Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses features many characters who cross multiple borders and, as a result, experience a symbolic sense of homelessness. Immigration, the process of navigating between nations, raises questions regarding the identity of the immigrant, often causing a disconnect between native and adopted homes. Many immigrants face the dilemma having to choose between these multiple homes and cultures. During the process, they may decide to employ mimicry as a strategy to find acceptance, even at a personal cost. Such struggles play out in the novel with the Cone family, between the father and mother. Otto’s complete devotion to mimicry ultimately ends in self-annihilation, while Alicja’s allowance for self-imperfection results in a more graceful adoption of a new home and identity.
The Cones immigrated to London at the behest of the family patriarch Otto Cone. Immersed in a new world, Otto immediately embraces the foreign land. He aims to fully integrate at any cost, including forsaking his past and completely cutting ties with his birth country. One of the most obvious forms of this separation manifests in his conscious decision to change both the names of his family members as well as his own. Otto Cone of London, England had once been Otto Cohen of Warsaw, Poland. He wants no reminder of history, even if it means forging a completely new identity. Not only does he craft a new identity for a new life, he goes so far as to “bowdlerize” himself to make the name more palatable for his host country. This reduction of name, so intimately tied with identity, implies an equal lessening of self for Otto. Transformed into the mimic man, Otto Cone’s identity rests on attempting to ape the English, rather than allowing Otto Cohen’s to spring forth from himself. For this new man, mimicry depends all on language. He must sound English, both in name and speech. To accomplish this goal, Otto also chooses to abandon his “Polish literature, turning his back on Herbert, on Miłosz, on ‘younger fellows’ like Baranczak, because for him the language was irredeemably polluted by history” (308). Instead, he trades this literary background in for stereotypically British phrases. “Pish-Tush!” and “Bugger all!” now inhabit his lexicon (308). This effort not only rejects his history, but, like the name change, also diminishes him. Otto no longer concerns himself with the works of great intellectuals, but would rather deliver inane prattle in the name of saving face. This is how he chooses to “be English”.
Even after all these impressive efforts and extensive sacrifices, Otto Cone understands that he will never fully assimilate successfully. He is “only too aware of the fragility of the performance,” despite all the care he puts into his craft (308). As the mimic man, he copies what he considers proper English speech. However, this reproduction remains imperfect. Otto cannot rid himself of his “thick East European accent” (308). This extreme self-consciousness leads him to depression. The immigrant confines himself inside, “keeping the heavy drapes almost permanently drawn in case the inconsistency of things cause[s] him to see monsters out there, or moonscapes instead of the familiar Moscow Road” (308). Keeping up with the false identity takes a toll on Otto’s psyche. He needs a space to decompress and take up the mantle of Otto Cohen again. Yet, even during such a moment he remains cautious. The heavy drapes stay closed, veiling himself, the shame of his true identity, from the world. At the same time, Otto refuses to look outside out of fear of seeing “monsters” and “moonscapes”. The “inconsistency of things”, his English performance, removes him from a stable sense of reality. By not being true to himself, he starts blurring the lines of reality and fantasy. Eventually, this disconnect along with all the other consequences of mimicry become too much for Otto. He jumps into a liftshaft and dies.
Otto Cone attempts to draw his whole family into his obsession, but his wife Alicja eventually resists. Alicja sees no reason to participate in mimicry to find acceptance. Even more so, she considers her husband’s extensive efforts for assimilation completely unnecessary. When asked about Otto’s behavior, Alicja complains, “He was strictly a melting-pot man…when he changed our name I told him, Otto, it isn’t required, this isn’t America…but he wanted to wipe the slate clean, even his Jewishness” (308). She understands that Otto’s desire for mimicry is a way of dealing with the process of immigration, but views his actions as excessive. Nevertheless, Alicja performs along with Otto for his sake. She only participates in the act as her “offering on the altar of his lust for integration” (309). By using such language, Alicja clearly understands that the level of Otto’s devotion has reached almost religious fanaticism. She decides that it is better to simply go along with him rather than try to convince him of an alternative to mimicry. However, unlike Otto, Alicja ultimately rejects mimicry as a coping strategy to the trauma of immigration.
As soon as Otto died, Alicja “went straight back to Cohen, the synagogue, Chanukah and Bloom’s” (308). She never felt comfortable being shaped by Otto into the identity of Alicja Cone. Alicja Cohen symbolically rejects mimicry by casting off the forged identity of Cone and returning to Cohen. The break in performance is almost liberating for the widow. Alicja confides to her daughter Allie, “what a relief, my dear, to be shapeless for a change” (309). She no longer needs keep up appearances through a separate identity or confine herself to a specific shape. She can let go and return to “grey hair in a straggly bun”, “identical floral-print supermarket dresses”, and “heavy stews and a minimum of three outrageous puddings” instead of “the elegant high style of dress and gesture … her attempt to be [Otto’s] Cecil Beaton grande dame” (309). The changes may certainly be seen as a reduction of her status, and not everyone would accept the “new” Alicja. Her guests, shocked by the alterations, sit “staring gloomily” in “total silence” at one of her new luncheons (309). However, Alicja herself finds no issues in these imperfections. She gleefully matches her outward expression and appearance to her inner, flaws and all. Even though she knows she no longer appears as elegant or as well-liked by her English peers, she is happy because she accepts herself and her new place in life. Given the choice of extremes, Alicja chooses to gracefully acclimate to immigration and preserve her identity.
In The Satanic Verses, Otto Cone’s answer to the difficulties of immigration, mimicry, ends in failure, while Alicja Cohen’s rejection of the same path allows for a smoother transition between homes. Otto completely devotes himself to crafting a new identity in the hopes of being accepted the English. However, Otto still remains all too self-aware of the limits of this act. These shortcomings ultimately lead to dissatisfaction and death. While Otto involves his family in his mission, they do not all respond with the same fervor. His wife, Alicja, most notably fails to adhere to his philosophy and immediately stops playing along after Otto’s death. Instead, she finds a happier and healthier solution by embracing an adaptable identity, even with all its faults.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Random House, 2008. Print.
4 pages; 1,200 words