the meaning of a particular word is neither a static objectivity nor an inert idea in the mind but rather an array of variances, contrasts, gaps, subtexts, and differences with the meanings of other words that changes through time and varies through usage. Meaning is multifarious, dynamic, not singular and objective. Hence, the illusion that language is stable. So it is that writers such as Salman Rushdie have exploited language by experimenting with its fluidity – its very dynamics – to fashion out sophisticated and, most will say, pernicious criticisms of religion and empowering political statements. And so it is that Rushdie has exploited this flux and erraticism of language in his most controversial and divisive work to date, the work that had almost cost him his head, The Satanic Verses.
Postmodernist ideas such as the dismissal of objective reality as a naïve form of realism, the negation of reason and logic as mere conceptual constructs, and the endorsement of an epistemology wherein there can be no rational, objective framework for discussing intellectual and linguistic problems have given Rushdie the license to play with language through the novel genre, to experiment with the ideation of the novel, and to criticize the religious beliefs and traditions of the Islamic and Hindi faiths. Besides its raucous, violent ramifications among the Islamic and Arab communities, what has become widely known as “The Rushdie Affair” has further emphasized and drew attention to the complex relationship between a writer and his readers, many of whom hold varying perspectives and ideologies on the role and function of author and text. Rushdie writes:
“The real language problem: how to bend it shape it, how to let it be our freedom, how to repossess its poisoned wells, how to master the river of words of time of blood… Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.”
The Satanic Verses is the third novel I’ve read by Salman Rushdie, the first ones being Shalimar the Clown and The Enchantress of Florence back in 2010. So it’s been four years. However, I read The Satanic Verses without any interest in the heated polemics about the “Rushdie Affair,” or in sifting through the many tensions that surround the novel. On the contrary, I just read it as I have read his other novels, and then later I realized that all the major hype, mass hysteria, and rage that erupted when The Satanic Verses was first published in 1988 was very akin to the frenzy that Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, The Last Temptation of Christ (which I read in 2009), caused several decades ago in 1951. But much more than what these novels have caused – the international controversy, the great public uproar, the book burnings, book bans, death threats, and mass riots and protests – were the gigantic ripples they produced in literary / linguistic polemics.
It is precisely because of Rushdie’s experimentations with language that this whole Rushdie Affair has become a great world event. His playful reconstruction of Islamic history has inflamed many tempers, not so much because of his irreverent approach to religion, but because of its incoherence, its disorganized, unlikely concoction of plots, themes, mythos, and characters. There is no difference between his approach to history and his approach to writing: to deconstruct every aspect of life, to question comfortable, presupposed certainties and to stress the ambiguous position of the postmodern, postcolonial situation. A variety of diasporic narratives highlight this condition: most of the primary characters are immigrants and emigrants of some sort and hence, the dissolution and transformation in their cultural and personal identities. It answers the question it poses upon itself, “What kind of idea are you?”
And so it is that in its religious insinuations, The Satanic Verses isn’t solely about decrying Islam and Islamic history, but about emphasizing the interplay between faith and doubt in any religion. But it’s also much more than that: like the movement of postmodernism itself The Satanic Verses has no single continuous theme. It is a multitude of ideas, a pastiche of themes and tropes and literary devices, a work that is as multifaceted as it is ambiguous and borderless: Kafkaesque metamorphoses and grotesque transformations, the juxtaposition and substitution of good and evil, religious fundamentalism and fanaticism, multiculturalism, globalization, diaspora, migration and displacement, etc. All these are consolidated into a novel in some form or other while you follow the exploits of its unlikely heroes, or antiheroes – Gibreel Farishta (the angel, but not) and Saladin Chamcha (the devil, but not) from their descent from a crashing plane to London, supreme melting pot of cultures, through their absurd, obscene, comic misadventures, to their final reunification – all in 561 splendid, “satanic” pages.
Exactly what are “The Satanic Verses”? Readers expecting this to be about something literally satanic will be disappointed. The Satanic Verses has nothing to do with Satan, or Shaitan, for that matter. They are poetic yearnings made verbal that portray the tensions between reason and unreason, between the worlds of science and superstition, the real and imaginary, between the world at the time of the Prophet and the present, between the cold fog of England and the hot sweat of India and the Middle East, and between a secular interpretation of modern life and a religious one. In short, The Satanic Verses is about the very clash of cultures and mindsets that is being waged today, in the here and now, and Rushdie gives us his very sophisticated and eloquent take on this earthshattering process.
This is one of those works of fiction that only come within a century: it’s that ambitious. As such, it is tremendously imaginative, fantastic. Though it would be a great injustice to label this “speculative fiction.” It’s something that transcends genre writing, something that actually succeeds in doing so. Its prose is musical, rapturous, Dionysian – and what amazes me most is that it’s written in the author’s second language. The disintegration of the concept of self, of events and lives, the breaking down of cultural barriers and institutions, the disillusion with what’s held holy and sacred, the severing of one’s past against the pursuit for personal history, and cultural distrust, prejudice, and misunderstanding represent an entire age – namely, ours – with its doubts, struggles, and insecurities. Morality here is ambiguous, life is uncertain and, true to its influences, the novel keeps changing, transforming: it escapes your desire to fully comprehend all its interweaving patterns. Rather, it enlightens you through perplexity.
In its focus on the mongrelizing of cultures, attitudes, beliefs and values, The Satanic Verses challenges you to question fundamentalist religions and absolutist ideologies and the concept of identity. By playing with language, Rushdie has fully utilized the concept of novel: to make it new. The Satanic Verses is therefore a means through which postmodern themes are demonstrated, and its agendas communicated: the malleability of language and its implied power, when manipulated by a master, to serve political, religious and cultural agendas. But precisely because Rushdie has sought to weave together the various threads of his novel by introducing a host of cross-references, linguistic tautologies and repeating the names of characters, catchphrases, and images in a complex network of allusions and echoes, this postmodern technique of pastiche can also be viewed as a frantic attempt to give a superficial appearance of artistic integrity to a basically chaotic work.
Nevertheless, I painstakingly read the novel from beginning to end for almost three weeks (the text is difficult) and found it rough yet very remarkable, quite obtuse at first, but gradually I got used to Rushdie’s style and mode of writing. I enjoyed this rich, overly grandiose satire. Yes, this is a satire not dissimilar in intent to the works of Oscar Wilde or even Voltaire, however distant in style they may be. It is a satire not only upon the Islamic and Hindu faiths and cultures, not only on language and identity, but on the perpetual delusions of a pitiful, but ever hopeful humanity.