A familiar notion is particularly well-expressed in Salman Rushdie’s novel Shame. The notion is that of history as itself a fiction; the expression is varied. ‘All stories,’ he says as intruding author, ‘are haunted by the ghosts of the stories they might have been.’ And elsewhere:

  As for me: I too, like all migrants, am a fantasist. I build imaginary countries and try to impose them on the ones that exist. I too, face the problem of history: what to retain, what to dump, how to hold on to what memory insists on relinquishing, how to deal with change.

  My story’s palimpsest country has, I repeat, no name of its own.

But earlier he had said, also as an intruding author: ‘But suppose this were a realistic novel! Just think what else I might have to put in.’ There follows a long paragraph-full of real horrors, with real names, which ends: ‘Imagine my difficulties!’ And he goes on:

  By now, if I had been writing a book of this nature, it would have done me no good to protest that I was writing universally, not about Pakistan. The book would have been banned, dumped in the rubbish bin, burned. All that effort for nothing. Realism can break a writer’s heart.

  Fortunately, however, I am only telling a sort of modern fairy-tale, so that’s all right; nobody need get upset, or take anything I say too seriously. No drastic action need be taken either.

  What a relief!

The semi-conscious dramatic irony of this last passage is poignant. For, of course, all these quotations also apply, in advance of time, to The Satanic Verses (1988), where two palimpsest countries, India and England, and one palimpsest religion, Islam, are concerned; and which belongs to a type of fiction that has burst on the literary scene in the last quarter of this century and thoroughly renewed the dying art of the novel: Terra Nostra (1976), by the Mexican Carlos Fuentes, is another great example. Some have called this development ‘magic realism’. I prefer to call it palimpsest history.

First I want to distinguish between various kinds of fictional histories: 1. the realistic historical novel, about which I shall say nothing; 2. the totally imagined story, set in a historical period, in which magic unaccountably intervenes (Barth, Marquez); 3. the totally imagined story, set in a historical period, without magic but with so much time-dislocating philosophical, theological and literary allusion and implication that the effect is magical (Eco); 4. the zany reconstruction of a more familiar, because closer, period or event, with apparent magic which is, however, motivated through hallucination (Coover, Pynchon). Fifthly and lastly, the palimpsest history of a nation and creed, in which magic may or may not be involved but seems almost irrelevant – or shall we say almost natural – compared to the preposterousness of mankind as realistically described. This we find in Terra Nostra and The Satanic Verses.

Consider Philip II of Spain in Terra Nostra. He is shown as a younger man (in his memory), massacring Protestants in Flanders, or later building the Escorial as a permanent mausoleum for his royal ancestors and himself. This is history. But he is also depicted as the son of Felipe el Hermoso (Philip the Handsome), who died young, and Juana la Loca (Joan the Mad), still alive and participating. Now the son of Philip the Handsome and Joan the Mad was the Emperor Charles V. There is a curious fusion of the two. Although often called Felipe, he is mostly referred to as el Señor, which could apply to both, and at one point he says, ‘my name is also Philip’ – which makes the reader wonder whether Charles V’s name was Philip. He is also shown as young Philip, forced by his father el Señor to take his droit de cuissage on a young peasant bride. But later he is said to be married to an English cousin called Isabel, which was not true of Philip II, whereas Charles V’s queen was called Isabel, but Isabel of Portugal. This English Isabel he never touches, and although he knows she has lovers, he finally separates from her amicably and sends her back to England, where she becomes the Virgin Queen Elizabeth. Now we know that one of Philip’s four wives was English, but this was Mary Tudor.

Moreover, a constant theme of the novel is that el Señor has no heir, and indeed dies heirless. Obviously Charles V had an heir, Philip II, and so did the historical Philip II, by his fourth and Austrian wife, an heir who later became Philip IV. Thus the only historical items are that he besieged a city in Flanders – though Ghent is never named – and that he built the Escorial – this, too, is never named, only described. And Philip’s retreat into this palace of the dead sometimes sounds curiously like Charles’s retreat to the monastery at Yurta – which, however, he did not build – after his abdication.

