Even-numbered (early seventh century) chapters (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Abu Simbel (ah-BEW SIHM-behl), the leader of the seventh century Jahilia (pre-Islamic Arabia), who appears to Farishta in a dream in which Abu attempts to bargain with Mahound, offering to accept the new monotheism if Mahound will grant divine status to three local goddesses.
Mahound (mah-HEWND), a pejorative Christian variation of Mohammad, who appears in Farishta’s dream in which Farishta, disguised as an angel, counsels him to accept Abu Simbel’s offer. Mahound finally concludes, however, that the concession is the work of the satanic Shaitan and the revelatory verses are satanic in origin. Mahound completes his conquest of Jahilia, ordering the closing of the brothel and the execution of its prostitutes.
Ayesha (i-EE-shah), a young woman who leads a group of pilgrims to the sea and finally to Mecca. An angel had told her that the sea would part. When it failed to do so, several of the pilgrims drowned.
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The Satanic Verses (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
While The Satanic Verses received only the customary mix of enthusiastic and tepid reviews after its British publication in 1988, the American issue in early 1989 created an international cause celebre. Some rumbles, it is true, had been heard earlier, when the book was banned in various Islamic countries, but in February of 1989 Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini of Iran sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy and urged faithful Muslims to execute him. This announcement and its aftermath dominated news accounts the world over. Thus a novel, which few had read, and its author, whose name not many would have recognized earlier, set astir a controversy often more characterized by political and religious implications than literary ones. Muslims at home and abroad staged demonstrations that too often turned into riots and brought about deaths. Copies of the book were burned, American and British publishers and bookstores intimidated, diplomatic relations shaken. Rushdie went into hiding. Major world writers and others, appalled by such a threat, staged readings of the novel, wrote endless articles, and formed counterdemonstrations. All the while demand for The Satanic Verses soared.
Although public interest in the affair gradually diminished, the eventual fate of the book—and its author—may not be settled for some time to come. The...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Bostan. Fictional Air India flight from Bombay to London that is blown up by Sikh terrorists over the English coastline. This airplane, named after one of the Islamic gardens of paradise, is the novel’s opening setting, acting as a metaphor for the migrants’ movement between cultures. With the onset of the hijacking, the flight gradually loses its empirical reality, launching Gibreel and Chamcha into a world of illusion. The journey initiates their metamorphoses into their angelic and demoniac incarnations, which solidify in the home of Rosa Diamond, an octogenarian Englishwoman who repeatedly sees the specters of Norman invaders from nine hundred years earlier. These two locations mark the main characters’ entry into England in their metamorphosed states as desirable and undesirable immigrants.
*London. Great Britain’s capital city has two distinct faces in the novel. Superficially, it is the capital of British culture and civilization, the dream destination of immigrants from former colonies. As an educated, financially secure immigrant, Chamcha sees London as prosperous and accommodating, a place where he is accepted as a proper Englishman with an English wife, a successful career in television, and a mansion in Notting Hill. This rosy veneer, however, belies the city’s dark underside, characterized by racial discrimination and police brutality.
When Chamcha lands in...
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Britain in the 1980s
Rushdie was living in London when he wrote The Satanic Verses, and 1980s London is also the main historical context of the novel. Throughout the 1980s, the conservative Margaret Thatcher was prime minister of England. Known for her policies of reducing government spending on everything except defense, as well as privatizing government-controlled industries, Thatcher was ideologically akin to the American President Ronald Reagan.
The early 1980s in England were marked by rising unemployment, but Thatcher’s government remained popular and won the 1983 election largely because of Britain’s involvement in the Falklands War. Argentina, which had long claimed ownership over the British territorial islands on its shores, sent forces to the island in 1982, and Thatcher responded by sending a British naval task force that defeated the Argentines.
After the 1983 election, Thatcher presided uncompromisingly over a series of domestic disturbances beginning with the Miner’s Strike of 1984–85. Because the government announced that it was closing twenty large mines, and because unions were concerned about Thatcher’s actions to reduce their power, the unsuccessful strike began and went on for nearly a year amidst police violence and intimidation. Meanwhile, in the fall of 1985, a series of confrontations between white police officers and predominantly black youths began in London and Birmingham....
