THE SATANIC VERSES by Salman Rushdie. New York:, Viking. 547 pp. $19.95.
WITH all that's happened - Muslim demonstrations, bannings and book burnings, a death-sentence from Ayatollah Khomeini - ``The Satanic Verses'' has begun to look prophetic. That's remarkable, if only because at first sight it's a savage satire of the very idea of prophecy, or the utterance, by man, of truth with a capital T.
The concept behind the book is simple: A plane from Bombay is blown up over the English Channel by terrorists. The only survivors are two media types from India, an actor and a voice-over artist.
The city they fall into, modern London, is the polyglot, multiracial sinkhole of the British Empire. The impact of their fall affects the two differently and even paradoxically. The mild voice-over artist is transformed into a devilish looking goat, while the macho actor, who specializes in portraying deities in the Indian pantheon, is encouraged to think of himself as a messenger of God.
This concept controls with varying degrees of success an enormous amount of detail drawn from contemporary London and Islamic tradition.
The constantly shifting point of view rarely gets outside the alienated consciousness whose symbol and wand is the TV remote-control stick. The ``tortured metropolis'' of London is seen as a ``composite video monster.'' The language of the characters and the book ranges from ``smart-alec Bombay English'' to parodies of the holy book of Islam, the Koran. This book about exile is drenched in fear and anxiety. ``Paranoia,'' Rushdie writes, ``for the exile, is the prerequisite of survival.''
Words and images start from the page with unnatural lucidity. Rushdie's eclectic style, which gives voice to a multitude of brilliantly sketched characters - some only for a page or two - has a political and religious basis. The modern Indian culture, he says early on, can be seen as ``based on the principle of borrowing whatever clothes seemed to fit, Aryan, Mughal, British, take-the-best-and-leave-the-rest.'' This style would replace the ``authentic'' Indian style.
But Rushdie's target is bigger than India, bigger than fundamentalist Islam. He seeks out, and often destroys, the ``too many demons inside people claiming to believe in God.'' This has led to charges of arrogant, militant skepticism. Rather, this book is a kind of postmodern, speculative ``Arabian Nights,'' in which the fallen know-it-all gets his come-uppance and the tragedy of intellectual pride yields to the comedy of human love and enlightened political engagement.
THE special tone of the book is not anger but an impish melancholy. Rushdie was meticulous in qualifying his criticisms of Islamic tradition by using literary fictions like the dream. Perhaps he's been too clever. He seems to suggest that the Koran was tampered with by an alienated scribe (named Salman!) who becomes first sad then wickedly inventive - ``polluting the word of God with my own profane language'' - when he notices that the prophet Mahound (a devilish twist on Muhammad) doesn't notice the changes he is making.
Salman knows he'll be found out and killed by Mahound. His consolation is that of the alienated intellectual: ``I would fall, I knew, but he would fall with me,'' Salman says.
Rushdie's vision is partly tragic. The idealism of love between the sexes seems out of place in the paranoid world of exile. In a book about the burden of inheritance, Henry James is quoted: ``The natural inheritance of everyone who is capable of spiritual life is an unsubdued forest where the wolf howls and the obscene bird of night chatters.''
``Take that, kids,'' adds the narrator, exhibiting once again his inability to keep a straight face. In its rhythms, this book brilliantly captures the surrealism of the media-mind, the monstrous product of openness and pluralism. Eventually, it may come to be seen as a dicey drama of monotheism in a pluralistic world. Against the vertiginous swirl of events, certain pieties, certain polarities, certain responsibilities, hold fast.
The book is serious about the spiritual equality of men and women. It's serious about the family. ``To fall in love with one's father after the long angry decades was a serene and beautiful feeling,'' says the hero, though the sentiment is checked in its progress toward its kinky, vampirish opposite. And this book is serious about the potential relationship between man and God. The dream that has so enraged some readers concludes with a remarkable passage in which the death of the messenger, the parody of Muhammad, is seen in the broader context of the inextinguishable life of God.
Rushdie finds a deep sadness in the way his characters, faced with anarchy without and within, try to will their identities, mocking the Creator's language and saying ``I am that I am,'' and he ends on an ambiguously meliorist note. Apocalypse is not now, prudential liberal politics is.
AS another Salman says in the book, ``To dream of a thing is very different from being faced with the fact of it.'' Indeed, ``The Satanic Verses'' bears witness to multitudes of facts about modern life. Furthermore, it has engendered a host of new facts, facts that have been screaming from the headlines for weeks now.
``The Satanic Verses'' can't be separated from those facts, any of them. Read carefully, it provides a map to a great deal of them. Which, at this moment, may be its most remarkable virtue.