From high above into the world and deep beneath . . .


Dorota Kolodziejczyk

SUNY - Buffalo, Buffalo NY; University of Wroclaw, Poland

Copyright © 2002 by Dorota Kolodziejczyk, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Clark, Roger Y. Stranger Gods: Salman Rushdie's Other Worlds. Montreal: McGill-Queens UP, 2001.

  1. Perhaps every reader of Rushdie's fiction experiences a sensation of being immersed deep in the boundless ocean of stories, and indeed there is always enough to keep one afloat. The sheer immensity of such an oceanic voyage stuns and overwhelms. Not only is there an abundance of strands or complexity of metafictional and intertextual undulations, but there is also a powerful current diffusing visions of other worlds that grants the Rushdean ocean an ingenious exceptionality. However, a poorly initiated reader will only get scant glimpses of the otherworldly without being able to map it into an intricate topography of Rushdie's manifold and palimpsestial cosmologies. Not after Roger Y. Clark's study, though, as Stranger Gods: Salman Rushdie's Other Worlds (2001) is, to date, the best guide through the labyrinths of what Clark calls Rushdie's iconoclastic mysticism (19).

  2. Rushdie criticism tends to foreground political aspects of his fiction, often treating his highly self-conscious and parodic literary awareness as supportive of his raidings of political powers that be. No wonder then that the prevailing questions asked to Rushdie during a reading evening I attended in 1998 in England, UEA, Norwich, were about what he thinks of arranged marriages in the Pakistani communities in England. Likewise, an interview with the author of Shame in Gazeta Wyborcza, a large Polish daily, was almost solely concentrated on his opinions about the wars in the Balkans and new manifestations of nationalism in the world at large. While it is fairly understandable that Midnight's Children and Shame evoked an avalanche of debates on the validity (or gross distortions) of Rushdie's depiction of India and Pakistan, while, further, it is of an extreme importance for a detailed reading of Rushdie's fiction to delve into its intertextual intricacies and respond to the challenge of its incessantly multiplying metafictional levels, and while the author himself has never avoided glossing over political and social contexts of his novels, Clark's book makes it evident that a very important chunk of this fiction has so far been either unnoticed, elided (e.g. as only a part of intertextual play within Rushdie's text), or simply misunderstood in Rushdie criticism (one has an impression that sometimes, in the context of The Satanic Verses, even by the author himself). This evasive and unmanagable aspect of Rushdie's fiction is of course the otherworldly, with its arcane imagery and ever blurring borders between ontological orders.

  3. Proposing to approach the cosmological visions so evident in Rushdie's fiction yet so difficult to grasp, Clark convincingly pursues his argument that not only are cosmological constructions foundational for Rushdie's whole oeuvre, but that his glimpses into the otherworldly are truly visionary, inspired in the way one would not expect in a sworn postmodernist disbeliever (or, at least, in a juggler of imageries from all over and even beyond the world). Clark's goal is twofold: to provide a comprehensive reading of Rushdie's diverse references to mythologies, mystical traditions and sacred texts of numerous religions, and, consequently, to enable the understanding of "cosmological operations" (5) on this uniquely Rushdean terrain of the otherworldy ecumene. This is, as Clark states at the very start of his analysis, a terrain of both fusion and collision, of incompatibility and reconciliation, and within this dialectic operates Rushdie's own tension as a trans-religious iconoclast and a secular mystic. This preliminary paradox allows Clark to define the author of The Satanic Verses in terms of the Borgesian heresiarch (19) -- a questioner of all established systems and a pursuer of a dissident mystical experience. A definition indeed rife with endless resonances of the figures of split in Rushdie's novels, it seems to be at the core of the writer's untired "dis-orientations."

