The Satanic Verses | Study Guide

Salman Rushdie

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The Satanic Verses | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Angel Gibreel | Summary

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Summary

The novel opens "just before dawn one winter's morning, New Year's Day or thereabouts," as Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood actor, and Saladin Chamcha, a voice actor, plummet toward earth from the sky. Gibreel sings tunelessly as he falls, and Saladin criticizes his singing. The jet Bostan, Flight AI-420, exploded in flight just a few moments before, and the two actors—flamboyant Gibreel and uptight Saladin—began to fall like bits "of tobacco from a broken old cigar" or "bundles dropped by some carelessly open-beaked stork."

The narrator reveals that the two are being transformed. And indeed, as they fall, strange things happen. Saladin begins to sing, and for a few moments the two men have a sort of singing competition. They grab onto each other and turn cartwheels while thus intertwined, and in the midst of this, Gibreel sees Rekha Merchant, his beautiful but deceased ex-lover, on a flying carpet. They argue briefly and she curses him for leaving her. The clouds the two men fall through seem to be shapes changing into other shapes.

As they descend, Saladin feels himself become something else, something immortal. He suddenly commands Gibreel to fly and sing. The narrator asks "Is birth always a fall? Do angels have wings? Can men fly?" As Gibreel begins to flap his arms like wings and sings a song he has never heard before, the two fall slower and slower, finally landing in the English Channel and washing ashore on a snowy English beach. The narrator notes that Gibreel sang and flew but Saladin willed him to do these things, asking "Which was the miracle worker?" and more mysteriously, "Who am I?"

Analysis

The opening chapter of the novel introduces the two main characters: Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Throughout the novel, readers will learn more about these two men, and their dreams, relationships, and actions will drive the plot. An important theme of the novel is also introduced: metamorphosis and rebirth. Here, the narrator tells readers the two men transform—or are transmuted—as they fall. The imagery in the chapter supports this theme; for example, the clouds transform from one thing to another as the men fall through them. This theme is also developed thoroughly by Rushdie's reliance on birth imagery throughout the chapter: The opening line refers to being reborn. The setting is near the New Year, and just before dawn: both times that symbolize new beginnings. The explosion of the plane is compared to the Big Bang: a new beginning, rebirth, or metamorphosis for the entire universe. Saladin falls headfirst in the "recommended position for babies entering the birth canal." Gibreel sings "Happy Birthday." Saladin cries like a newborn baby.

The most noticeable characteristic they seem to gain is the ability to fly, or at least fall more slowly. By flapping arms as if they are wings, and singing, they manage to survive the fall. The title of this part of the book, "The Angel Gibreel," suggests that Gibreel is transformed into an angel. Saladin, who uses language related to the devil when he first speaks, saying "to the devil with your tunes" and "spare me these infernal noises," would then seem to be cast in the role of devil or demon. Their fall is described as "angelicdevilish." But the narrator isn't so sure which is the angel and which is the demon. Among other questions, the narrator asks, "Of what type—angelic, satanic—was Farishta's song?"

The novel leaves this question murky, as it does with other questions the narrator asks, such as "Which was the miracle worker?" "Is birth always a fall?" "Do angels have wings?" "Can men fly?" and "Who else is there?" The narrator, who is unnamed, does not intrude upon the story very often, but does call attention to himself through these questions. The question "Who am I," especially, is quite coy. The answer is a riddle: "who has the best tunes?" This is a reference to a remark by John Wesley, who was criticized for setting hymns to existing secular tunes, that the devil should not have all the good tunes. This riddle reveals the narrator is the devil, or Satan, as the epigraph also suggests.

There are two other very notable stylistic observations that can be made from this chapter. First, the use of figurative language and a tendency to jump around in time are already apparent, and these will persist throughout the novel. Second, the tone contains a large dose of humor. This may be surprising, given the controversy that surrounded the book and the religious connections evoked by the title. But the two falling actors, their petty jabs at one another, the singing contest, and other aspects of the interaction between them are absurd. In addition, although the novel is an example of magical realism, in which realistic plots and settings are given magical or fantastical elements, the magical aspects of the plot serve to heighten the absurdity of the characters and situation, rather than bring them sophistication or suggest they have spiritual significance.

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