(1947- ) Indian-born writer, in the UK from 1961. He was well-known before 1988, but has become unwillingly world-famous because The Satanic Verses (1988), a fabulation and Satire which made daringly irreverent comments about Islam, inspired a fatwa, or death "sentence", proclaimed against him by the Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic theocracy of Iran, but illegal in terms of international law (and offensive to civil societies throughout the world). He is a fabulist, an excavator of Story, a writer of conglomerate tales where various genres – including passages of fantasy – intermingle in discords of great wit, forming together a medium for rendering experiences that literary realism could only inadequately express.
SR's first novel, Grimus (1975), is closer to fantasy throughout than any of his later books for adults, though its sf element includes references to extraterrestrial life, Immortality, with multidimensional adventures into various alternate universes. Its Amerindian protagonist, who is a protean blockhead Trickster, ultimately in conflict with his Shadow the satanic Magus Grimus, undertakes a Quest through various Realities – some of them constructed on Wonderland lines – in search for his beloved sister. The tale is set primarily in the imaginary realm of Calf Island, the creation of a trinity of characters whose falling out has left it in Grimus's hands. The story is played out on several levels – in the interaction between the warring members of the trio and the trickster hero, Flapping Eagle; among the inhabitants of the island, who look to Grimus as a deity and are subject to paralysing bouts of "Dimension fever", or self-consciousness about their own triviality; and on the planet Thera, inhabited by sentient stone frogs named Gorfs who may have had a hand in the Island's creation simply by imagining the possibility of its existence.
In Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), which was written for YA readers and which won a 1992 Mythopoeic Society award, young Haroun follows his storyteller father – who, after his wife leaves him, has found that there is no Story left to tell – into a Wonderland-like Otherworld, where he is eventually successful in retrieving the essence of Story from the black-hearted and the merciless who would attempt to shut the world down.
Other novels – they include Midnight's Children (1980), Shame (1983) and The Moor's Last Sigh (1995) – make copious use of fantasy Motifs, but within a context that allows no unadulterated fantasy understanding or reading to prevail, in a manner reminiscent of the most complex Magic Realist tales of writers like Gabriel García Márquez. Midnight's Children and Shame are both attempts at the construction for the 20th century – and for readers whose cultural heritage is quilted with divergent traditions – of a Myth of Origin for India in the first instance, Pakistan in the second.
Midnight's Children is SR's most sustained accomplishment. Strongly autobiographical, it is the story of Saleem Sinai, one of 1001 children born at midnight on the day of India's independence in 1947; each of them – like the Changeling protagonist, switched at birth into a privileged existence – has Talents by virtue of which they prove capable of Metamorphosis; of flight; of Magic. In all their intolerable complexity and uplift, they represent the birth and the future of their country. The totality of life in India which their extreme situations describe is enhanced further by Saleem's particular talent. He is linked telepathically to his 1000 coevals and, through a nightly "Midnight's Children Conference" inside his mind, he vicariously experiences their lives across the subcontinent, becomes a living embodiment of the vast new Indian state and the promise of its first free generation. After their powers have been understood by the authorities, they are given vasectomies.
SR endows all of the novel's characters with a mythic stature that also suggests the inescapability of past Cycles of history and the inevitability of Fate: Shiva, whose privileged life Saleem has taken over, is an Avatar of the destroyer God of ancient Hindu mythology. As in Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959), whose style it calls to mind, there is no moment in the story that does not seem pregnant with a deeper meaning.
Like its predecessors, The Satanic Verses invokes fantasy, supernatural fiction, horror, magic realist tropes and mundane realism, interweaving this narrative mix into a Cauldron of Story through which pixilated (but intensely representative) characters fly, swim, choke, survive. The novel is, of course, about Religion; it is also about the fate of exiles in a world – this 20th-century one – both dominated by the exilic consciousness and surpassingly cruel to its spokespersons. It two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, represent halves of a divided single personality. Actors skilled in the art of mimicry, they both miraculously survive a plunge of 29,000 feet into the English Channel following the terrorist bombing of an airplane with which the novel opens. Saladin finds himself endowed with satanic features, including a set of horns, and the ability involuntarily to assume the demonized image those around him project upon him. Gibreel, by contrast, boasts features of the archangel Gabriel, SR's coded representation of fundamentalist self-righteousness. An interpolated dream sequence involving Gibreel recapitulates events from the so-called "satanic verses", an episode recorded in Islamic oral tradition but not the Qu'ran, in which Shaitan (> Satan) impersonates the archangel Gibreel to dupe Muhammad into believing false pronouncements from Allah. SR's contemporary rendering of the episode in a bordello setting, offered as a satirical critique of cultural Debasement, outraged fundamentalists through its profanation and resulted in the imposition of the fatwa on 14 February 1989.
Wizard of Oz (coll 1992 chap US) is a casual disquisition on L Frank Baum and Hollywood (> Los Angeles). Some of the stories assembled in East, West (coll 1994), including "At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers", are fantasy. [SD/JC]
Ahmed Salman Rushdie