The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie
was first published in 1988
Literary fiction/magic realism
Discussion Questions Parts 1 and 2, Week 2
Have you all read the first quarter of our book (up to end of PART II. Stop before "Ellowen Deeowen")?
If yes, then you are ready for the next questions. I hope you will all be happy to particpate. Answer as many or as few of the questions as you like.
1. What do you think of the narrator?
My answers (Marianne @ Let's Read):
At the beginning, I didn't have the feeling there was a narrator, it was just a book I was reading. But the further you get into it, the more the narrating part gets larger as he talks to the reader directly from time to time. I think the narrator is important for us to see that it is a story, the author probably anticipated some of the trouble he would stir and therefore distanced himself from the book. Didn't work.
Emma's answers (Emma @ Words and Peace)
I like its quirkiness, irony, and humor. I think its use also helps create distance between the content and the reader, which fits the satirical intent of this novel. And I see this metafictional trait as a signal to say, watch out, don't take this literally.
Besides, it allows the author to have more fun, for instance to include himself in the novel when he describes Gibreel, especially with the "drooping eyelids", a disease (ptosis or blepharoptosis) Salman Rushdie was suffering from, to the point of needing surgery in 1999, so actually eleven years after the publication of this novel). Otherwise he would have been ultimately unable to open his eyes.
As I mentioned irony, I would like to talk more about it here.
I see two ironic effects in Rushdie's mix of intellectual words and references to colloquial and slang language, or oral language. I realized I understood better if I read aloud some passages, for instance the expression "no quesch". It's great fun to see how Rushdie glues some words together, as they would be heard, like "Gracekali".
I also enjoyed his lists a lot! For instance, during the fall:
"Above, behind, below them in the void there hung reclining seats, stereophonic headsets, drinks trolleys, motion discomfort receptacles, disembarkation cards, duty-free video games, braided caps, paper cups, blankets, oxygen masks."
Indeed, the most funny part in the section we had to read for this week is for me the fall of the two heroes, with their "heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity", falling "like titbits of tobacco from a broken old cigar", or like spermatozoa, or dropped by a stork, as their fall will allow them to be reborn again in another society.
And their fall is also an allusion to Alice in Wonderland, quoted here as well.
But behind their fall is a very serious question, "Is birth always a fall?" Does a part of us need to die to take our place in another society? Yes seems to be the answer for Salman Rushdie who did experience life as a migrant.
And there are tons of plays on words, for instance chair-men in the context of the studio wheelchair-team; the mention of "the Man of a Thousand Voices and a Voice"; the name Eugene Dumsday; the travelling mat vs. the magic carpet; the hilarious confusion and conversation about "the Christian guard", and "Ellowen Deeowen", which I only understood by reading them aloud, trying to imitate an Indian accent!! And many more!
2. In the opening, we hear about the fall of the two characters from the plane. Is the fall also to be seen figuratively and how does it introduce us to the novel?
M: The fall could be interpreted as the fall from grace, for the Christians the expulsion from paradise. As is said in the novel "to be born again, first you have to die" which could mean in order for them to become the archangel and the devil, they have to leave this life but I also think it might allude to their change of name and personality when leaving India and settling in the UK.
E: Yes, definitely. It's about transformation and reinvention of self, about complexity of identity, and also, as far as I can see in this part of the book, about chaos and lack of meaning in parts of Indian society. Lack of meaning obviously also in religion, according to the narrator and the author. This obviously doesn't reflect my own thinking, but this is literature, not a book of theology.
I will mention the theme of falling from the sky a bit more below, when talking more about Surah 53.
3. Why do you think Saladin becomes the devil, Gibreel the angel?
M: I don't think Gibreel became an angel because he was a better person than Saladin. The novel tries to make us understand that we all are good and bad at the same time and that, even if we have been good (or bad) all our lives, we can turn around at any time.
E: The main dimension of the book so far for me is that nothing is all black or all white, all bad or all evil. There can be room for interpretation and for evolution as well. Nothing is really static if it's alive. All the more so if you move between cultures, here between India and England.
I think this is highlighted here by their names and transformation. All the more so as at one point during their fall, both characters seem to intertwine and become one. And even at one point their both names make only one: "Gibreelsaladin Farishtachamcha" (page 5).
4. What about the women? What position do they have in the novel? How are the men portrayed to them?
M: There are all sorts of women in this novel. I think the author might have wanted to portray even more women than men in order to make us understand how many different people there can be and that we are not all subservient people but each of us is a person in our own right.
E: They seem to occupy second place so far. I don't see them as major characters. However, they are instrumental in the development of the plot. Just as one example, and I could give more, Gibreel decided to leave and take the (fateful) plane because he was fed up with his mistress.
But actually, maybe women do have a central place in the novel after all: after all, the Star surah which is at the center of the book is about three goddesses.
5. Why do you think both men have changed their names? Farishta means "angel" in Urdu; Chamcha means "spoon".
M: I suppose both men changed their names as so many immigrants do if they want to immerse in their new country, assimilate, especially if they work in entertainment. That way, their names can be pronounced by the people who might admire them.
E: Farishta's real name is Ismail Najbuddin. His Mom nicknamed him Farishta, which sounds common to me. Both in English and French, it's not unusual for mothers to refer to their young ones as my little angels. So this is the stage name he took. I see it as a direct connection to Gibreel, as he plays in "theological movies", and in his mental disorder believes he has a divine message to deliver (as Gabriel did).
