The Satanic Verses,
by Salman Rushdie,
Literary fiction/Magical realism
Buy the book on my Bookshop
In cased you missed our previous posts:
Discussion on Parts 1 and 2
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And now here are our questions and answers on Parts 3 and 4:
1. Compared to Parts 1 and 2, does Rushdie use the same techniques here to introduce humor?
Funnily enough, I can only see one thing, either humour or fantasy. Since this one goes more into the second direction, it’s hard for me to see the humour though I can recognize it at parts. So, I wouldn’t be able to say whether it’s the same kind of humour or a different one. Does that even make sense?
He does mention a few fairy tales we are familiar with, grandmother’s house from Little Red Riding Hood, Rosa being “white as snow …” from Snow White. And I know there are other allusions to other stories, history and religion. That I found quite funny.
I like how he keeps playing with names, though this time going back in history sometimes, like with Willie-the-Conk. With the impact the Conqueror has had on the evolution of England, for instance in language, it makes sense that he would show up in this part of the book that’s becoming more obviously about the hazards and dangers of migration.
There are many fun references to literature. I’ll mention Kafka down below, but there’s also Don Quixote (a character Rushdie particularly enjoys, see my review of his novel on him), when he talks about “Maslama’s windmilling arms”.
In this part, I feel the humor becomes even more satire, as the author targets more social behaviors, especially against migrants.
And as usual, there are many hilarious Hinglish terms and references. I didn’t even know the term Hinglish before reading this book!
2. What do you think about the transformations of the main protagonists here?
I think the changes not only in the two protagonists but also in some of the other characters (not as large as that of Gibreel and Saladin but changes nonetheless) might have something to do with the changes any immigrant goes through in his or her new country. We don’t stay the same. I always say I am not completely German but I also didn’t change into a Belgian, a Brit or a Dutch person. It could also explain some changes in the religious views of the people when changing culture (which wasn’t the fact for me as the countries I lived in are all mainly Christian).
I read somewhere that many people see immigrants (especially from other cultures) almost identical to animals and therefore Saladin was transformed into a goat. Could be. A lot of Westerners are definitely prone to looking at people from other cultures, religions and races as below themselves. Which is, of course, rubbish. But a good point to show people what they do with that point of view.
I talked a bit about when commenting on Parts 1 and 2.
The surah that’s at the origin of the book’s title is called The Star. If we switch now to the Christian tradition, the name Lucifer (used often in connection with Venus and already present in mythology) became associated with the devil (for instance in the interpretation of Isaiah 14:12). So with the fall of the two protagonists, and two (movie) stars on top of it, it leads naturally to the possibility that one of them would be a figure of the devil.
There are many aspects of migration in these parts of the book. A big one is the necessary reinvention of oneself and of one’s world:
“He was in a void, and if he were to survive he would have to construct everything from scratch, would have to invent the ground beneath his feet before he could take a step.”
So much so that one could lose one’s own identity:
“Looking into the mirror at his altered face, Chamcha attempted to remind himself of himself. I am a real man, he told the mirror, with a real history and a planned-out future. “
Here again, I so understand this! In my review of a book of an another Indian author who has jumped into another culture, I did explain that deep down, I actually do not feel the same person when I am back in France and speak French, and when I speak in English in my everyday American life.
Marianne, I see we have a somewhat similar experience here.
However, the loss of identity is taken to its extreme here.
Earlier on in the book, I had not made the connection of Chamcha’s name with the sound of Samsa’s! Samsa’s is turned into a bug, this is bad enough.
Poor Chamcha becomes a beast, with all the attributes folklore has attributed to the devil. And including the fact that horns are supposed to be ornating the brow of cuckolds (also present here).
So if Chamcha becomes the devil, it makes sense Gibreel, used to appear in theological movies, would turn into the figure of a saint, with a halo. Though in this part so far, Rushdie is not focusing as much on him.
Unless he is here again Chamcha’s counterpart and stands for the migrant who does manage the leap. The author refers to Gibreel’s “talent for embracing renewal, for blinding himself to past hardships so that the future could come into view.” It seems to go with his willingness to embrace new laws: “a small series of prohibitions and instructions gladdened his heart”–which may be just another to lose one’s own identity actually.
Anyway, Gibreel’s situation is not all rosy either, as others tend to consider him insane, as mentioned a few times. He has also been on a “futile journey in search of the chimera of renewal”. And if Chamcha’s name sounds like Samsa’s, it’s actually Gibreel (if I’m not mistaken) who is described at one point as having “the look of a large, dying beetle.”
3. We now see more clearly the focus on the theme of migration and exile. Any comments on that?
As I mentioned in question 2, the transformation of the protagonists, it is quite clear now why that happens and what the author wants to tell us with that. No matter whether we want to or not, we have to change, even if only a little bit, when living in a foreign country, otherwise we will always be the “other”.
I guess we need to come back to page 41 and the following quote:
“How far did they fly? Five and a half thousand as the crow. Or: from Indianness to Englishness, an immeasurable difference. Or, not very far at all, because they rose from one great city, fell to another.” It always depends on your attitude.
It’s neat how Rushdie looks at this theme at so many levels. The first being the weather. I totally relate to that as I migrated from fairly average French weather to crazy cold and snowy Iowa in April 2001. This was a shock to see so much snow in April, and my friends were like, no big deal, that’s normal here… So I can imagine Gilbreel’s own shock as he woke up after his forced landing:
“Gibreel Farishta awoke with a mouth full of, no, not sand. Snow.” And I like how Rushdie’s style in this sentence makes the reader feel even more this first cultural shock.
There are also many passages on how the authorities are treating “illegals”. To the point of resorting to extreme and unethical measures if these so-called illegals turn up to be actually citizens of that country, despite their different look (color of skin or more general appearance).
