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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Unforgivable Verses BY BRYCE MILLIGAN THE SATANIC VERSES By Salman Rushdie New York: Viking, 1989 547 pages, $19.95 WHETHER OR NOT novelist Salman Rushdie now holds the world record for the highest price ever put upon the head of a single human being, he will very shortly claim a primacy of another sort. Millions of curious yet unsuspecting readers will receive their baptism into the world of post-modernist fiction at the hands of Rushdie. His work will be read and puzzled over for months by readers who would have otherwise never recognized the author’s name. Such an irony will hardly be lost upon the mind that created The Satanic Verses, itself a masterpiece of interwoven ironies. Another irony that occurs in this contemporary international morality play unfolding before us is that, no matter how many people will eventually read the book, a very small number actually have read the book. Thus a full discussion of The Satanic Verses seems in order, as it will be a while yet before most people will be able to lay hands on the actual book. To begin with the title, The Satanic Verses refers to an incident in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Early in the creation of the Qur’an, the Prophet acknowledged the reality and power of three female deities, whose relationship to Allah was unclear. Later, Muhammad repudiated this in favor of the absolute singularity of Allah and the essentially male orientation of Allah’s angels. The earlier revelation, he said, had been inspired by the devil, Shaitan, and the passage was excised from the Qur’an. Even prophets can be deceived. The Satanic Verses uses this incident in two ways. As a purely narrative element, the incident is retold as the central event in a vision experienced by one of the major characters, Gibreel Farishta. Even the Ayatollah might not have objected to recounting this story in a novel had not Bryce Milligan is a poet and novelist living in San Antonio. Rushdie so graphically called into question the divine, satanic, or lunatic origins of all of Muhammad’s revelations. Late in the book there is a passage in which 12 prostitutes in a brothel assume the identities of the 12 wives of the prophet \(whom the This impropriety played its part in the Islamic censure of The Satanic Verses, but it was undoubtedly the questioning of the divine origins of the Qur’an which put Rushdie’s neck on the line. Of course, the use of the name Mahound is equally scandalous. It was the Christian Crusaders’ term of contempt for Muhammad, and became synonymous with the devil in later literature. But the novel is not limited in its scope to religious parodies, and employs much more broadly the incident’s underlying thematic statement. The interplay of images and linguistic parallels in the book is at once dense and lighthearted. The language dances while reeling off delirious incantations, images, names, and ideas resurfacing sometimes 50 pages later in the narrative giving the book a truly scriptural tone, though absolutely in keeping with the nature of the incident of the “Satanic verses”: This is truth, we are told and made to believe it, then assailed for our credulity. No this is truth did you not see the flaw of the former revelation? The plot revolves around two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. As the book opens, both are falling through the sky, from a height of 29,002 feet, after the Air India jumbo jet Bostan has been blown up by Sikh terrorists. True to the tenor of the tale, the fact that both survive the fall into the English Channel is one of the book’s lesser miracles. Both men are feeling their pasts. Gibreel Farishta for 15 years the adored godstar of Indian “theologicals,” or religious movies disappears from India leaving a note which reads “We are creatures of air, Our roots in dreams and clouds, reborn in flight. Goodbye.” Gibreel, a Muslim. had played the Hindu gods themselves, and for many of his fans, “the boundary separating the performer from his roles had long ago ceased to exist.” His flight prompted suicides and national mourning. When he vanished, even his images faded from ads, from book covers, from the screen itself. Like a “star gone supernova,” Rushdie says. “It was the death of God. Or something very like it. . . .” Gibreel had recently suffered from a mysterious life-threatening disease, during which all India mourned and prayed. At his equally mysterious recovery, all India rejoiced. Except Gibreel. He had come face to face with death, but he had not come face to face with Allah or Shiva or anyone else of a divine nature. The one-time from his deathbed a confirmed atheist. To prove this to himself, he goes out at once and stuffs himself with pork. If there is a God, he figures, this is when the lightning bolt will strike. There is no lightning, but there is retribution. He begins having waking dreams in which he becomes his namesake, the angel Gibreel. Born Ismail Najmuddin, his mother’s pet name for him was farishta meaning “angel.” The name Gibreel was his own choice. Gibreel dreams a city built entirely of sand burnished sand, beaten sand, glassified sand, where even the donkey carts go forward on “smooth silicon wheels.” Its name is Jahalia, a place of many gods, many goddesses, and many earthly pleasures. Water is at once essential and anathema, for the city dissolves at its touch. The oasis of Zamzam lies at its center, next to the House of the Black Rock, where the angel Hagar and her infant Ismail to safety after they had been abandoned by Ibrahim. In Gibreel’s dream, businessman-turnedprophet Mahound seeks out revelation. Demands revelation. Essentially forces revelation out of the cosmos. The words seem to come through Mahound into the mouth of Gibreel, who recites them back to Mahound, who recites them to his followers as the Word of Allah. Mahound’s message is clear and singular there is one God. This is blasphemy among the multiplicity of Jahilia’s temples. The message demands Submission, which sounds like lunacy to the licentious revelers of the city. Mahound demands constant 16 MARCH 24, 1989