A similar fusion or confusion occurs when the New World, to which one of the three triplets and supposed usurpers – who each have six toes and a red cross birthmark on their back – sails on a small boat with one companion, who is killed, and has long and magical adventures in pre-Spanish Mexico. When he returns, Philip refuses to believe in the existence of the Nuevo Mundo which, of course, has historically been well established by his time, since Charles V’s empire was one on which, as schoolbooks say, the sun never set.

None of this impedes the reading, any more than does the reincarnation of some of the non-royal characters in modern times. Why? Not only because it is a rattling good story in its own right, as convincing as the real story. But also because it is a different view of the human condition and what it endures and springs from, of absolute power and its aberrations, of the way its leaders could discount the deaths of hundreds of workers to build monster palaces, or the deaths of thousands of innocents to build monster dreams, to establish the truth as they saw it. In a way, it is what Science Fiction theorists call an alternative world.

But this is not an alternative world: it is alternative history. Palimpsest history. And there are, incidentally, one or two meditations or fantasies, by Philip especially, of palimpsest religion, that look remarkably heretical or even blasphemous but the Christian authorities have never objected to them. Perhaps they learnt from the Inquisition. Or, more likely, they don’t read novels. But then the condemners of Rushdie don’t seem to have read him either.

Of course we should not be surprised that totalitarian governments, and not least theocratic governments, should, when someone draws their attention to such works, object to to palimpsest history. It has happened over and over in the Soviet Union. Such governments are always busy rewriting history themselves and only their palimpsest is regarded as acceptable. And yet there is not a single passage in The Satanic Verses that cannot find echo in the Qur’an and qur’anic traditions and Islamic history. The notion of ‘Mahound’ always receiving messages that justify his double standard with regard to wives, for example, is expressed not by the narrator but by protesting characters in conquered ‘Jahilia’, and finds its echo in Mohammed’s revelations:

  Prophet, We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom Allah has given you as booty; the daughters of your paternal and maternal uncles and of your paternal and maternal aunts who fled with you; and the other women who gave themselves to you and whom you wished to take in marriage. This privilege is yours alone, being granted to no other believer.

  We well know the duties We have imposed on the faithful concerning their wives and slave-girls. We grant you this privilege so that none may blame you. Allah is forgiving and merciful.

What an easy step in the light-fantastic to imagine that the 12 harlots in the Jahilia brothel should assume the names of the prophet’s wives. But Rushdie has explained himself on this. My point is that throughout the book we have a different reading, a poetic, re-creative reading, of what is in the Qur’an. Even the incident of the Satanic Verses finds echo in another context or rather, in no context at all, when out of the blue Mohammed is told: ‘When We change one verse for another (Allah knows best what He reveals), they say: “You are an impostor.” Indeed, most of them are ignorant men.’

And as Rushdie has insisted, all these recreative readings are rendered as the dreams of Gibreel Farishta, an Indian Muslim actor who often played parts of even Hindu gods in the type of Indian films called ‘theologicals’. In other words, the different reading is motivated in much the same way as Pynchon’s events are motivated by paranoia. Indeed the use of dreams is part of Rushdie’s defence, but personally, and on a purely literary level, I think they are almost a pity, and prefer to read them as fictional facts: why should Gibreel, who falls from the exploded plane and survives, not also travel in time? His companion Saladin, after all, changes into Shaitan, with growing horns and a tail, and then is suddenly cured. These, too, are readings, in a way allegorical but also psychological, palimpsest religion. As seen and felt and reread by a modern sensibility. But as Eco says in one of his lectures: ‘To privilege the initiative of the reader does not necessarily mean to guarantee the infinity of readings. If one privileges the initiative of the reader, one must also consider the possibility of an active reader who decides to read a text univocally: it is a privilege of fundamentalists to read the Bible according to a single sense.’