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The literary device of “magic realism,” or the use of supernatural elements within an otherwise realistic narrative, is one of the most important stylistic aspects of The Satanic Verses. Gibreel’s transformation into an angel, and Saladin’s into a goat-man/devil, are examples of this device, as are other impossible or magical events such as Rekha’s appearance on a flying carpet and Gibreel’s trumpet of fire.
Magic realism, which is popular among Latin American postmodern writers such as Gabriel García Márquez, is useful in several main ways. First, it allows the author great flexibility in elaborating on the meaning of the story; by imbuing Gibreel and Saladin with magical characteristics, for example, Rushdie is able to emphasize much more directly and physically how and why they are connected to ideas of good and evil. Also, magic realism is a useful authorial technique for challenging the reader’s assumptions and encouraging him/her to think about the themes of the work in a new and different way. Finally, the use of supernatural occurrences can make a work appear to take the form of an epic tale, since classic and religious epics often include supernatural events and deities. Because it challenges its readers’ understandings of conventional reality, and because it seems to read like a classic or religious text, The Satanic Verses is able to more convincingly address ambitious...
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As in Midnight's Children (1981) and Shame (1983), Rushdie resorts to a variety of narrative techniques to present his story. At times he parodies the excessive, artificial, melodramatic, and garish aspects of popular Indian films; on other occasions he adopts the self-reflexive strategies of the metafictionist.
Characteristically, The Satanic Verses blends straightforward narrative with authorial commentary. Gibreel's visions are presented as parables or allegories and have the feel of dreams, while the frame story of the Indian star and Saladin is presented with a mixture of fantasy and realism. Readers who are familiar with the style of Rushdie's earlier novels will not be surprised to find in The Satanic Verses the same kind of slap-stick, comic excess, and satiric energy that he has previously used. But they may be unprepared for the simple realism of this novel's ending and the pathos of the deathbed scene.
Linguistically, Rushdie once again shows himself to be endlessly inventive. The novel is filled with puns, metaphors, and exact mimicry of different voices and dialects.. Rushdie manages to move between Gibreel's visions and the present-day world with consummate skill. Nevertheless, there are stretches of the novel, especially near the middle when Gibreel and Saladin are trying to situate themselves Fakrul Alam in London, which are less than satisfy.
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Compare and Contrast
1980s: Margaret Thatcher, known for her inflexible, conservative beliefs, is prime minister of Britain.
Today: Tony Blair, the leader of the Labor Party who pioneered the “New Labor” movement, embracing a degree of privatization, has been the British prime minister since 1997.
1980s: Militant Islamic fundamentalism is gathering force in the Arab world. The United States government is providing arms and training to Osama bin Laden and his group of Muslim fighters in the Afghan War against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Today: Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Western countries have adopted new attitudes towards foreign policy, partly to attempt to address Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organizations.
1980s: Jim Henson’s Muppets, which satirize politicians and celebrities, are trendy and popular in the Western entertainment world. Bombay’s “Bollywood” film scene has an enormous number of devoted viewers in India.
Today: Animated satires like The Simpsons are one of the most popular forms of television entertainment in Britain and the United States. Although Western entertainment is more accessible in India than it was twenty years ago, Bollywood continues to be extremely popular.
1980s: Salman Rushdie goes into hiding after the Iranian fatwa condemns him to death.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the events following the publication of The Satanic Verses. Then, discuss some of the things the episode reveals about the various communities involved (such as fundamentalist Islamic groups, the Western and Indian governments, the news media, and the international community of authors) and the attitudes of each of these groups towards literature.
Examine the many magical and fantastical elements of Rushdie’s novel. Why do Gibreel and Saladin assume supernatural qualities? How does the magic in the novel relate to its main themes? Choose one magical motif in particular, such as Gibreel’s angelic qualities or the appearance of God/Satan in the novel, and discuss how this motif is important to the meaning of the work as a whole.
The Satanic Verses contains numerous allusions to political and cultural events and situations in England. In what ways is Rushdie a political novelist? How does he approach political themes, and what angle does he take? How does he go about evoking the cultural atmosphere of London, and what is his perspective? Examine his treatment of the condition of immigrants to the United Kingdom, and discuss the main points he is trying to make about English culture and politics.
