THE SATANIC VERSES. By Salman Rushdie. Viking. 547 pp. $19.95.
Headlines kept getting in the way of this review. In Pakistan, reactionary nuts are using Salman Rushdie–and the dead bodies of some true believers–to destabilize Benazir Bhutto’s government. In Iran, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, with Rocks in his Dome, has put out a $5.2 million contract on the novelist. In South Africa, Saudi Arabia and at Waldenbooks of Stamford, Connecticut, The Satanic Verses is banned. For a couple of minutes, let’s try to see the book through the bonfires of its burning.
As much as Islam, Salman Rushdie blasphemes Thatcherism. He’s unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. “Pitting levity against gravity,” altogether impious, The Satanic Verses is one of those go-for-broke “metafictions”–a grand narrative and a Monty Python sendup of history, religion and popular culture; Hindu cyclic and Moslem dualistic; post-colonial identity crisis and modernist pastiche; Bombay bombast and stiff-upper-liposuction; babu baby talk and ad agency neologism; cinema gossip, elephant masks, pop jingles, lousy puns, kinky sex and Schadenfreude; a sort of Sammy and Rosie Get Laid in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City–from which the sly-boots Author-God tip-and-twinkletoes away with a cannibal grin. “Who am I?” he asks us. “Let’s put it this way: who has the best tunes?”
As we shall see, he’s disingenuous. And already, like the Mojtabais and Mukherjees, I’ve made the novel sound as daunting as the kipper that the poor displaced protagonist Chamcha has to face, so many miles from home, at his first appalling public-schoolboy breakfast: “England was a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it.” How, indeed?
Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta were both born in Bombay; they are equally inauthentic. Chamcha leaves the “vulgarity” of Bombay for the “poise and moderation” of England, where he eats kippers, marries the blond and well-bred Pamela, co-hosts a popular children’s TV program called The Aliens Show and turns himself into the Man of a Thousand Voice-Overs: “If you wanted to know how your ketchup bottle should talk in its television commercial, if you were unsure as to the ideal voice for your packet of garlic-flavoured crisps, he was your very man. He made carpets speak in warehouse advertisements, he did celebrity impersonations, baked beans, frozen peas. On the radio he could convince an audience that he was Russian, Chinese, Sicilian, the President of the United States.” From Pamela he wants a child, but can’t have one. He is a mimic man. Gibreel stays home to star on the big Indian screen, and in various Bombay bedrooms. When he isn’t pretending to be Hanuman the monkey king “in a sequence of adventure movies that owed more to a certain cheap television series emanating from Hong Kong than it did to the Ramayana,” he incarnates “with absolute conviction, the countless deities of the subcontinent in the popular genre movies known as ‘theologicals”…Blue-skinned as Krishna he danced, flute in hand, amongst the beauteous gopis and their udder-heavy cows; with upturned palms, serene, he meditated (as Guatama) upon humanity’s suffering beneath a studio-rickety bodhi-tree.” Recovering from a mysterious Christ-like hemorrhage, he will fall in love with the Everest-climbing ice queen Alleluia Cone, and lose his faith.