Book Review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

After hearing about this book a few times through my life, mostly in connection with the fatwa and ensuing controversy surrounding its publication, I finally bought The Satanic Verses a few months ago.  In September, after the horrible attacks at the US Embassy, Salman Rushdie was in the news again. Firstly, because he has a new memoir that just came out, called Joseph Anton, all about the time he spent under guard once the Ayatollah announced the bounty on his head.  Also, because a religious group in Iran has somehow decided to blame all of the horrors connected with The Innocence of Muslims and ensuing violence on Salman Rushdie and his nearly 25-year-old novel.  I’m not sure how they came to that connection, but I am extremely ignorant about fatwas in general.  At any rate, they decided to increase the reward for killing Rushdie from 2.8 million to 3.3 million dollars.  If you’re going to kill someone for a crazy religious reason then money shouldn’t be that big of a factor, should it?  Also, if you’re going to kill someone for money, and 2.8 million isn’t enough for you, why would 3.3 million be? I mean, it’s a lot of money, but…I’m confused by their motives.  And their logic.  It does not resemble our earth logic.  Anyway, I decided now would be a great time to read the book and see what the fuss is about.

First a warning to everyone thinking of reading this book: It’s not an easy read.  I’m not saying it was unpleasant; I actually really enjoy Rushdie’s style, which verges on stream-of-consciousness without crossing the line into Joycean incomprehensibility. What the book does is demand a lot out of you.  You have to really pay attention. You have to remember and keep track of lots of characters from modern London, modern India, 7th century Arabia and a few other places, times, and people. It’s a lot of work.  There is slang, references, and symbolism that is not something the average American would know, and I think unless you’re intimately familiar with Muslim culture and Indian culture a lot is lost on you.  I spent half my time on the Wiki for the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, Muhammad, Rushdie, India, Mecca, etc. etc.  If you want to get even half of what he’s talking about, you have to either know it already, or look it up. You can’t just ignore a lot of it and hope it wont be brought up again.  On the other hand, even though I get the feeling that I only understood about 30% of the cultural references Rushdie makes, I don’t feel like reading the book was at any point a waste of time. It was a learning experience, and his writing style is rewarding enough on its own that you don’t feel bad for not knowing what the fuck is happening half the time.  Just know that he is, like the best college professors, going to talk fast and expect you to keep up. You have to put the work in with this book.

The story starts with two Indian men, both actors, falling from the sky. One (Saladin Chamcha) characterizes himself as an Englishman (right down to the bowler hat on his head as he falls), the other (Gibreel Farishta) is a Bollywood/Indian cinema superstar. Above them, a commercial airplane has just been blown apart by terrorists over the English Channel.  They fall to Earth and they live.

Just take in that beginning for a moment and you’ll notice quite a few things that characterize the book.

1-Multiculturalism.  This book takes place in different settings and times and deals with multiple religions.  Like London, and like Rushdie, it is an amalgam of different cultures and the struggles inherent when they coexist (or try to).

2-Magical Realism. I think Rushdie must be a big fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and similar writers.  This is not a realistic novel, and that’s obvious even from the tiny description I’ve given you.  The book also features a man transformed into an angel with a trumpet that shoots wrath-of-god fire and brimstone, a man transformed into a demon/satyr with hooves and horns, a woman clothed in golden butterflies, a ghost riding a flying carpet, a ghost of the first man to try to climb Everest solo, and the parting of the Arabian Sea.  I sometimes think magical realism is science fiction without the explanation.  If when strange and crazy things happen in fiction you feel you require an explanation, a logical reasoning, then this book is not for you.  You sort of just have to let go and accept that this main character is now sprouting horns and fur, or controlling the weather of London.  But at the same time, there’s never any real way of telling what is truly happening and what is just metaphor or allegory or schizophrenic delusion.

3-Struggling with immigrant identity. This is a huge part of Saladin’s story. He comes to England at a young age and hopes to be truly assimilated.  Throughout the story, though, he fails to become truly English. He isn’t treated as an Englishman, even though he feels more stereotypically and quintessentially English than a lot of others he meets.  After decades of trying to fit into this new culture and have this new culture embrace him (right down to marrying an English woman with noble connections), he finally realizes that it’s not working.  He has to acknowledge India as a part of him.  Other characters, English, Indian, etc., seem to struggle with accepting or rejecting the culture into which they have born. Rushdie does an amazing job of illustrating the constant remaking of our own identities.  Several of the English people (especially the women) want to distance themselves from English culture, seeing only the bad in it the same way that Saladin sees the good.

Other themes spread out through the book, taking on whole chapters, and then disappearing, only to resurface toward the end.  We drift in and out of time and space, reality and not.