And obviously food is important in that respect, “this filthy foreign food”!
And not only does one need to reinvent oneself, as mentioned above, but in the new land, one becomes the stranger, the other, so other as to be ultimately seen as a monster and a devil, the source of all evils:
“‘They describe us,’ the other whispered solemnly. ‘That’s all. They have the power of description, and we succumb to the pictures they construct.”’
With all the above, the ultimate shock is to realize the country you were dreaming of migrating to is so very different than the one you had in your head:
“”This isn’t England,’ he thought, not for the first or last time.
How could it be, after all; where in all that moderate and common–sensical land was there room for such a police van in whose interior such events as these might plausibly transpire?”
Rushdie also quotes several verses of a powerful passage of the Bible about migrants, maybe one of the most poignant, Psalm 137.
This is so funny that Rushdie also refers to Boney M., who had this super popular song (even in France!), By the Rivers of Babylon, which quotes this same psalm.
4. How do you understand the whole episode between Gibreel and Rosa? What’s the point? Why is she the first to meet the main heroes after their fall?
I suppose someone had to see Gibreel and Saladin first. It’s not such a surprise that it’s a stranger to both of them. Rosa can be representative for all the people who welcome foreigners into their homes without even realizing how different they are. In that respect, we definitely need more people like Rosa. Also, it looks like there are several people in the novel who don’t really know what’s going on, who have “visions”.
I’m not too sure about this, even after reading Daniel Balderstone’s article on Rosa. This whole passage seems to be an obscure pastiche of Argentina and/or other South American countries.
I only see this as an extra text on the migration experience, but I got lost here and I am not sure what specific ideas are highlighted in Rosa’s story. She seems to be the ultimate and symbolic migrant, hence she’s the first one finding Gibreel and Chamcha after their fall.
5. Ayesha appears in two forms. Why? What does she stand for? What about this whole thing about eating butterflies?
I’ve been wondering why there are several Ayeshas in the novel. Either, it is a very, very common name (I don’t think so) the author wants to confuse us (I doubt that, as well). So, there must be a link. Maybe she was named Ayesha after the Empress of Desh (one half of Bangla-Desh?) who is the enemy of the Imam (who has been compared to the Ayatollah Khomeini who issued the fatwa against Salman Rushdie). Maybe the young Ayesha, the main Ayesha, was named after her. It could be a coincidence but I don’t believe in coincidences in novels. Well, this Ayesha claims to get messages from the archangel. And then, maybe as a sign, her dress turns into butterflies. Apparently, there is a local legend it that the butterflies are the familiar spirits of a woman named Bibiji, a saint who lived to for 240 years and died 120 years ago. I also read that butterflies stand for metamorphosis and rebirth. Makes sense, after all, they changed from caterpillars into the beautiful beings. And here we are again at the subject of immigrants.
We have talked a lot about change, transformation, and metamorphosis. Even though they go hand in hand with the experience of migration, our main heroes have had a hard time with it. Ayesha on the other hand, seems to be embracing change, to the point of absorbing it, as I see in the weird scenes where she eats butterflies, the common symbol of transformation and transmutation.
A note I read says it’s also a reference to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Alas, I don’t remember this in Gabriel García Márquez’s book.
Thanks Marianne for your reference to a local legend.
I feel like I miss so many references, even though we have access to many tools to better understand this book! It is so rich with so many allusions.
6. And what about the character of the imam?
As I mentioned above, the Imam is often compared to the Ayatollah Khomeini. I wouldn’t be surprised if Salman Rushdie thought about him when writing the story. After all, he was in the news all the time and most people were more than accustomed to his picture.
The Imam is the exact opposite of our two protagonists. He doesn’t change at all. He’d rather bring his culture and religion to other countries than accepting only a little from there. As I mentioned above, he will always be “the other”.
With his love for imposing his will and rules and his obsession for purity (he only accepts to drink filtered water), the imam is the total opposite of Ayesha’s figure. He refuses changes and only wants stability.
Added to that a third ability, the one of summoning or conjuring up Gibreel (as an image of the archangel), he is a satirical depiction of Ayatollah Khomeini, which now explains more to me why the Iranian leader did object to the book to the point of calling for its author’s assassination. Even though he probably never read the book, as Rushdie remarked at the time.
The imam is also presented as an exile, and Rushdie seems to make a big difference between an exile and an immigrant. Is it that different? Is Rushdie making reference to his own experience? (It would be interesting to know about Rushdie’s reaction when he arrived in England in his teens for education).
Though better than the migrant experience of Chamcha and Gibreel, it is not presented as paradise either: “Paranoia, for the exile, is a prerequisite of survival”. “Exile is a soulless country.” “In exile all attempts to put down roots look like treason: they are admissions of defeat”.
7. And any other question you would like to address!
I would have hundreds of questions to any of the characters (the women in the novel, for example), the reason why some parts are more magic realism than others, etc. It would be great to discuss this novel in person, each with a book and a notepad in our hands. We could come up with so many more points. But I think, that’s enough for today. After all, there are still three more reading and discussion weeks ahead of us.
Thanks Marianne for your input. Yes, we could definitely spend several months just studying every line of this book!
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Here is our full schedule:
- November 1st: introductory post at Words And Peace
- Between November 8-12: questions + answers on the first 23% of the book (up to end of PART II. Stop before “Ellowen Deeowen”) at Let’s Read
- Between Nov 15-19: questions + answers on the second quarter of the book (stop before V. A City Visible but Unseen), at Words And Peace
- Between Nov 22-26: questions + answers on the third quarter of the book (stop before VI. Return to Jahilia) at Let’s Read
- Between Nov 29-December 3: last quarter of the book and conclusion questions at Words And Peace
HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
LET US KNOW WHAT YOU THINK