  4. Clark's book opens with a time-line showing how points in the history and culture of the Indian subcontinent resonate in Rushdie's novels. Apart from its obvious explanatory value, the time-line provides a simple yet revealing interpretive tool, enabling readers to see the same motive or event in several novels simultaneously. And it also introduces the reader into the core of Clark's study, intimating the vastness of vision, knowledge and associative power of Rushdie's fiction whose chronotope is indeed all-encompassing. It also has an important ideological role for Clark's study, as it shows the underlying consequence and erratic, but still consistent use of otherworldly motifs, a point countering the charges of random eclecticism not alien from Rushdie criticism.

  5. In his reading of Rushdie's fiction, Clark fosters an argument that the first five novels invest daringly in the exploration of the otherworldly, culminating with The Satanic Verses, and that the novels following Haroun and the Sea of Stories represent a waning power of the earlier novels' spiritual quests. Clark's analysis, then, seems to develop in two distinct yet interconnected strains: one, more general, traces the manifold pattern of Rushdie's cosmologies and mystical projects, while the other one seeks to answer the question of why the last two novels (The Moor's Last Sigh and The Ground Beneath Her Feet) lose the otherworldly appeal that in the first five novels is both stunning and perplexing. Clark writes:
    In Moor and Ground Rushdie shuts down rather than opens up the other worlds. . . . While Moor and Ground on occasion rework myth in striking ways, the vast, overlapping fields of cosmology, mythology, and mysticism are not used extensively and do not present anything like ontological or epistemological challenges we find in his earlier fiction . . . after the many backfirings of the Verses, he may be tired of putting himself so deeply into the exploration of belief and disbelief, the mystical and the diabolic. (17)

  6. The point here is not to argue for or against Clark's claim about the split in Rushdie's fiction, as he succeeds in proving at least the first part of his claim, namely that the intricacy and intensity of Rushdie's visions intrude into worldly terrain and function as a challenge that cannot be dismissed or ignored. They have, paradoxically, the most tangible influence on reality. Moor and Ground, conversely, are disappointing, according to Clark, as they do not manage to develop an effectual spiritual universe, or they halt it on the level of the metaphorical (17). Yet, if we agree with Clark that Rushdie's recent fiction starkly differs from his first five novels in its spiritual appeal, then it is precisely the nature of this split, and the underlying reasons of Rushdie's ensuing disbelief in the other worlds, that needs to be addressed. It does deserve, I am convinced, a more penetrating examination than a dismissive supposition of the author's tiredness with matters mystic and occult. In fact, this is the weakest point of Clark's otherwise rich and revealing study: the author refuses to see in Rushdie's recent fiction anything more problematic than a waning of belief. Or, rather, the author of Stranger Gods refuses to see the waning of belief in the recuperative power of the otherworldly as problematic. That is why the last chapter of Clark's book, "The Post-Verses," is the most disappointing in the whole study, and regretfully so, as it could be, were it no so dismissive, an inspiration for those who would like to venture into Rushdie's myths of disbelief.

  7. An important preliminary remark Clark makes about Rushdie's use of multiple religious motifs in his fiction is that it exceeds the frameworks of magic realism (24-25). Mysticism in Grimus, composite spirituality in Midnight's Children, and, eventually, the "hellbound trajectory beginning with Shame and reaching the final stage in The Satanic Verses all require an 'eruption of the sacred'" (24). Clark elaborates on Eliade's concept of hierophany to point out its uniquely iconoclastic role in Rushdie's fiction. He writes: "When writers introduce a religious symbol or motif this brings with it an entire cosmic system, a prefabricated universe dominated by figures such as Satan or Shiva and by ideas such as Apocalypse or Grace" (24). In his detailed readings of Rushdie's consecutive novels, Clark not only explains the working of religious motives fused in heterogeneous cosmologies of "polytheistic polysymbolism" (26), but he also convinces the reader that these trans- and supra-religious hybrids carry with them an immense potential for spiritual renewals and imaginative flights. Clark argues that religious symbols carry with them in a fictional text a much heavier loading than just any story, as they are constitutive in both spiritual (even if rejected), cultural and historical ways. Hence the diabolic, so to say, effect of Rushdie's transmogrifications of religious motifs and his subversive underwritings of one religious system by another -- he shows an intimate knowledge of beliefs operating on the Indian subcontinent (eagerly playing on the Indian passion for the miraculous, as both enriching spirituality and halting openness in growing communalism), never refusing himself a pleasure of irreverence, less or more serious blasphemy, or, at least, a playful juggling of disparate motives.

