An airliner, blown up by quarreling hijackers, disintegrates 29,000 feet above the English Channel. Out of a cloud of shattered metal, seats, bodies, landing cards and throw-up bags, two figures plummet through space.
One, in gaudy pop-star costume, clowns and capers extravagantly as he falls, singing a crudely improvised song. The other, suit jacket buttoned, bowler hat in place, falls primly head-down, reciting a verse by the 18th-Century English poet James Thomson.
Gibreel, the extravagant, and Saladin, the contained, will land unscathed and transformed. God, who appears at one point in the shape of a bald old man in glasses, and Salman Rushdie, who is writing this book, have spared them and transformed them for a purpose.
The two principal figures in Rushdie's exuberant and phantasmagoric novel are twin poles in his vision of India's character and destiny. Both are actors--Rushdie's India still seeks its authenticity--but of very different kinds.
Gibreel is a vastly popular Indian film star, playing gods and princes in costume romances that have a huge market among his countrymen and none anywhere else. Born in the slums, he is all spontaneity and roots, and utterly trapped among them.
Saladin is completely Westernized. He has his own success, and it is in London. On the other hand, it is humiliating. He does voices of all kinds for television cartoon commercials. His singing capsule is a wonder. His face, of course, is commercially unacceptable. He has joined the great Western metropolis--such as it has shrunk to in the '80s--but in a foolish, soul-destroying role.
Through the picaresque adventures--separate though intertwined--of Gibreel and Saladin after their magical rescue, and through various extravagant tales that waft among the main stories, Rushdie conjures the Indian dilemma.
Gibreel will swell to celestial proportions; he will become the unbounded mythical figures he plays, and he will go bad. Saladin will be transformed out of civility into a mythical, smoke-blowing demon before returning, chastened and more open, to his own people. The author, who has divided his life between India and Britain, has a divided lack of answers. The way into the world lies neither in clinging to roots nor in cutting them.
Saladin, who will spend much of the novel as an eight-foot-tall devil, with a goat's body and carrion-breath, remains largely hidden in a London bed-and-breakfast run by some Indian friends. He emerges eventually, restored to his natural shape. Rushdie sends him back to India at the end, and makes him a rather flaccidly written symbol of attempted reconciliation.
He is drawn more sharply, in flashback, as an aspiring Brit. At boarding school, he is confronted by a kipper, which takes him 90 minutes to eat because of the bones. "The thought occurred to him that he had been taught an important lesson. England was a peculiar-tasting smoked fish full of spikes and bones, and nobody would ever tell him how to eat it. He discovered that he was a bloody-minded person."
Saladin's well-bred, left-wing actress-wife is an equally sharp portrait of English nerves and inhibitions. "Every moment she spent in the world was full of panic so she smiled and smiled and maybe once a month she locked the door and shook and felt like a husk, like an empty peanut shell, a monkey without a nut."
If the fastidious Saladin has to confront his animal nature and go through a goat stage, Gibreel's destiny is loftier, and worse. Upon impact, he becomes or imagines he becomes, an archangel: Gabriel, in fact.
In London, Gabriel/Gibreel--pursues Alleluia Cone, a stereotypical Indian's blond dream. She has climbed Mt. Everest, and she looks like a vision of Nordic beauty--Ice-Queen Cone, Rushdie calls her--but she is Jewish, in fact, and warmhearted.
Archangels are beyond her, though; and London is beyond Gibreel, who makes a mess of things when he successively tries to convert Londoners by love, and inflame them to riot. The riot comes--blacks and East Indians--but it's not quite what Gibreel had in mind. His only real success, in fact, is setting off a heat wave on the theory that this will cure British "moral fuzziness."
"When the day is not warmer than the night," he reflects, "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."
Gibreel does not confine himself to London. He ranges back to his Islamic past to take a hand in the life and works of the Prophet Mohammed. The Mohammed sections of the book--Rushdie gives him the thinly disguised name of Mahound--is fascinating and tightly written in a book that otherwise tends to sprawl and get out of hand.
It is a decidedly revisionist portrait. Mahound, also called "the businessman," is written as part charlatan; as a figure willing to compromise his vision when it seems advisable.
To win over the town of Jahlia, for example, with its 360 gods, he agrees to let it keep three. Later, he revokes this concession, claiming it was inspired by the Devil, who has usurped the form of his normal channel to the Divine.
This channel, in fact, is none other than Gibreel/Gabriel. The actor notes that even as archangel he has an actor's part. It is Mahound's lines--adjusted for convenience--that he speaks.
The Mahound episodes make a mordant and engrossing tale. They also got the book banned in India and Pakistan and inspired the storm of protests, along with threats to the author, that have erupted among Islamic groups around the world.
Gibreel presides archangelically over a gentler tale. It is the story of Mirza, a modern Indian gentleman, whose wife is inspired by a magical waif named Ayesha, to walk to Mecca. The entire village follows her, and Mirza, protesting, drives behind in his air-conditioned Mercedes, urging her in vain to get in.
The story is wry and comical and told with the greatest delicacy. Its mysterious end is suddenly and strongly moving.
Perhaps it is the best single thing in the book. Rushdie's portraits of Saladin and Gibreel are splendid; and his use of them as symbols is wildly appropriate. He gets entangled, however, in the lavishness of his conception.
There is, for one thing, altogether too much plot in the book, particularly in the London sections; and too many characters are drawn spectacularly but hastily. Alleluia, for instance, claims a lot of symbolic and emotional space but quite fails to inhabit it. Valance, a mod impresario in London, is a glib and careless caricature.
Rushdie's antic imagination and his tenderness shine through the book, but at times they are overpowered. A lilting, occasionally prophetic vision is blurred by an excess of ornament; much of it gemstones, some of it paste.