As for Chamcha, I think the colloquial meaning of his name is more relevant than the literal meaning of spoon. I have read it means "toady", which we can see at play in his career. If Gibreel is more the rebel, Chamcha wants to please. By the way, I have read here that the colloquial derivation of the literal meaning of "spoon" is probably from the time of the British Raj in India, when a "chumch" was a person who, imitating the British, used silverware for meals, whereas Indians generally ate with their bare hands.
6. Have you learned anything about India, especially through the stories of the two main protagonists?
M: I have read many books about India before but there is always something new to learn. I thought it was interesting that this novel was banned in India first.
E: The book highlights the chaos in some parts of the society, though this is not new to me. It seems also to show how vertical the society is ("Bombay was a culture of re-makes" - with also the double meaning, as the remake of a movie), with people trying hard to rise up the social ladder by reimagining themselves. What I had not realized is how many political candidates were originally in show business before, a perfect illustration of the latter point, and possible reason for the chaotic result!
7. There are several different groups in the novel, fundamentalist Islamic groups, the Western and Indian governments, the news media, and the international community of authors. What do you think does this mean for the events?
M: It could be that the author wanted to have a wider outlook on his topic. Or he might just want to lash out on all those institutions and groups.
E: I am not sure at this point.
8. The novel has several magical and fantastical element. How do they contribute to the novel and why do you think the author uses them?
M: I am not a big fan of Magic Realism but I think this novel would be impossible without them.
E: I think these are important writing techniques to open up more meaning. And to allow for the theme of relativity of interpretation, up to the point of presenting ideas as absurd.
And I think we mustn't forget humor, as really the scene of the fall is totally hilarious.
9. Looking at the reactions to the novel, do you think they were deserved? I read somewhere "Getting angry at a work of fiction says more about the reader than it does about the fiction." Do you agree?
M: I don't think any reaction like that is deserved. We should talk about problems we have with each other openly. But some people (or groups) think only they are right and won't accept other opinions. Therefore, we need more books like this to make us think.
E: I agree with this quotation. I wouldn't approach fiction as a treatise of religion or philosophy. And I try to open a book with an open mind, not trying to impose my own thoughts on the intent of the author. If you can't do that, then maybe fiction is not the genre you should read. I actually find it fascinating to discover someone else's thinking and how they convey that into words.
Now, as for the reactions to the novel, the more I read it, the more I'm actually surprised at the Muslim controversy the book unleashed, as really the book attacks about as much Hinduism (though the theme of reincarnation seems to be treated here more as a social event than as a metaphysical reality), and even Christianity (in a more subtle way).
As for the "satanic verses" themselves, I read a bit more about the surah at stake here, and really it seems experts in Islam themselves don't all agree on its meaning, and there's indeed some leeway in what it actually means.
To read more about the interpretation of this surah in Muslim circles themselves, see here.
Surah [chapter] An-Najm, the 53rd Surah of the Koran, means The Star, which I think cannot be separated here from the fact that the two main protagonists were film stars. According to wikipedia, "The surah opens with the oath of the Divine One swearing by every one of the stars, as they descend and disappear beneath the horizon", a descending movement we find for our two star heroes as we open the book.
I also don't think it's a coincidence that Annie Besant would be mentioned (top of page 24 in the old Viking edition), as she founded in India The Order of the STAR in the East, to prepare the world for the arrival of an ultimate messiah.
Plus, the novel contains a lot of allegory, it's not to be taken literally. As if you would be reading the Book of Genesis as a contemporary nonfiction, thus totally ignoring everything about its real genre, and how common this genre was used at the time the book was written.
I don't want to fall into the too common current relativism, according to which everyone could have his/her own truth. But at the same time, if you look at individuals, if I look at myself, there's a part of good and of less good for sure. Each identity is complex and difficult to find. I think this is nicely said with this image: "he seemed to be roaming about inside his clothes like a man in search of something he had not quite managed to identify."
Plus add the fact that when Gibreel received his message he was half asleep, like in a dream. And he suffers from schizophrenia, and considers himself as an angel (like Archangel Gabriel the divine messenger). And on top of that, he is an actor! So he definitely cannot be considered as a reliable messenger.
I think it's also important to note that Gibreel used to play deities in his movies, and Chamcham earthly people. I see it as an added dimension to the theme of identity, and its complex dimensions. And I don't think the novel can be read as a religious message. We don't encounter awe here, just "stage fright" (page 112). And the fall of paradise is actually the fall of a plane (the name of the plane, Bostan, does mean paradise).
We can also argue that the variation of the name Muhammad as Mahound could mainly be a reference to another major work of literature (not of theolog: Mahound is indeed presented as the devil incarnate in Dante's Divine Comedy. The Mahound variation was common in the Middle Ages. And Dante was not far from Rushdie's thought, as we can see in the mention of "the first circle, the innermost ring".
* * *
We stopped this part at "Ellowen Deeowen". Apparently, this is an expression of incredulity, meaning "Try another outrageous lie on me, I don't believe this one." In German we say: "Go tell your grandma." Like, she might believe you, I don't.
Next week, our questions and answers will be on the second quarter of the book up to page 240 at the beginning of chapter V: "A City Visible but Unseen".
In the meantime, we are looking forward to your contributions. What are your answers to the questions? Do you have anything else to add?
All posts about this buddy-read.
Introduction on Emma's blog
Introduction on my blog
Pre-discussion questions by Emma
- Link to that on my blog
Questions to parts 1 and 2 by Marianne
- Link to that on Emma's blog
Questions parts 3 and 4 by Emma
- Link to that on my blog
Questions to part 5 by Marianne
- Link to that on Emma's blog
Questions parts 6 to 9 by Emma
- Link to that on my blog