Misfits in the Urban Collage : Rushdie’s Characters Could Be Our New Neighbors

<i> Nathan Gardels is editor of the Los Angeles-based New Perspectives Quarterly. </i>

Of what relevance is Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in the City of Angels? Why does this celebrated tale of self-doubting Muslims in London and Bombay resonate so in the corner mini-malls and polylingual schools of this city of migrants?

“The Satanic Verses” is really a novel about the metamorphosis of the contemporary world brought about by migration and communication. It is about the conflicts within individuals and between cultures that result from the immediate juxtaposition in time (mass media, telecommunications) and space (migration) of very different world views and civilizations. It is is a novel about the conflicts and spiritual dislocation of fragmented individuals in a fragmented world wrestling with its plural identities. “The Satanic Verses” is a novel about the frictions of the global collage, the kind of frictions that transpire daily in global cities like Los Angeles, which have no identity other than their plurality: We are a little bit Seoul, Saigon, Taipei, Hong Kong, Mexico City, Managua, San Salvador, Tokyo, even Tehran.

In Rushdie’s celebrated work the traditional world is blown apart by the metamorphosing agency of a 747 jumbo jet. “Up there in air-space,” the author writes, “in that soft imperceptible field which had been made possible by the century and which, thereafter, made the century possible, becoming one of its defining locations, the place of movement and of war, the planet-shrinker and power-vacuum, most insecure and transitory of zones, illusory, discontinuous, metamorphic--because when you throw everything up in the air anything becomes possible.”


Rushdie speaks of migrants who ply the routes between different worlds as “fragments, absurd, debris of the soul . . . (with) broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother tongues, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, land, belonging, home. “ These migrants from the past long for the certitude of origins but only “embrace air.”

The immigrants in “The Satanic Verses” are split identities, hybrids. The movie star, Gibreel Farishta, plays 11 roles simultaneously; the radio personality, Saladin Chamcha, has 44 different voices.

As a Bombay-born Muslim, Rushdie must ask himself the same questions as the other 900,000 Muslims residing in Britain: “Am I Indian, Pakistani, British?” Like Dr. Aziz, a character in one of Rushdie’s earlier novels, “Midnight’s Children,” who loses his faith because he is unable to accept the unarguable absolutes of religion, Rushdie is left “with a hole inside, a vacancy in the vital inner chamber.” In the way of the Westerner, Rushdie the immigrant turns from faith to literature as the medium of his doubt and reconciliation between worlds, between past and future.

“What I am saying in ‘Satanic Verses’,” Rushdie has remarked, “is that we have got to come to terms with our plural identities. We are increasingly becoming a world of migrants, made up of bits and fragments from here, there. We are here. And we have not really left anywhere where we have been.” Just as migration transplants other pasts into our present, the information age carries our present time into the otherworld of Islamabad, Khartoum, Tehran.

The furor caused by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death sentence of Rushdie mimics the very theme of “The Satanic Verses.” Rushdie’s life could be at risk only in the very kind of world that his novel describes--a world of global integration in which the blasphemous can engage in a fatal “war of nomenclatures,” a clash of faiths and languages. It is the Word against words. Milan Kundera has said that the novel is able to exist in the West because it requires ambiguity and relativity, not a unique truth that must be conformed to. Rushdie the novelist, like the Western novel itself, blasphemes the absolute; Khomeini blasphemes the only sacred values of the West: skepticism, relativism, pluralism and tolerance.

Not in his most fertile imaginative moments could Rushdie have dreamed up a scene where the ancient religious rivalries that drive Iran’s revolutionary politics are played out on the bookshelves of America’s chain stores, nor could he have envisioned a united, usually squabbling Western Europe rising to the defense of the idea of the novel. How very extraordinary, after decades of hardened balance-of-power Realpolitik, that the world should be divided between those who defend the possibility of literature and those who don’t.

Now that the Cold War has lost its impetus, it seems our new preoccupation will be with the Battle of the Novel, or as Rushdie himself prefers to put it, the War of the Word--a drama of struggle between different civilizations that must live in one interdependent world.

For the moment, Rushdie and Khomeini, the main protagonists of the story, are tasting the fate of all actors in the paradox of history. Inadvertently, Rushdie’s “sacrilege” has resuscitated Khomeini’s waning fundamentalist fervor--infidel as evangelist. Inadvertently, Khomeini’s death sentence, against Rushdie but really against the idea of the novel, has revived the waning importance of literature in the West--imam as literary agent.

Such are the unexpected twists of plot, the play of contraries, that we will learn to expect as this grand drama of the closing years of the last modern century unfolds.