  8. It is difficult to give justice within the limited space of a review to the most precious aspect of Clark's study, namely its almost impossible grasp of Rushdie's multi-tiered and criss-crossing cosmological constructions; its surfing on the waves of Islam, Hinduism, Sufi philosophy, Christian and Jewish traditions, Zoroastrianism or unnameable pagan "subterranean" forces, not to mention Islandic sagas; its apt discussions of numerous studies of Rushdie's fiction (discussions so apt indeed that the reader immediately appreciates Clark's own contribution). The author is well aware that reading out the otherworldly motives from Rushdie's novels needs to be framed in a distinct interpretive horizon; otherwise it will be no more than a tedious exegesis, which is why he chooses a singular interpretive line for each of the novels, signalled by chapter titles: e.g "Grimus: World upon Worlds," "Midnight's Children: Road from Kashmir," "Shame: An Other World Strikes Back," or "The Satanic Verses: Dreamscapes of a Green-Eyed Monster."

  9. Clark's reading of Rushdie's fiction organizes it in a meta-narrative of a kind, commencing with Grimus as the base of later pursuits of the otherworldly, climaxed with the Verses's arch-heresies, terminating in Haroun's blissful restoration of the shattered world. Clark does an enormous amount of work unravelling Grimus's conglomerate mysticism, minutely deciphering the novel's piled-up dimensions, and he seems to estimate Rushdie's first novel highly, despite its, as he himself admits, often wooden dialogue (31). Grimus, alienating for so many readers as it overdoes erudition to the point where it becomes cryptic (so that the reader either plunges herself in decoding the unfathomable layers of the novel's symbolism, or treats it as a tale of magic halfway between fantasy and science fiction, skipping over the dense network of cross-cultural and intertextual associations), is here recuperated by Clark's attempts to demonstrate its importance for cosmological elaborations in the subsequent novels. Thus, although Midnight's Children differs, as Clark maintains, from Grimus in that it is focused less on working through the epic structure than on meandering associations, it is nevertheless a continuation of the first novel on the meta-narrative level Clark draws in his study. Within this framework Midnight's Children, after a tale of "heavenward" (60) pursuits of Grimus, begins a new cosmological cycle, that of "the fall of man called Aadam" (60).

  10. Midnight's Children commences the cycle of the Fallen World, with Aadam Aziz's expulsion from Kashmir, the novel's equivalent of the Garden of Eden. The cycle terminates with a prospective return to the Edenic bliss, when Saleem and Padma plan their honeymoon in Kashmir with their adopted son, Aadam. (The return, though, remains prospective; thus reconciliation of the noses-and-knees dialectic with the third principle that Saleem hopes for in Aadam likewise suggests more a potential than a realization, and this potential is countered by a more threatening possibility that Saleem dreads -- of being trampled underfoot by multitudinuous generations. Saleem charts both the cycle and an endless tumbling forth in the unresolved [in mythic terms] Fallen World). In between there are Ahmed Sinai's dream of rearranging the Koran, Saleem's indulgence into the snakes and ladders ambiguities, a descent into the Inferno in the Sundarbans Jungle episode, and, throughout, the Midnight's Children Conference, where magic merges the Arabian Nights imageries with Attar's birds conference. Clark offers here an engaging reading of how the novel's mythic melange seeps into the history of the subcontinent, making an underlying suggestion that the multiplicity of motifs and possibilities does signify India's cultural abundance and an enormous potential of its timelessness and vastness, one underscored with a shadow-line of annihilation and waste. In this interpretive jungle Saleem the megalomanic narrator seems to be left out a little bit. Despite recognizing Saleem's solipsism, Clark sees in him more a medium channeling various intrusions of the otherworldly, less a self-conscious juggler of stories, fixated on bestowing meaning on his individual life (always struggling out of the sandfall of multitudes). Hence, while Clark focuses on Saleem's duality written into the logic of the snakes-and-ladders game, seeing in Saleem's comparison of his narration to the Hadith or Purana or Grundrisse a juxtaposition of materialist and spiritual viewpoints (71), I would argue that these texts suggest, more importantly, Saleem's conviction that his auto-biography will gain in course of time the status of a primary text, a groundwork for both worldly and otherworldly persuasions.

