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The Satanic Verses | Themes

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Metamorphosis and Rebirth

The theme of metamorphosis and rebirth is central to the novel. Strange and supernatural transformations occur throughout. The novel opens with the line, "To be born again ... first you have to die." The plot begins as the two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, transform into an angel and a devil. Not only that, but these two characters are both actors. They are people who transform as part of their job, taking on all manner of roles, crafting their voices and facial expressions to portray different characters. Gibreel, in particular, is interested in reincarnation and from childhood loved stories of metamorphosis and rebirth. In addition to these important examples, the text is peppered with images of transformation. Rushdie's prose may play fast and loose with chronology and plot clarity, but it maintains cohesion through image. In this novel, images of transformation and birth are plentiful.

However, these supernatural transformations are not simply window dressing. They suggest that change, not stability, is the normal mode of life. The magical transformations thematically support the idea that people continually change and make themselves into new selves. They adapt to new circumstances, create new relationships and leave old ones behind, move to new places, take new jobs, and so on. This is particularly true for immigrants who have moved from one culture to another. These changes have a relationship with a person's true nature, or essence.

Part 5, Chapter 1, raises this question as Muhammad Sufyan and Saladin discuss the contrasting theories of Lucretius and Ovid. Lucretius contends that the outward changes reflect an inward reality, while Ovid holds that the essential self is unchanging even when the outward self changes. Saladin comments on this question, though he does not offer an answer, considering that he can adopt Lucretius' view "that some demonic and irreversible mutation is taking place in my inmost depths" or he can accept Ovid's point of view "that everything now emerging is no more than a manifestation of what was already there."

The theme is at the core of the postcolonial and immigrant experience. Whether at home or abroad, the postcolonial subject must determine whether he will be defined by the colonizer or by the native. Neither choice allows complete freedom of individual expression and both require metamorphosis of some sort.

Immigrant Identity

Closely tied to the theme of metamorphosis and rebirth is the theme of immigrant identity. After all, immigrants must remake themselves to adapt to a new culture, sometimes in drastic ways. One of the main characters, Saladin Chamcha, is an Indian immigrant in England. His journey from schoolboy to young adult to successful voice actor is a story of trying to leave one culture behind and embrace another. Saladin is enormously successful in making this transformation. His facial expressions and voice are tailored to perfection. He marries an Englishwoman. He becomes a British citizen. Yet all that effort—the years of hard work—are not enough to achieve the acceptance Saladin craves. When police officers arrive at Rosa Diamond's door, they take one look at him and decide he is guilty.

In addition, much of the plot takes place in the immigrant communities of London. The demonization and abuse of immigrants as a group echoes the demonization and abuse Saladin endures when he is in police custody. After a series of serial killings, police become convinced that the culprit is Uhuru Simba, a black man. It is only after Simba dies in jail that the real culprit is caught, and he turns out to be a white man. The unrest unleashed by this injustice leads to the protests and riots that provide the backdrop for Gibreel's rescue of Saladin, his adversary.

Rushdie's writing style further explores the theme of immigrant identity. His prose is liberally sprinkled with pop culture references, allusions to stories, historical events, and mythology from a variety of cultures. His use of religious imagery is largely Islamic, but not confined to it; Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Jewish references also appear. Like the life of an immigrant, Rushdie's style is his own personal blend of cultural elements.

Belief and Unbelief

The theme of belief and unbelief is essential to the subject matter and characterizations in the novel. Some of the characters, such as Gibreel Farishta and Salman the Persian, lose their faith in dramatic fashion during the events of the novel. Others never had much religious faith, or lost it slowly over time, such as Saladin Chamcha.

But religious belief is not the only kind of belief Rushdie explores in this novel. The presence of vision and dreams pervades the novel, and often it is impossible to neatly categorize events and images as being either part of reality or part of the vision. Magical and supernatural elements, such as the miraculous survival and transformations of Saladin and Gibreel, also muddy the waters. Without a clear division between real and unreal, readers must choose which parts to take literally and which parts to take figuratively. This exercise, Rushdie suggests, is akin to the way humans often approach religious faith.

Rushdie also introduces the theme of belief regarding stories. Throughout the novel, he repeats phrases commonly used in fables and parables to indicate that the story the author is about to tell is both true and untrue. The reader can choose either to treat the events as literal or metaphoric and so can the characters. Regardless, all must find a way to deal with the consequences.

Forgiveness

As a theme, forgiveness enters late in the novel. After Pamela sleeps with Jumpy Joshi, thinking her husband Saladin is dead, she finds out Saladin is actually alive. The affair continues even after Saladin returns, and in this context Saladin has to decide if he can forgive Pamela and Joshi. He seems unable to, and the idea that some things are unforgivable persists through the rest of the novel.

The main forgiveness thread runs through the relationship between Saladin and Gibreel. Saladin holds a grudge against Gibreel because of Gibreel's failure to help him when the police came and arrested him. The brutality Saladin endured at the hands of the police he blames on Gibreel. Later, when Saladin and Gibreel meet again in London, Saladin remembers this slight and decides Gibreel's actions were unforgivable. He decides to take his revenge by breaking up Alleluia and Gibreel by using a series of obscene phone calls. When Gibreel realizes Saladin was behind the phone calls, he feels that this is unforgivable and seeks out Saladin to murder him. However, he ends up saving Saladin from a burning building, the ultimate act of forgiveness.

Again, this theme is directly relevant to the postcolonial experience, in which people who feel frustrated and powerless by colonization internalize the negative views of their colonizers and turn against their own people. Both Saladin and Gibreel choose to blame their fellow countryman, and to some extent themselves, for their poor treatment, not the terrorists who hijacked the plane, the London police who brutalized Saladin, or Rosa Diamond who bewitched Gibreel.

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