Research why sections of the novel were offensive to Muslims, namely the chapters “Mahound” and “Return to Jahilia.” What aspects of these chapters were particularly offensive? Why are they considered...
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Rushdie alludes throughout the novel to numerous fictional works, leaving no doubt about the genealogy of The Satanic Verses. The 9th century The Thousand and One Nights continues to be a major influence, especially in the way Gibreel's dreams are presented. The self-consciousness of Sterne and the "magical" realism of Garcia Marquez continue to be in evidence.
But a few writers are acknowledged as influences implicitly or explicitly for the first time. The most prominent of them is Dickens, and English critics have been quick to point out the deliberateness with which Rushdie invokes Our Mutual Friend (1865). In his Newsweek essay, Rushdie also mentions Blake's "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell" (1790) as one of the formative influences on his effort to fictionalize "the inter-penetration of good and evil." In this same article, Rushdie credits the Russian novelist Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita (1967) as the work which inspired him to write about devilish visitations. The Satanic Verses also has affiliations with the tales of Argentina's Jorge Louis Borges. And as has been pointed out above, Rushdie intentionally mimics the outlandish style of popular Indian cinema.
Finally, the multiple endings given to the Rosa Diamond episode affiliate that part of the novel with the experimental fiction of John Fowles, especially his celebrated novel, The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969).
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What Do I Read Next?
Midnight’s Children (1981) is Rushdie’s compelling novel about Indian history and identity. Focusing on the story of Saleem Sinai, who was born at the moment of Indian independence, the work includes elements of magic realism and alludes to classic texts, including the Christian Bible and Arabian Nights.
Nicholas Mosley’s Hopeful Monsters (1990), winner of the Whitbread Prize in 1991, is the story of two European intellectuals and their journey around the world as they become involved in the scientific, political, and religious controversies of the era.
Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991 (1992) is a collection of seventy-five articles ranging from political to religious to artistic subjects, and it includes two of Rushdie’s key articles in response to the circumstances following his publication of The Satanic Verses.
Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901) is the classic colonial British novel about the orphaned Kim O’Hara and his experience growing up in India.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Parrinder, Patrick, “Let’s Get the Hell Out of Here,” in London Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 17, September 29, 1988, pp. 11–13.
Rushdie, Salman, The Satanic Verses, Viking, 1988.
Wallace, Charles P., and Dan Fisher, “Khomeini Says Author of Satanic Verses Should Be Killed,” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1989, p. 13.
Wood, Michael, “The Prophet Motive,” in the New Republic, Vol. 200, No. 10, March 6, 1989, pp. 28–30.
Cavanaugh, Christine, “Auguries of Power: Prophecy and Violence in The Satanic Verses,” in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 393–404.
Cavanaugh’s article discusses the theological context of Rushdie’s novel and its commentary about how violence is related to prophecy.
Erickson, John, Islam and Postcolonial Narrative, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 129–60.
The chapter on Salman Rushdie in Erickson’s scholarly work discusses The Satanic Verses in terms of its depiction of Islam’s relationship with the West.
Pipes, Daniel, The Rushdie Affair: The Novel, the Ayatollah, and the West, Carol Publishing Group, 1990.
Pipes provides a study of the circumstances surrounding the publication of Rushdie’s novel, including an analysis of Rushdie’s...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Brennan, Timothy. Salman Rushdie and the Third World: Myths of the Nation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Discusses both the strengths and weaknesses of Rushdie’s cosmopolitanism and the ways in which his fiction draws on Third World materials but does not adequately represent Third World concerns.
Harrison, James. Salman Rushdie. New York: Twayne, 1992. A good general introduction to Rushdie; separate chapters on the novels, Rushdie’s biography, and India.
MacDonogh, Steve, ed. The Rushdie Letters: Freedom to Speak, Freedom to Write. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. In addition to the letters to Rushdie written by twenty-seven prominent writers, the volume includes essays by Rushdie and Tom Stoppard and Carmel Bedford’s compilation, “Fiction, Fact, and the Fatw.”
Rushdie, Salman. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin, 1991. Several essays deal specifically with The Satanic Verses and the fatw; many others, no less relevant, deal with various postcolonial topics.
Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993. Although it includes no extended discussion of Rushdie and his novel, Said’s book is required reading for anyone hoping to understand The Satanic Verses in the...
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