  11. If Midnight's Children does offer a vision of the final bliss, a return from the Fallen World to the Garden of Eden, even if with underscoring ambiguities, Shame, as Clark's storyline unfolds, unleashes the Beast onto the shameless world. Clark develops here an interesting intepretation of the wordly-versus-otherworldly structure of this novel, interwoven into the tyrant/democrat, innocence/beastliness, male/female, spiritual (mystic)/atheistic (in case of Omar's three mothers, equalling the satanic) oppositions. Clark penetrates deep into the novel's structural dichotomies, showing how they operate on at least two levels: on the level of the plot and on the level of the underlying commentary, referring the first level to the otherworldly terrain. Here the tyrant executing the democrat (the classical Robespierre/Danton paradigm), an opposition that the implied author foregrounds in the Raza Hyder/Iskander Harappa's adversity, turns out to be on a deeper level an opposition of orthodoxy and godless hedonism. Clark points out here that the tyrant/democrat opposition can dim the truly devilish espousal of the two former friends, then enemies; however, he may miss the paradigmatic Robespierre/Danton opposition that the implied author foregrounds, in which the tyrant/democrat opposition does coincide with that of an ascetic/hedonist, an orthodox/heretic, and so on. The name of the peripheral hero, Omar Khayyam Shakil, is likewise his three mothers' devilish reversal of the name of the poet renowned for his mystical visions, as he himself not only uses his prodigious mind for ends more dire than creation of verses, but also turns out, on the otherworldly plane, to be the chief agent of evil, the Beast's prey.

  12. Clark points out many other subversive motifs operating within the main dichotomies of the novel: the Mohenjo and Daro estates, for instance, places of internment for Bilquis and Rani, refer to the ancient city of the Harappa civilization, whose script has remained a mystery, like Rani's embroidered shawls, narrating Isky's life of abuse and defilement. Raza's religious orthodoxy, developing as a handy and efficient tool of political control, is dangerously submerged by his obstinate belief that Sufiya is his still-born son's avatar -- a general aspiring to introduce an Islamic state is unable to sustain purity of religion. He is undone not by any democratic opposition (a possibility suggested by the Robespierre/Danton paradigm), but by the three Shakil sisters, quite literally daughters of the devil, the witches revenging the death of their younger son, Babar, a participant of a rebellion of mountan tribes, symbolical in the novel of the subterranean forces supressed by the onset of Islam. This motif, in turn, belongs to the structural paradigm of the winners versus runners-up opposition, only brushed lightly by Clark, but in itself an interesting line, leading back to Saleem's musing on the prophets of the pre-Mohammed days, muted by the more powerful competitor.

  13. The "hellbound trajectory" Clark traces in Rushdie's fiction terminates in The Satanic Verses, the analysis of which, while not at all dimming out the brightness of previous chapters, makes up Clark's most daring dive into Rushdie's text. Following the itinerary of deception and disguise taken up by the devilish narrator, Clark pins down the "most confusing yet crucial moments of satanic narration" (135), the devil disguising himself as God in Allie's bedroom (this parodic countenance meaningfully hints at the author himself), which Clark sees as the moment when the satanic narrator becomes an ideological centre of the novel. Clark's reading of the novel moves along two main lines: one unravels the development and consolidation (with hints at final triumph) of the satanic narrator; another brings out, somewhat against the grain of existing interpretations, the devilish unfolding of Saladin Chamcha's life after the fall from the Bustan airplane. All along Clark does not forget about the novel's intricate references to various (often conflicting) representations of the devil, in general parting them along an East/West divide.

