This is probably the most controversial piece of fiction in modern history.
It is also, however, a work of imaginative brilliance.
In my post-reading ecstasy, when I was considering how to approach writing about The Satanic Verses, my mind was so jumbled and chaotic with thought that I found it almost impossible to structure my response to it clearly. The one thing I wanted to convey, I decided, was the idea that this book MUST be read by anyone and everyone who is interested in literature and/or religion. Yes, it is dense, intellectual and so surreal in parts that you start to question your own sanity. If you can make it past page 28, however (a man I got talking to in the pub told me that this is when he closed the book, never to reopen it), you may as well carry on reading the next 500 pages. Slowly. With an open mind.
The Satanic Verses is the story of two very different Indian Muslim actors who are joined together by one event: their unlikely survival of a terrorist attack in the late Eighties. Clinging together as they plunge from a hijacked jet towards the English Channel, both clearly believe that they are about to meet their maker, yet, in a miraculous turn of events, survive to be reborn on English soil…one as an angel, complete with halo, the other as a horned devil.
What follows is what Angela Carter described as a ‘rollercoaster ride over a vast landscape of the imagination’ as each character journeys on through a life of physical and spiritual metamorphosis, experiencing love, loss, betrayal, hallucinations (in the case of one of the men), alienation, and, ultimately, what it is to be human. For Saladin Chamcha, man of a thousand voices and ardent Anglophile, the process of falling to earth as a devil eventually seems to humanise him, while Gibreel Farishta’s ‘transformation’ into the archangel Gibreel (which can actually be read as a symptom of his schizophrenia) ultimately leads to his downfall as he descends into a world of paranoia, jealousy and despair.
There is nothing controversial in this in my opinion, though references to promiscuity and homosexuality, the questioning of Allah’s existence, and the description of a Muslim stuffing haram foods into his mouth in the first thirty pages of the novel made me understand why Muslims may find Rushdie’s novel so offensive.
The controversial elements of the book actually appear in chapters that, as an aside to the main action of the novel, are meant to be read as a sequence of dream narratives experienced by Gibreel during his incarnation as the Angel Gibreel (or one of his hallucinatory experiences). In one dream-vision, Ayesha, a butterfly-eating young woman who claims to receive messages from the Angel Gibreel, leads a village to their death or new life (you decide) following a lengthy hajj to the Arabian Sea, whilst in another the early days of Islam are re-narrated, with Mahound (the Prophet Muhammad) struggling to convert a polytheistic society to the true word of God. Although Rushdie’s creation of a character (Salman) who alters the word of Allah when given the task of writing down Mahound’s recitations outraged many Muslims throughout the world, it is undoubtedly the inclusion of a story rejected by most Muslims which caused The Satanic Verses to be branded a work of blasphemy by many religious leaders and scholars of Islam.
As the original story goes, during what he believed to be a revelation, the Prophet Muhammad recited verses accepting three goddesses into the Islamic faith, only later rejecting these verses with the suggestion that Shaitan (the Devil) came to him in the form of the Angel Gibreel. Anyone who knows anything about Islam will understand why this is such a controversial story. As the Shahada, the statement of belief which forms the basis of all Islamic faith, declares that Allah is the one and only God, and the Qur’an is viewed as the literal word of God, Rushdie’s decision to include the story of the Satanic Verses in his novel, and actually name his novel after it, can only be described as brave. Or perhaps mad.
For many people, the allure of The Satanic Verses lies in its status as a novel of scandalous proportions. Any book that causes a spiritual leader to issue a fatwa sentencing its writer to death is going to be appealing on the grounds of it being taboo, yet to some extent I think that this is to the book’s detriment. Overshadowed by the hype, the book’s literary merit has, to some extent, been forgotten by the general reader. Through blurring the boundaries between fantasy and reality; life and death; good and evil, Rushdie explores many interesting themes, with the primary focus, I felt, being on the idea of alienation from culture, family, and even oneself. Whatever people may say about Rushdie’s treatment of Islam, there is no denying that The Satanic Verses is a masterfully lyrical and satirical novel that makes the reader reflect on the many nuances of the human condition.
There are, of course, flaws within the book- the structure of it being, for me, the most obvious of these. If you can cope with the constant flicking from reality to dream narrative without getting either confused, annoyed or bored, then, quite frankly, you deserve a high five! Additionally, the amount of minor characters left me bemused on more than one occasion. The Satanic Verses does require a lot of concentration and mental investment, but, if you are prepared to proceed with it, it is hugely rewarding. Be warned, however: unless you are Indian, a Muslim, or highly knowledgeable about Islam, there will be many jokes and references that you will either completely miss or fail to fully comprehend.
Due to this being a blog and not a piece of literary criticism, there are many elements of The Satanic Verses that I’ve left untouched. The fact is, I don’t think it’s possible to give an overview of this book that will truly do it justice. Multi-layered, philosophical, and almost farcical in parts, Rushdie’s most widely discussed novel is something you have to read for yourself. Whether you love it or hate it, I’m sure you will be able to appreciate it as a work of considerable literary power.
After reading Midnight’s Children I started to think that Salman Rushdie was a literary genius. After my reading of The Satanic Verses, I am now convinced that he is.