The most controversial parts of the book were about Muhammad himself, only he is known as Mahound in this novel.  There are stories about his early life, and what seems to be an increasing corruption throughout his years.  There is another religious figure in the book, though I think she is purely fictional.  She is an epileptic prophet. Both of these characters claim that the Angel Gibreel (Gabriel) comes to them and speaks the word of God.  Rushdie makes it clear that what is happening is that their desires and their ideas pour into Gibreel and he echoes back what they want to hear.  Almost like they are demons possessing him, and when he has parroted back what they wanted the answer to be, they go skipping off and declare they have heard the word of God.  There is a particularly sacrilegious bit where Salman, a follower of Muhammad and the man chosen to write down these declarations from God, begins to alter them slightly to see if Muhammad will notice.  Surely he will notice if the written accounts don’t match what Gabriel has told him?  But he doesn’t, and Salman then knows that Muhammad is a fraud.  I can see why this would upset Muslims, though…overreaction much?

There is no way I can explain this entire novel.  There is no way I even understood this entire novel.  There is a whole section about this Imam, an exiled leader.  Apparently this is a thinly-disguised portrait of the Ayatollah Al Khamenei, but I was eight when he died and can’t say that I know much about him. So I completely missed out on this entire reference.  I have the feeling I only ‘got’ about 20-40% of the references in the book.  So I’ll just share a few of my thoughts as I read:

-There are literary mentions and little tidbits everywhere. There are quite a few Shakespeare references (especially Othello, which fits with the various couples comprised of Middle Eastern men and white English women), and he is clearly a fan of 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights.  Rushdie assumes his audience is incredibly well-read, and he drops in lines and references that most people wouldn’t get.  It was nice that I got some of them, and it did give me a feeling of being in on a conversation that incorporated lots of literature written over the last 500 years.  Similarly, there seems to be an ongoing conversation with immigrant stories and myths, referenced throughout the book.

-Rushdie and Zadie Smith–I haven’t done any research to back this up, but I’m guessing Zadie Smith is a Rushdie fan. I found a lot of similarity to her work in this, particularly White Teeth, which I read recently. Both are tales of modern London and the immigrants and English people living there. Both have large ensemble casts and speed through time and space from WWII to colonized Jamaica to 1980s Willesdon Green.  White Teeth features two characters, brothers, that reminded me somewhat of Saladin and Gibreel.  One embodies many of the clichés of the English, and becomes an atheist intellectual (much to the horror of his father, who sent him to India to become a proper Muslim), the other becomes a strict Muslim and takes up with a group of bow-tied young men who burn The Satanic Verses in protest (without reading it).  Since I haven’t researched it, she may have included this in her novel because she hates him, for all I know.  Either way, there are similarities.  I also think there are similarities (in both White Teeth and The Satanic Verses) to Dickens, and other Victorian novels that feature a huge range of characters and the ever-evolving London.  As Dickens was to Victorian London, I think these two (and probably others that I am not familiar with yet) speak for and about London and all of the history (good and bad) that makes it what it is today–a wonderful, dizzying, terrifying place that can contain the best and worst of humanity, with immeasurable depths of struggle and tension constantly boiling beneath the surface.

And a last note on Rushdie and women.  I read a lot of women authors.  I find that a lot of male authors either marginalize women into a few overused tropes (the virgin, the whore, the bitch)  or write them as men with breasts and long hair.  Salman Rushdie’s female characters are not the center of this book, but in every one of them there is a depth, a humanity, and a vulnerability that makes them whole and unique human beings.  He treats them all with respect, and expects the reader to do the same. I know he’s been married something like four times, but if his writing is anything to go by, it is obvious to me that he respects women and sees them as they are, not as something other or different or in any way able to be categorized and pigeon-holed. So I am glad for that.

After this epic long post, you may be wondering something.  What the fuck are the Satanic Verses? What’s with the title?  I had to look it up before I started, but it is also sort of explained in the book.

Muhammad was in the habit of going to the top of a mountain to meet the Angel Gabriel/Gibreel and receive instruction/the Word.  He and his followers were very disrespected in the beginning, coming from a polytheistic culture and advocating the belief in one god.  A local big wig offered Muhammad a deal–he should acknowledge the three famous local goddesses as part of his religion. These goddesses would be declared the daughters of Allah and would still be worshiped alongside him.  If Muhammad did this, their religion would be accepted and cared for. Muhammad went up to the mountain and talked with Gibreel and decided that sounded good to him. He repeated the new edict to his followers, who thought it went against everything he had told them thus far (fair point).  Pensive, he went back up the mountain and asked Gibreel about it.  He came back and announced that everything he had said before had not come from Gibreel but from Satan, speaking through him.  So the Satanic Verses are those words declaring these other goddesses to be real and to be worthy of worship in Islam.  I believe in Muslim cultures it is more commonly known as The Story of the Cranes, but that makes a far less interesting book title.

Obviously this was a challenging book, and I am not well-versed enough in much of what was discussed to pretend that I ‘got’ it all, understood every reference or allegory.  What I will say is that I enjoyed reading it, I love Rushdie’s style, I like his humor and his truth, and I feel that even if I can understand 10% of what he’s talking about, I will still think he’s worth reading.  I will also say, however, that the ending disappointed me.  It didn’t pull everything together into a cohesive whole as well as I would have liked.  I don’t need a happy ending, but this seemed like there were just too many balls for him to juggle and he dropped a few at the end.  But I highly recommend it, if you’ve got the energy to keep up!

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