This is certainly what happens with the Qur’an. Only the authorised exegetists are allowed to interpret. A mere author is just nowhere, indeed ‘Mahound’ is made to say in The Satanic Verses that he can see no difference between a poet and a whore. If in addition this author happens to be a non-believer he is even worse than nowhere, for the Qur’an says clearly that Allah chooses the believers and even misleads the unbelievers. ‘None can guide the people whom Allah leads astray. He leaves them blundering about in their wickedness.’ As to possible new readings in time, Allah says after a similar passage about unbelievers not being helped: ‘Such were the ways of Allah in days gone by: and you shall find that they remain unchanged.’ Or again: ‘Proclaim what is revealed to you in the Book of your Lord. None can change His words’ –except, as we saw, Allah Himself.

Interestingly, the unbelievers are several times shown as accusing Mohammed’s revelations of being ‘old fictitious tales’ or, on the Torah and the Koran, ‘two works of magic supporting one another. We will believe in neither of them.’ Islam seems to the non-Islamic reader totally anti-narrative. There are no stories in the Qur’an except one or two brief exempla. This could be regarded as due to the anti-representation rule, if there were not also many bits of stories taken from the Torah (in the wide sense). Tell them about our servant Abraham, Allah says, or Moses or Lot all the way to or Mary and Jesus. This is admirably syncretic. But the stories themselves are unrecognisable as stories, they are fragmented and repetitive, and occur as ‘arguments’ and ‘signs’, and ‘proof’ of Allah’s truth. Apart from these, the Qur’an is amazingly static. There is no narrative line. It is a book of faith and ethics, that establishes a new humanism of a kind, and it proceeds by affirmation and injunction, threats of punishment and promises of reward. The story of Mohammed himself comes from other sources.

I am not an Islamist, and clearly other Arabic and especially Persian traditions do have stories. My point is simply that from the Qur’an alone, it seems hardly surprising that its more rigid interpreters and followers would be incapable of conceiving, let alone understanding, this new fiction that is palimpsest history, palimpsest religion, or palimpsest history of man’s spirituality.

And yet, to a modern sensibility – and if it is true, as many sociologists are saying, that the religious spirit is returning – the agonised doubts of both Gibreel and Saladin, as well as those of Philip II, speak more vividly than can those of the self-centred, sin-and-salvation-centred characters of Graham Greene, precisely because they are anchored in both ancient and modern history, with its migrations and regenerating mixtures.

All the books I have mentioned are large partly because they are packed with specialised knowledge. Pynchon, as Frank Kermode pointed out recently, ‘has an enormous amount of expert information – for instance, about technology, history and sexual subversion’. So does Eco about theology and theosophy, literature, philosophy, mechanical engineering, computers etc, so does Fuentes about the history of Spain and Mexico; so does Rushdie about Pakistan, India, Hinduism and Islam. Like the historian, these authors work very hard on their facts. So, incidentally, does the author of the more scientific kind of Science Fiction.

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. Even when praised, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience. In the last resort, a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of the heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organise it well, and write well.

Naturally I am caricaturing a little, to make a point. Naturally I am not trying to say that the polyphonic palimpsest histories I have been discussing are the only great novels of the century, nor that there haven’t been other types of highly imaginative novels before these. I am only saying that the novel’s task is to do things which only the novel can do, things which the cinema, the theatre and television have to reduce and traduce considerably in adaptations, losing whole dimensions, precisely because they now do better some of what the classical realist novel used to do so well. The novel took its roots in historical documents and has always had an intimate link with history. But the novel’s task, unlike that of history, is to stretch our intellectual, spiritual and imaginative horizons to breaking-point. Because palimpsest histories do precisely that, mingling realism with the supernatural and history with spiritual and philosophical reinterpretation, they could be said to float half-way between the sacred books of our various heritages, which survive on the strength of the faiths they have created and the endless exegesis and commentaries these sacred books create, which do not usually survive one another. It may seem disrespectful to place The Satanic Verses half way between the sacred book that is the Qur’an and the very exegetists who execrate it, but I am here I speaking only in literary terms, which may become clearer if I say that Homer is only partially historical and greatly mythical, or that Fuentes’s history of Spain is as interesting as the ‘real’ history sacralised at school, or Eco’s Pendulum as the ‘real’ history of theosophy. And this is because they are palimpsest histories.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences