- Author: Salman Rushdie (b. 1948)
- Published: 1988
- Publisher: Viking
- Pages: 561
- First Line: ” ‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’ “
- Last Line: ” ‘I’m coming,’ he answered her, and turned away from the view.”
- ML Edition: None
- Film: Are you kidding?
- Acclaim: Whitbread Award; Booker Prize Finalist
- First Read: Fall, 2000
The Novel: This book, the masterpiece of one of the world’s greatest living writer (if not the world’s greatest living writer) presents an interesting catch-22. If you know too little about the Koran, while the book will be fascinating and funny and amazing, there will be stretches where you don’t have the faintest idea what is going on. On the other hand, if you are too much a student of the Koran, there is the chance that you might find those same scenes a blasphemy worthy of murder. But that is part of the power of literature – that you can write something so amazing that people will want to kill you for it.
This novel begins like great ones should – with action, right from the start. There is no long introduction, no preface, no expository prose to set the scene. From the first words, there we are, watching Gibreel and Saladin falling from the sky, dying, only so that they can be born again. And it’s not just the action – it’s the supernatural action all around them that draws us in: “It was the death of God. Or something very like it; for had not the outsize face, suspended over its devotees in the artificial cinematic night, shone like that of some supernal Entity that had its being at least halfway between the mortal and the divine?”
But there is so much more to it than just the verses themselves, than just the arguments between Mahound and his followers, than the fatwa that left Rushdie in hiding for years. If that is all you know about the novel (and that is probably all that most people know about the novel), there is so much more for you to discover.
First of all, this is a novel about India. It deals with their people, with their stars, with the people who live there (” ‘You, who are without shame. As a matter of fact, this may be a national characteristic. I begin to suspect that Indians lack the necessary moral refinement for a true sense of tragedy, and therefore cannot really understand the idea of shame.’”), with the people who want to escape (“It isn’t easy to be a brilliant, successful woman in city where the gods are female but the females are mostly goods.”) and with those who do manage to escape (“Salahuddin Chamchawala had understood by his thirteenth year that he was destined for that cool Vilayet full of the crisp promises of pounds sterling at which the magic billfold had hinted, and he grew increasingly impatient of that Bombay of dust, vulgarity, policemen in shorts, transvestites, movie fanzines, pavement sleepers and the rumoured singing whores of Grant Road who had begun as devotees of the Yellamma cult in Karnataka but ended up here as dancers in the more prosaic temples of the flesh.”).
As you can see, he not just knows his country, he knows how to skewer it with humor. And that may be the one thing about Rushdie that so rarely gets discussed – that he is not only a brilliant writer, but that the is a funny one as well. Among the magical realism (“It is like watching a luminous garden, its growth accelerated many thousands of times, a garden blossoming, flourishing, becoming overgrown, tangled, becoming impenetrable, a garden of dense intertwined chimeras, rivalling in its own incandescent fashion the thornwood that sprang up around the palace of the sleeping beauty in another fairy-tale, long ago.”), among all the controversy, there is a considerable amount of humor: “At the sports centre where he taught martial arts techniques to ever-greater numbers of students, emphasizing the spiritual aspects of the disciplines, much to their amusement (‘Ah so Grasshopper,’ his star pupil Mishal Sufyan would tease him, ‘when honolable fascist swine jump at you flom dark alleyway, offer him teaching of Buddha before you kick him in honolable balls’), – he began to display such passionate intensity that his pupils, realizing that some inner anguish was being expressed, grew alarmed.”
But this is not just a novel about India. It is also about England (“England was a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it.”). More importantly, it is a novel about how Indians react to England. It is here that we find the most amazing scene, Garcia Marquez’s magical realism taken to a whole new level, a darkly humorous look at England the likes of which Kingsley Amis couldn’t have imagined. From those opening pages, we have followed the actions of Gibreel Farishta, the Bollywood actor turned archangel and Saladin Chamcha, the faceless voice actor who can do a thousands impressions so that his listeners never realize who he is, metamorphosed into a goat and back again. We follow them through their struggles with the English, with this insane, yet dull, everyday existence around them. And then Gibreel finally comes to a decision, that the problem isn’t so much the British people themselves, but comes from the island. Or, more precisely, the island’s weather: “Gibreel Farishta floating on his cloud formed the opinion that the moral fuzziness of the English was meteorologically induced. ‘When the day is not warmer than the night,’ he reasoned, ‘when the light is not brighter than the dark, when the land is not drier than the sea, then clearly a people will lose the power to make distinctions, and commence to see everything – from political parties to sexual partners to religious beliefs – as much the same, nothing-to-choose, give-or-take. What folly! For truth is extreme, it is so and not thus, it is him and not her; a partisan matter, not a spectator sport. It is, in brief, heated. City’ he cried, and his voice rolled over the metropolis like thunder, ‘I am going to tropicalize you.” What follows is, in fact, the transformation of England, with amazing descriptions of the world that can be made possible around them (and, with more Rushdie humor, the problems as well: “Disadvantages: cholera, typhoid, legionnaires’ disease, cockroaches, dust, noise, a culture of excess.”).
For Rushdie, a man born in India, who has lived long in England, who has written of both (and of Pakistan, in Shame), is a man perfectly suited to write this novel. To take the literary influence of Garcia Marquez, to tell the story of what faith can do, to give us an understanding of his home – both his birth and his chosen. And yet, in all of this, he can find wonders (“The universe was a place of wonders, and only habituation, the anaesthesia of the everyday, dulled our sight.”) and even more amazing, can find a sense of peace: “To fall in love with one’s father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling; a renewing, life-giving thing, Saladin wanted to say, but did not, because it sounded vampirish; as if by sucking this new life out of his father he was making room, in Changez’s body, for death.” There is more peace in the novel than in those who would seek to prevent it being read. And there is more brilliance in the novel than its critics can ever imagine. It is, quite simply put, the best novel of my lifetime. And those who refuse to read it are those who are missing it.