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Literature / The Satanic Verses

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Flame Bait isn't the word for it...

''To be born again, first you have to die."

Behold, what is probably the most controversial work of literature since The Bible.note 

On a winter's day, two men — Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha — fall out of a hijacked airplane. Miraculously, however, they survive the fall unscathed — except for the fact that both suddenly undergo a strange physical transformation; Gibreel is developing a halo while Saladin is growing horns and hooves...

Published in 1988, The Satanic Verses is the novel that famously led to the infamous "Rushdie Affair," in which writer Salman Rushdie's creative interpretation of Islam caused the Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa against his life, which still stands today. Ironically, this has only increased the book's popularity. Though as noted by Rushdie, ruefully, it meant that the book is more talked about than actually read, and the controversy surrounding it is better-known than the actual contents. The fact that it's a highly convoluted Genre-Busting story with a Mind Screw vibe signifies that it was hardly ever meant as a bestseller book.

At its core, the book actually has three sections:

  • The core is the story of Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, set in 1980s London with flashbacks to Bombay in various post-Independence eras.
  • A second story is that of an Indian village called Titlipur, which concerns a village that suddenly falls under the spell of a possibly magical divine child.
  • The third and most notorious story — the one that brought the book to infamy — is Gibreel Farishta's fevered, parodic, and psychotic re-imagining of selected moments from the Life of Mohammed; these scenes are very much filled with Unreliable Narrator and not intended as straight Historical Fiction.

Despite its title, and despite the fact that Satan is heavily implied to be The Narrator, the book has very little to do with Satan explicitly (the eponymous satanic verses refer to several heretical verses of the Qu'ran). Symbolically, however...

Tropes appearing in The Satanic Verses include:

  • Alliterative Name: Voice actress Mimi Mamoulian and conman Billy Battuta.
  • Archangel Gabriel: One of the main characters is based on him (Gibreel, obviously, is the Arabic version of the name Gabriel).
  • Arc Words: "History".
    • Also, "To be born again, first you have to die."
  • Back Story: Everyone. Even minor characters are given multiple-page-long backstories. (The main characters' often take up an entire chapter.)
  • Big Red Devil: Saladin Chamcha looks like one, but his actions are rarely diabolical.
  • Blessed with Suck: Gibreel, though already handsome and overflowing with animal magnetism, when he gets his halo, his angelic aura makes people fall over themselves trying to get his attention. The downside is that he starts to develop what would be diagnosed as schizophrenia, and hallucinates other people and places (like the narrative of Mahound's life, and other, more fantastical events). Chamcha, meanwhile, becomes progressively more goat-like, with no direct upsides to boot. As how people react to his appearance: surprisingly few people fear him for it, most are inexplicably passive towards it, and many are actually sympathetic.
    • During Chamcha's stay in the Vakils' attic, an extant activist group for immigrant rights and a satanic "cult" pops up based on rumors that the devil is walking the streets of London. Both were counterculture enough to begin to mesh together, and the activist group started to adopt neon halos and horns to identify themselves and show solidarity for the outcasts of London society. Like Chamcha, for example.
  • Bollywood: Farishta is a famous Bollywood actor and there are several in-jokes and Expy to other real-life stars. The career of Farishta and his accident is based on the legendary Hindi film actor Amitabh Bachchan who nearly died on the set of one of his films and it prompted similar mass hysteria and outpouring of public grief from political and religious figures.
  • Broken Pedestal: Mahound for Baal, after Mahound becomes The Fundamentalist and Baal sees the cracks in his religious arguments.
  • Cosmic Plaything: Both main characters seem to be at the mercy of divine intervention.
  • Doorstopper: Over 600 pages.
  • Evil Counterpart: Saladin looks like the evil one. But really, he and Gibreel aren't so different. They are also Foils. This is actually the theme of the entire book, whether there is any real difference between God and the Devil.
  • Foreign Culture Fetish: Chamcha seems to have this for English culture, though it's not entirely unjustified.
  • The Fundamentalist: Quite a few The Imam, Ayesha of Titlipur, and eventually, Mahound.
  • Gaslighting: Saladin Chamcha pulls a massive dick move in the final section of the present-day narrative. He uses his skills as a voice actor to con Gibreel into thinking that Allie is cheating on him, driving an already crazy Gibreel over the edge and becoming a murderer who finally kills himself.
  • Gold and White Are Divine: Following her revelation, the Titlipur Ayesha's hair turns a gold-flecked white and she is surrounded at all times by golden butterflies.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Saladin Chamcha's feelings towards Gibreel in a nutshell. He's a classically trained English actor who likes True Art and hates junk, but Gibreel is a Bollywood superstar who pretty much likes its very trashy and cheap culture. Saladin has assimilated into London while Gibreel is pretty much a beloved Hindi movie star (and essentially treated like a God there). Saladin is always conscious of being an outsider in England despite his Immigrant Patriotism while Gibreel has a lifelong get-out-of-jail-free card more or less.
  • Historical Domain Character: Mahound, better known as Mohammed.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Ironically, Mahound, the parody version of Mohammed, is actually very much a respectful portrayal. He is shown as wise, compassionate, forgiving, peaceful, and friendly. He is genuinely conflicted about his visions and he dislikes corruption. He genuinely wants to help people. In every sense, a wise religious leader. Rushdie is respectful whenever he actually enters his vision and portrays him. It's actually one of the most respectful portrayals of the figure in the English language and not a simple anti-religious caricature, but good luck telling anybody else that.
  • Horned Humanoid: Saladin Chamcha grows horns (periodically).
  • Immigrant Patriotism: Saladin feels this way towards England, pre-and-post transformation. Before, he was highly conservative and pretty much an "Uncle Tom" type immigrant, but after experiencing racism post-transformation, he becomes less conservative but still retains his love for English traditions while being skeptical of the fellow migrant community who help him out.
  • Magical Realism: To a great extent.
  • Man of a Thousand Voices: Saladin Chamcha is a professional voice actor with classical training; he generally voices for commercials, jingles, and radio spots. This becomes a Chekhov's Gun when he uses it to gaslight Gibreel to full insanity, though he was halfway there already.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane:
    • Gibreel's visions and psychotic episodes. There are frequent disconnects between reality and his beliefs, but he does pull off a real miracle...
    • Also, Allie's encounter with the ghost of Maurice Wilson atop Everest, which can be interpreted as a supernatural experience or as a hallucination brought on by oxygen starvation.
    • Allie's crippled feet are suddenly healed after she breaks up with Gibreel. It could be a coincidence, or there could be something deeper at play.
    • Gibreel's visions of Rekha are particularly bizarre. Even if it isn't just a hallucination, it's unclear just what the specter is; Gibreel himself thinks it can't possibly be Rekha herself, as it doesn't talk like her and displays knowledge she never had. By extension, this calls into question Gibreel's assertion in the ending that Rekha murdered Allie, not him.
    • Ayesha leading the Titlipur villagers into the Arabian Sea. Everyone except the protagonist, even former skeptics, assert that the seas parted and everyone walked to safety, but to any outside observer, it simply looks like they walked under the waves and drowned. The villagers are never seen again, so it's impossible to be certain of anything.
  • Meaningful Name: The main characters generally:
    • Gibreel Farishta. Gibreel is the Arabic word for Gabriel and Farishta means angel with wings. In Hindi slang, Farishta is used as a loan-word to signify "movie star", so essentially hanging a lampshade on Gibreel's success as a Bollywood icon.
    • Saladin Chamcha. Saladin is of course Richard the Lionheart's counterpart during the Crusades. But Chamcha is again Hindi slang for "lackey". Signifying how Saladin is seen by Indians from home and abroad as someone who assimilated into the "enemy's" culture and his own insecurity at being "the other" in England, Saladin to Richard.
  • Mind Screw: Good luck trying to piece together the complex mosaic of interconnected fantasy-and-realistic fiction.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Mishal and Anahita Sufyan think that hosting a man-devil hybrid in their home is "wicked", in contrast to their mother's terror. They even begin speculating on the possibility that he has super powers.
  • Offing the Offspring: Rekha Merchant pushes her children ahead of her when she commits suicide by jumping off a building.
  • One-Steve Limit: Hoooo boy is this trope ever averted. Not only do some characters and key geographical locations share the same name, or deviations of the same name, they also intersect and ultimately intertwine with each other.
  • Pop-Cultural Osmosis: More people have heard about the blasphemous controversy around this book than actually read it. Including many Muslim fundamentalists who want author Salman Rushdie dead.
  • Switching P.O.V./Rotating Protagonist: There's an easily identifiable, very snarky person that's relaying the story to us as though he/she/it were a close personal friend, but we also have occasional leaps in the point of view, sometimes within several passages of a single chapter, to several of the main characters for the section. The most glaring example would be in part 6, Return to Jahilia, where, starting on page 375, the point of view briefly, and rather unexpectedly, jumps from an elderly Baal reuniting with Salman to "And Gibreel dreamed this:", back to Salman, relaying what has happened during his service during Mahound's 25-year exile.
  • Self-Deprecation: One of the late disciples of Mahound, Salman, shares the same first name as the author, Salman Rushdie. On page 103, Abu Simbel, the Grandee of Jahilia, comments on this:
    Abu Simbel approaches this area, halts a little way off. In the enclosure is a small group of men. The water-carrier Khalid is there, and some sort of bum from Persia by the outlandish name of Salman...
  • Shout-Out: Rushdie's books are usually Reference Overdosed so there's a lot on hand. Specific ones are Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, especially in how it uses a fantastic mythological story alongside a contemporary narrative.
  • Super-Power Meltdown: Saladin bursts into flames now and then.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: Gibreel, during his psychotic episodes.
  • World of Pun: Given Salman Rushdie's obvious love of wordplay, it almost goes without saying. One of the best ones sneaks up on the reader several hundred pages into the novel when at a party, Gibreel thinks of Allie, who has previously been described as cool and aloof, as his "ice queen Cone."