Monday 22 November 2021

Rushdie, Salman "The Satanic Verses" Buddy-Read - Questions to Part 5


The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie
was first published in 1988
Literary fiction/magic realism

Discussion Questions Part 5, Week 4

We are almost nearing the end. This week we are discussing the third quarter of our book. As always, you can answer as many or as few of the questions as you like.

1.    What do you think about this chapter's title? Which city is meant and why is she both seen and unseen?

My answers (Marianne @ Let's Read):
    When I read the title "A City Visible but Unseen", I had to think about Schrödinger's cat. She's there and she isn't. That's the same with the city Rushdie describes. London is a city of immigrants but it's not the same whether you are an immigrant or a native, or rather, a European or non-European as to the colour of your skin. I think the title gives us a little view of the dilemma these people are in. I was an expat in a few countries, but nobody could see that I didn't belong there if I just walked the street, so I guess a lot of the experiences many immigrants have were spared to me. That doesn't mean I never experienced any animosities or even "racism".
    So, as an immigrant of a different skin colour, you better remain unseen by the majority, change your identity. Almost like with children who should be "seen but not heard".
Emma's answers (Emma @ Words and Peace):
    Thanks for these great questions. Unfortunately, I found this a very difficult part of the book, and most of the time, I had no idea what was going on. (Remark by me, Marianne: I totally agree.)
    The title of his part, "A city visible but unseen".
    When it is used in the part, it seems to refer to Gibreel’s mental illness: "He thought of himself as moving along a route on which, any moment now, a choice would be offered him, a choice -- the thought formulated itself in his head without any help from him -- between two realities, this world and another that was also right there, visible but unseen."
    But I think this is another way of relating the immigrant experience. The city visible and unseen could be both London and the Indian city some characters were coming from, it’s the case of Hind for instance.
    London is visible, as they now live there, but unseen in the sense that it’s totally foreign to their previous Indian experience.
    And Dhaka for instance is also unseen both for the British (they see the Indian immigrants without understanding the, without seeing them really), and for the immigrants themselves, as their current life is so foreign to them that they may tend to even forget, un-see what they used to know: "Where now was the city she [Hind] knew? Where the village of her youth and the green waterways of home? The customs around which she had built her life were lost, too, or at least were hard to find."
    Sadly, the only way she can keep in touch with her previous city is movies:  "for the endless supply of Bengali and Hindi movies on V C R through which (along with her ever-increasing hoard of Indian movie magazines) she could stay in touch with events in the ‘real world’".
    Everything is foreign: the language and its "alien sounds", the food, the weather!, the pace of life, "The customs around which she had built her life were lost, too, or at least were hard to find. Nobody in this Vilayet had time for the slow courtesies of life back home, or for the many observances of faith."
    The new city is so foreign that it seems to be on another planet: "Zeeny Vakil on that other planet, Bombay, at the far rim of the galaxy".
    And this is pushed even further: the new city is so foreign that Hind calls it "a demon city".
    And for Saladin, London becomes Hell: "Yes: this was Hell, all right. The city of London, transformed into Jahannum, Gehenna, Muspellheim."
    I love the hellish description of London: "From beneath the earth came tremors denoting the passage of huge subterranean worms that devoured and regurgitated human beings, and from the skies the thrum of choppers and the screech of higher, gleaming birds."
    The immigrants had opted for newness, but they get so much more than expected in terms of newness, to the point of losing their identity and being transformed into beasts.

2.    Why is Jumpy Joshi looking after Saladin? Do you think he is feeling guilty and trying to make amends? How does their relationship change during the chapter?

M:    I do think that the main reason is that he feels guilty about his adultery, not just about taking Saladin's wife. Adultery is forbidden in most religions. Even though the two believed Saladin was dead, there remains a part where he might admit that he could have checked better what really happened and probably confesses to himself, that he always wanted Pamela and saw this as his opportunity.
    The return of Saladin does not only intensify this feeling of guilt, it changes their whole lives through the situation Saladin is in.
E:    Not sure here. I see this more in Part VI. Yes, I think Jumpy is feeling guilty, but also scared of this man who seems to be back from the dead. For me, the evolution about their relationship says more about Saladin’s behavior. He seems to be embracing an attitude of submission to fate. Submission is a theme that occurs a few times in the book, obviously as a reference to the meaning of the word ‘islam’.

3.    Why do you think Saladin is upset when he hears that Gibreel is still alive? The author gives the resentment that he didn't help him with the police as a reason but could there be other, underlying ones?
M:    Gibreel and Saladin have a lot more in common than just falling out of the plane. They are both immigrants in England, they both come from India, they both are working in the entertainment industry. Their many dreams give them some sort of idea of their identity and their destiny. Of course, Saladin believes, Gibreel should be on his side, as they are both in the same boat and he should help him when he needs help. So, why doesn't Gibreel help him? And why would one be turned into an angel and the other one into Satan? I'm sure he is wondering why he got the bad part and resents Gibreel for that.
E:    I really have no idea! Besides the obvious fact that he may lose the woman he loves.

4.    Alleluia Cone is another immigrant, or descendent of immigrants. However, she is European and therefore not as easily recognizable as her Indian counterparts. How do you think does this contribute to the story? Do you think the understanding between European and non-European immigrants is larger than between immigrants and non-immigrants? Do you think it is easier for immigrants who look more like someone from the host nation?

M:    As I mentioned before, the story focuses on the way immigrants are treated. They tolerate them but don't want to have anything to do with them, don't want to acknowledge them at all. Also, saying you tolerate immigrants, but otherwise ignoring them means you don't see the racial tensions in your own country.
E:    Alleluia’s experience may help enlarge the story, and show that type of experience is not just specific to Indians arriving in England?
    And I believe that indeed, things get much more complicated if your hair, facial characteristics, and skin color are different from the ones most common in the host nation.