  14. Such a twofold (at least) development of the satanic component in the novel that Clark foregrounds opens up the many-levelled interpretive construction the novel invites. Thus, the "satanic verses" of the novel's title do not only come from the apocryphal episode in the Recitation, but also refer us to Chamcha's satanic whispers leading Gibreel to the final stage of deranged disintegration, and, on a yet higher metafictional level, to the narrator's satanic insinuations throughout. In the subchapter titled "Too many satans," Clark surveys a number of representations of Satan in Islam and Christianity, pointing out not only the way Rushdie evokes particular representations, merges them or translates one into another, but also how the most sublime evocations are aspired to by the novel's satanic powers, yet not achieved. Clark states that the satanic figures do play the Promethean tune, yet, ultimately, the core of devilish action is that of a fallen angel whose aim is to divert people from God (157). Thus, not so much the tragedy of the Prometheus Unbound, but the destruction of elevating (here Clark underlines the importance of Allie's Everest/Qaf) mysticism, and the ensuing meaninglessness and destruction are satan's work.

  15. Some of the devilish figures of the novel are capable of gaining an ingenious sympathy from the reader, and this goes not only for Chamcha, but also for Mirza Saeed, whom Clark compares to the Islam devil Iblis (instilling doubt in the faithful), or Salman the Persian, who is also Iblis-like, longing for the purest of recitations underscored with severe doubt; one cannot miss Mahoud himself, whose "devilish tag," pangs of hesitation, and calculating mind both grant him a more human dimension (Rushdie's line of "defense"), and suggest un-godly (then what if not devilish?) undercurrents. At this point Clark discusses the discrepancy between the Eastern (Muslim) and Western approach to satan, fostering a thesis that the Promethean (sympathetic to faulty humanity, and imbued with genuinely human features) aspect of the devil rooted in western culture cannot meet with a sympathetic reception among Muslims, and, very likely, is Rushdie's targeted attack on the either/or logic of any orthodoxy, an attitude well documented in the writer's whole oeuvre. In this novel, what Clark terms the "naturally blasphemous" (157) narration dominated by a satanic consciousness has, unluckily, turned out into an open blasphemy against Islam itself, culminating in the Hijab profanity of the Prophet's wives. This is Clark's most questionable venture into the alleged East/West chasm, and not only because we do not know whether a critical reading of a novel, even the most knowledgable and insightful, allows for speaking in the name of another culture. One would expect of a critic (otherwise stunning throughout the whole study) an approach suggesting, in language at least, a potential of blasphemy (or, in fact, offence, as it is not at all the same in the context of the novel), instead of a matter-of-fact statement that the western reader will read the novel more metaphorically, opening up to the challenge of metafictional containments and intertextual plays, while the eastern (Muslim) reader will only grasp the most literal level, for whom prostitutes taking on the Prophet's wives' names mean what they mean -- a straighforward defilement of Islam.

  16. It is not my purpose to deny the potential of abuse contained in the Verses, but to point out that, as the satanic voice is crucial to the narration, so is blasphemy crucial, in both figurative and literal sense, for the novel's comments on migration, cultural rootedness or rootlessness (with up-rootedness in-between), on the dangers of cultural translation (this is for some reason why the novel foregrounds Salman-the-scribe's foreignness). Blasphemy is an important element of the novel's play with the East/West divide, which is called at the beginning "an ambiguous history." A satanic narrator is such also because he will inevitably communicate different things to different readers, making the very process of reading reverse to the ideal fostered by the Book (the very play of capitalized/non-capitalized "bs" should not be missed here), making it, then, multiple, vacillating, internally conflicting, unfinished. It is also in this satanic figure that the East/West divide will uncannily blur and merge, according to the poetics of diguise and slippery signification. The "worldly" aspect of migrating vagrants, directionless, unguided lost souls, lays itself over against the "otherworldly" construction, obscuring and disturbing unity of meaning, offered either by the Book or by cultural belonging. Transgression of borders -- and the novel spans all sorts of these: geographical, historical, worldly and other-, of the sacred and profane realms (not only those of the harem and hijab, but also of the letters) -- is here both literally and metaphorically diabolic, linking readers to the Devil's vagrancy in the motto.

