When Pen Meets Sword : A Classic Antagonism Feeds the Uproar Over 'Satanic Verses'

Richard Stern is a novelist and critic. His most recent collection of short stories, "Noble Rot," has just been published by Grove Press

Friday, Feb. 17, 1989. Another day on this extraordinary planet. That planetary comedian, the daily paper, reports that the terrorist bomb that brought the Pan Am jet down over Scotland was hidden in a radio-cassette recorder. President Bush, informed that he's the No. 1 resident of the world's murder capital, says he hopes that the press will do something about it. (Not report the murders?) In Iran, India and Pakistan, streets are filled with shouting marchers, some burning effigies of a book that they haven't read, calling for the death of its author of whom they know next to nothing. The head of the Iranian state has sentenced both the author and his publishers to death, and supporters have offered millions of dollars to his murderers. In the calmer tradition of prudence, the French publisher has withdrawn a French translation from his list, and the leading American book chain has withdrawn it from its shelves.

Books.

Every once in a while a reminder comes from the precincts of craziness that books have power. It's not only that "in the beginning was the Word" but that "in the end, everything comes down to the word" (Mallarme). Most of the civilized world consists of children of the book--that is, those who live in societies shaped by more or less sacred text, Bibles, scriptures, constitutions, declarations, sayings, even on occasion works of economic and political analysis ("Das Capital," "Mein Kampf"). In some traditions these texts guaranteethe right to advance a search for truth; in others the text itself is the truth, and anything that doesn't conform to it is blasphemous. When the great library of Alexandria was burned, the defense was that it wasn't needed: The books in it either repeated the sacred text and were redundant or contradicted it and were evil.

The Western tradition, stained and deformed as it has been from time to time, is one that welcomes new as well as old and renewed truths. It takes the chance that awful books come into the world so that good ones will as well. But this tradition is rich also in censorship and banning, in indices of prohibited books, even in book burnings. Many of the world's most beautiful and moving books have been burned, hauled into law courts, censored, forbidden. Scarcely a day goes by without some announcement of outrage at a book or play. Indeed, in Friday's paper there was an obituary of Austrian novelist and playwright Thomas Bernhard, whose novel "Woodcutters" was banned and whose play "Hero Square" was denounced as "an insult to the Austrian people" by Austrian President Kurt Waldheim.

Books are feared especially by those who can barely read or understand them. Politicians use this fear for their own purposes. They play on a few words that constitute, say, a pledge of allegiance or, as in the case of Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses," a whole book.

What is this book that outrages so many millions of non-readers?

First of all, it is a work of fiction, a work that deliberately, artistically, separatesitself from the world of factual report and factual history. The whole idea of fiction is to create a world insulated from the ordinary pain and pleasure of the actual world so that a special kind of intense pleasure may be derived from its playful inventiveness, deeper penetration, loftier speculation, elaborate and beautiful symmetry. Like a church or theater, it constitutes a kind of sacred precinct where human beings act and think in special, even specially holy, ways.

Rushdie's book "The Satanic Verses" is a huge and challenging one. It begins like a newspaper, with the terrorist bombing of a plane over the British Isles. The bombs are concealed not in a cassette player but in the babylike bundle that a woman passenger is carrying. Two men survive the explosion. One is Gibreel Farishta, a Bombay film star who has made as many as 11 films at once, playing all sorts of roles, human and divine. The other is Saladin Chamcha, a British-educated radio star whose remarkable voice has impersonated as many as 44 characters in one drama.

These artists of appearance and metamorphosis now change again--one along angelic, the other along satanic lines. The book is made up of their adventures, affairs, fantasies, dreams; of the people they know, the people who have given birth to them, the people they confront. The texture is composed of the gold and dross of East and West, present and past, rock lyrics, commercial jingles, great poems, sacred texts. Its mock-epic style is free-wheeling, elusive, playful. Readers of Rabelais, "Tristram Shandy," "Ulysses," "The Recognitions," "Gravity's Rainbow," "USA," "One Hundred Years of Solitude," "Hopscotch" and many other books will recognize it.

Many Westerners will miss the Eastern allusions. The book is full of the devices of the "Arabian Nights" and the "Panchatantra" and references to sacred texts, particularly the text dictated to the remarkable prophet who in meditation on Mount Hira in the month of Ramadan in the Christian year 610 heard the voice that told him to "Recite ( qara ' a --hence, Qur ' an , Koran) thou in the name of the Lord who created man out of clots of blood." At one point Gibreel, about to lose his mind, dreams that he's the archangel Gabriel who preachesto a businessman-turned-prophet named Mahound (pejorative Christian name for Mohammed meaning devil). Mahound's gospel is "one one one," and it's preached to the people of a city built on sand. He also preaches about three pagan goddesses, whom he later repudiates. The repudiation of these Satanic verses is praised by his water carrier Khalid. "You've brought us the Devil himself, so we can witness the workings of the Evil One and his overthrow by the Right. You have enriched our faith." Mahound thinks, "Bringing you the Devil. Yes, that sounds like me." Gibreel also dreams that a scribe named Salman takes down the Revelation from the prophet's lips but then purposely, half-playfully, half-daringly alters it. When he reads the altered message back to the prophet, the prophet nods and thanks him politely.

This is some of what has aroused the arousable. Rushdie plays with sacred text as he plays with many of the shibboleths and givens of East and West.

Yet is the author of such fiction a heretic, a "mercenary of colonialism" who should be hunted down like a rabid dog and done to death? Radio Iran announces that suicide squads have embarked on a hunt for him.

The history of imaginative art has seen collision after collision between the real and the imaginary worlds. Perhaps the reason is that the same words are used for the worlds of fact and fiction, and this confuses simple people. And, too, for we shall not be ingenuous, the people who write novels are also people who read the newspapers, who are enraged and enchanted by the world, who go to their typewriters and processors with ideas, images and feelings generated in no small part by what they have seen and felt about the actual world. Rushdie is himself an ambitious man of strong political beliefs.At a P.E.N. conference two years ago he challenged American writers to take on the task of discriminating "America the beautiful from America the terrible." For this he was rebuked by Saul Bellow: "The writer doesn't have tasks. He has inspiration."

Salman Rushdie's book is better than his political self. It seems to me a work of genuine inspiration. It is fiery, playful, beautiful and--as I read it now--excessive and confused. No matter. Without it and works like it, human beings will be reduced to bestiality--reduced, that is, to the state of mind that removes such books from the shelves, sends men shouting and burning into the street--or sentences them to death for writing in the first place.

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