5.    Why do you think God calls himself "the Fellow Upstairs", Gibreel names him "the Guy from Underneath"?

M:    I read somewhere that God gets more and more like the author himself during the novel. If that is the case, he is not sure himself what his role is, both in life as well as in the novel.
    But even if that were not true, we can see this a lot in real life, people don't know whether God is really the "good guy" all the time, whatever is good for one of us, can be extremely bad for the next. All those questions: How can God allow this? Would God tolerate that? They mainly come from our doubts about his existence, our non-belief. Because, if we believe he is there, we don't need any signs.
E:    I can only think of common references to God and the devil.

6.    Why do you think his visions are explained with schizophrenia? Is it the easy way out?

M:    A lot of magic realism seems like visions to me, something that cannot be explained and isn't believed by people who don't have those ideas. I can't follow any of this, I just don't fancy "magic", no matter where someone applies it. Of course, it is always a good way to explain events that cannot otherwise be explained. So, I guess it often is schizophrenia (or another illness) when someone has "visions".
    So, this might already be the explanation to Gibreel's transformation into Gabriel, him believing he is a selected one.
E:    I wonder. Maybe as derision of some religious phenomenon, like so-called prophets who would actually just be people sick in their mind? Which would be fitting with Rushdie’s views of religion.
    And about the way people have been confusing mental illness with possession?
    And also to show how the experience of life as immigrants can be so very different from what they have known before, that this foreignness can lead to a split in personality and to mental illness? "He felt slow, heavy, distanced from his own consciousness."

7.    Do we think the subject of Good and Evil is well explored and explained in this chapter?
M:    I think everything is well explored in the whole book, whether it is always understandable to the ordinary mind (like mine), is another thing. We certainly cannot accuse him of not making an effort in trying to explore the subject.
E:    I don’t think it’s explored at all at the moral level. This is not at all Rushdie’s goal and perspective. This is not a theology book.
    One aspect that struck me is that Gibreel feels he is on a mission to save the devilish city with its bad influence, in reference to Jonah and Nineveh. "So: it was time to show the city a great sight, for when it perceived the Archangel Gibreel standing in all his majesty upon the western horizon, bathed in the rays of the rising sun, then surely its people would be sore afraid and repent them of their sins." This is actually a great scene, so hilarious and sad at the same time.
    So what was definitely a moral mission for Jonah turns out as a huge joke as Gibreel is just a human, and when he thinks he can enlarge himself for all the inhabitants of the city to see, and intervene in their lives through a massive apparition in a street, he ends up stepping in front of a car and be run over!
    Rushdie reduces the role to a cinematic one! There’s so much we could say about this, for so many characters, with so many references to major movies, and I read somewhere that even Gibreel’s and Chamcha’s first experience is even based on the life of two famous Indian actors.

E:    I also noted a couple other things.
    I have mentioned a few times how Rushdie had fun with words. Another way I believe, is the way he turned Saladin into a satyr, while writing his satire. I don’t think this is a coincidence.
    And obviously the play on words between Shaitan/Satan. Just like Seyton, Macbeth’s servant!
    One thing I wonder, in connection with some earlier questions we had about the role of women. How do you understand this about Rekha, "she claimed that his many tribulations had been of her making" ?
And about the importance of Allie, "determined to lead him [Gibreel] back to sanity"?

M:    Emma and I have answered the questions independently and I publish them as they are, that way other bloggers can follow our thoughts. And, same as Emma, I doubt that anything in the novel is a coincidence, every character, every sentence has its reason, of that I am sure.

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 part 1 and 2 by Marianne
- Link to that on Emma's blog
Questions part 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


  1. #1 I like how you took it at the more individual level, and the parallel with children! In the Middle Ages, they were hardly even considered persons.

    #2 Ah yes, makes sense!

    #3 I love your analysis. I only thought of the question as, why is the other alive, not why is the other one turned into a demi-god and me into a satyr.

    #4 Definitely another important example on immigrants

    #5 Actually, I think that with "the Guy from Underneath", Gibreel refers to the devil (hence my answer), because he is not sure of the identity of the apparition, as its looks is different from how the common representations of God:
    "This was not the Almighty he had expected. "Who are you?" he asked with interest...
    "Ooparvala [God]," the apparition answered. "The Fellow Upstairs."
    "How do I know you're not the other One," Gibreel asked craftily,
    "Neechayvala [the devil], the Guy from Underneath?"

    #6 For me, magical realism (at least through my experience of it mostly through Haruki Murakami) is a way of exploring the grey zones between reality and unreality. But Rushdie definitely pushes it here more towards fantasy.

    #7 I wrote, "I don’t think it’s explored at all at the moral level". Actually I'm discovering there are some more explicit moral elements in the next part, though I'm not sure what to make of them!

    As for my question, any idea about the role of women, especially Rekha and Allie?

    You are right, every word seems to be chosen on purpose. I actually feel I understand less and less (besides the obvious themes related to immigration) and that we are only scratching the surface.
    I have been trying to read essays on the work, but they didn't enlighten me too much more!
    It would be neat to have the input from other readers here, but they may be intimidated? Come on, it's only 547 pages, lol

  2. I totally agree with you, especially about the last chapter where you say that you understand less and less. I feel the same. Oh, and I didn't mention it because I thought it was self-explanatory that the "Guy from Underneath" would be the devil.

    There are so many more questions than answers to this book, I will have to come back to some of yours.