  17. The above suggests a possible line of interpretation, omitted (because definitely not overlooked) by Clark, perhaps because the author of Stranger Gods focused on the consistency of the otherworldly satanic constructions, at the expense of its more worldly (and metaphorical) reverberations. But there remains one important strand left out by Clark, namely that of the devilish aspect of female characters in the Verses. Hind the Grandee's wife, Ayesha the prophetess, Rekha Merchant, Gibreel's rejected lover, even young Mishal Sufyan are temptresses and witches, possessors of subversive power. Ayesha, for example, as a religious leader is austere and uncompromising, but, as Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of wealth, she stands for abundance and sensuality; her unrelenting urge for oneness and purity verges on the devilish, as the stoning of the baby episode suggests, and can be seen as redeemed by the possibility that she may be an avatar (an incarnation of god in the human) of a more giving aspect of divinity, markedly female and infidel. Clark prefers, however, to surpress this interpretive possibility under the main plot of monotheism besieged by the devil, a line, which, it is noteworthy, does not at all close off the interpretations of doubling permanent in The Satanic Verses.

  18. At the end we are left with the question of why the "post-verses" novels, Moor and Ground, are disappointing for Clark to such an extent that the latter does not deserve more than a bare four pages of comment. Clark claims that in these novels the "otherworldly" does not offer any signifying frame for the "worldly," nor an additional dimension to the protagonist's mind. Clark puts down this lack of a "strong overarching otherworldly structure," empowering Rushdie's previous fiction to the waning of the writer's "secular mysticism," or, even, to a determinate shunning of the otherworldly. Indeed, the protagonists of both Moor and Ground are absolutely secular, which means in practice atheistic, refusing any negotiations with the religious, travelling not in otherworldly spaces but in the underground of the hellish metropolis (like the Moor in Bombay), or through the de-mythicized "sky's metamorphic zone" (Ground). Still, I am convinced that Clark's disappointment is largely aesthetic, as in both criticized novels Rushdie does venture grand reworkings (recreations and renewals) of myths seraching for the pan-mythic realm of art. And although these quests may be less consistent, urgent, or, simply, satisfying than in his previous novels, still they are written into both novels' designs, however erratically (keeping borders clear never was on Rushdie's list of priorities, though).

  19. In Ground, for example, Rai the narrator, a rationalist, and Ormus, an ascetic decadent, both have an additional spiritual dimension -- they are artists, one more of a voyeur, another more of a god (secular, profane god of mass culture). They do not need, do not want "other worlds," but are tormented by them anyway. Likewise, the young Aurora in Moor paints a picture of her deceased mother; the image grows into Mother India, the powerful mother-goddess both nurturing and devouring her children. Parting with the only myth that she was ever able to succumb to, Aurora emerges as a free and uncompromising artist. However the reader will judge these moves on aesthetic grounds (so much pathos in both novels is really very close to kitsch), one has to admit that the new novels do not abandon the search for mystical experience. Quite the reverse: the more secular they want it to be, the more radical expectations they seem to have from a mystical experience. I see particularly in Ground an attempt, sometimes stunning, sometimes overblown to grand loftiness, to write a worldly (of this world, global, secular to the point of religious cult) mega-myth, to develop a vision of a new spiritual binding created from a profane, yet powerfully mythic, pop culture. We can see, indeed, a different narrative developed in Rushdie's novels from that which Clark reads: not a waning of mystical affect, but a second wave of searching for the mountain of God.

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