Random House, 1988, 576 pages
One of the most controversial and acclaimed novels ever written, The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie's best-known and most galvanizing book. Set in a modern world filled with both mayhem and miracles, the story begins with a bang: the terrorist bombing of a London-bound jet in midflight. Two Indian actors of opposing sensibilities fall to earth, transformed into living symbols of what is angelic and evil. This is just the initial act in a magnificent odyssey that seamlessly merges the actual with the imagined. A book whose importance is eclipsed only by its quality, The Satanic Verses is a key work of our times
The Satanic Verses was published in 1988, and the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's head in 1989. That made this book far more famous than it otherwise would have been, though Rushdie was already a big-name author.
I only read it this year, but I recall the controversy vividly.
A short digression about young Inverarity's college years
In 1989, I was a college student (there, I've really dated myself now) at a university rather well known for free speech and liberalism. The Ayatollah Khomeini was still the Great Muslim Bugbear of the West ‐ the Iranian hostage crisis was still, if not fresh, not yet faded into history, and Saddam Hussein was our buddy because he was killing Iranians.
So one bright spring day, as I wandered along the student plaza where various organizations and clubs and pamphleteers and screaming lunatics were lined up for their daily assault on the attention of passing students, I saw that the Muslim Students Association had a booth set up, in which there was a lengthy banner explaining the "Muslim reaction" to the Ayatollah's fatwa against Salman Rushdie.
Curious (I had heard of the fatwa, of course, but not read the book), I walked over and read their wall of text, and then talked to a couple of the Muslim students for a while.
Their "position" was a long, equivocal set of semi-justifications that veered away from actively supporting or condemning the Ayatollah, but as best as I could understand it, it boiled down to: "We don't really approve of calling for people to be killed, but shame on Salman Rushdie for offending Muslims - he should have known better."
"Okaaaaay," I thought, walking away.
This happened about the same time that the communist bookstore owner who also had a booth on the "free speech" plaza told me, quite straightforwardly and without irony, that of course under a Marxist regime, dissenters wouldn't be allowed to speak out against Marxism, because that would make you an enemy of the people.
I spent a lot of years being pretty darn liberal, but I never forgot those particular lessons and I've always harbored a deep loathing of anyone who'd make the argument that certain feelings are so delicate that you should shut up rather than risk injuring them.
End digression: how about the book?
The Satanic Verses
For all that it's notorious for being an "attack on Islam," it's really no such thing. The Satanic Verses is primarily about two Indians of Muslim background (but indifferent faith), both of whom, in the opening chapter, are falling from the sky over England as their plane was just blown up.
"To be born again,' sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, 'first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji! To land upon the bosomy earth, first one needs to fly Tat-taa! Takatun! How to ever smile again, if first you won't cry? How to win the darling's love mister, without a sigh?"
Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha spend the entire novel as magnetic poles, opposites drawing one another closer. After surviving their fall from the sky, Saladin becomes a goat, while Gibreel becomes (at least in his own mind) the Archangel Gabriel. Gibreel descends into madness; Saladin gets beaten up by the cops (his transformation into an animal is both literal, in this book of "magical realism," and metaphorical, as a symbol of post-colonial racism).
Their life stories, their loves, and their careers span the entire novel, from their upbringing in India to Gibreel Farishta's success as a Bollywood star and Saladin Chamcha's career as a voice actor. But after surviving their plane disaster, Saladin has become a devilish adversary to Gibreel's angelic persona. They are bound together by jealousy, disaster, shared ex-patriate experiences, and madness.
I found the book interesting but meandering. Rushdie seemed to be trying to do too much. He's imaginative and funny and his words are deeply layered - this is quite a literary novel with flourishes of fantasy, humor, and allegory.
"An iceberg is water striving to be land; a mountain, especially a Himalaya, especially Everest, is land's attempt to metamorphose into sky; it is grounded in flight, the earth mutated--nearly--into air, and become, in the true sense, exalted. Long before she ever encountered the mountain, Allie was aware of its brooding presence in her soul."
And yet, it didn't really entertain me. I feel like an unappreciative juvenile saying that, but I did like Midnight's Children, yet The Satanic Verses, arguably deeper and more meaningful (maybe?) missed its mark with me.
What about those offenses against Islam?
The stories of the two protagonists, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are interspersed with dream sequences that retell the life of Mohammad.
Muslims are notoriously prickly about using the Prophet as a character of any sort, but what really seemed to do it for Rushdie were three parts in particular:
1. The "Satanic Verses" for which the novel is named, which turn out to be based on actual Islamic apocryphal stories in which Mohammad supposedly endorsed the existence of three pre-Islamic goddesses, before retracting his words.
2. In one dream sequence, a satirical poet who is an adversary of Mohammad hides in a brothel, where the prostitutes assume the personnas of Mohammad's wives.
3. Most likely what really pissed off the Ayatollah, there is another dream sequence in which the Ayatollah himself is unflatteringly portrayed in the character of a nameless "Imam" living in Paris.
(Which leads me to wonder whether the Ayatollah Khomeini ever actually read the book, or was merely told about what was in it.)
One can certainly see (and certainly has seen) how members of other religions have reacted with a sour lack of humor when their own faith was treated as a fictional canvas to be painted on by an infidel author's speculative embellishments. (See: The Last Temptation of Christ, Sita Sings the Blues, or the appearance of Hopi Kachinas in Marvel Comics.)
But none of them resulted in the body count that The Satanic Verses did.
Verdict: Salman Rushdie is a talented writer, but the Ayatollah made this book a bestseller. By itself, The Satanic Verses is a multilayered if confusing modern, mystic fable about love, lust, identity, alienation, post-colonialism, faith, jealousy, and redemption. Add in a loose religious allegory and you get death threats and one of the most famous books of the 20th century.
Also by Salman Rushdie: My review of Midnight's Children.
My complete list of book reviews.