The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
Tea: Rooibos Vanilla
Congratulations Mr Rushdie, your work is the first book review on this blog. Have a tea on me. But without further ado, let’s get to the book itself: The Satanic Verses feels at home in the genre of magical realism and makes full use of it. The story is split between Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, both of them are of Indian heritage and have had success in the movie and television industry. Gibreel is a Bollywood star famous for his portrayal of gods and Saladin is a voice actor also known as the man of a thousand voices. The novel intercuts the sections of the two protagonist with dream sequences that supposedly take place in the mind of Gibreel.
The story begins as the two protagonists are trapped in a hijacked plane far above England. Ultimately the plane rips in half and they tumble downward towards their certain death. Or maybe not? Miraculously they both survive and also do not lose their faithful bowler hat. Both of them are reborn as the Archangel Gibreel and the Devil Saladin. Their paths split at this point and both have to get accustomed to their new roles in reality, yet both of them are drawn towards the other and no one knows what will happen when they meet again in this symphony of destruction…
The book has received its fair amount of criticism as it is supposedly blasphemous towards Muslims. Resulting in attacks on Rushdie’s life. A book surrounded with such controversy was enough to pique my interest and a brief look into during a lecture did the rest. If only I had known what I had gotten myself into. To make one thing clear: this is not an easy read. I usually consider myself to be a fast and diligent reader, but Satanic Verses had me stumble over words, reread sentences and slog through it page by page. Usually, if a book is this obstructive in its readability I actually might consider stopping, like I stopped reading you, House of Leaves, and your endless array of footnotes interlaced with footnotes. But I digress. If the book was truly this hard to read, why didn’t I stop then? To be honest, at first I didn’t know. It was a challenge I wasn’t willing to lose, but as time went on the entire plot and subplots got so intertwined and captivating I didn’t want to stop. Stockholm-syndrome might be a justified metaphor here, but that wouldn’t do the book justice. If you can get into it, it provides a rich narrative with a truly colourful vocabulary.
There are some issues, of course, otherwise this would be a rather boring blog. First, a very superficial one: My version, the vintage classic version that is, had, for some reason, a load of typos. Something I rarely see these days. Not just small one, but rather glaring ones. I guess the editor didn’t have the strength to pull through it all the way either. The problem with this is that people could actually argue that those are intentional. A mark of the appropriation of the English language by an Indian, not yielding to our western rules of grammar. There is enough postcolonial criticism in your work, keep it off the language, it’s hard enough to read as it is, Mr Rushdie. As previously mentioned the parallel stories and intercut dream sequences are not the easiest to comprehend, this being a trademark of Rushdie absolves it from most criticism. But only because the dream sequences are very well written, often starting in medias res, just like a dream provides you with no introduction to the characters you just dreamed up.
The element of magical realism is adapted rather well and in some instances in a hilarious manner. Gibreel buying the judgement trumpet Azraeel in a normal music store has to be one of my favourites. Other times it can somewhat hinder the flow as the rules of the established world blur to a degree I cannot comprehend whether this is normal or abnormal. But this is also where the fun of reading Satanic Verses stems from. You are never sure of anything. Both Gibreel and Saladin are multi-layered characters that develop, not always for the better, and adapt to utterly ridiculous things.
The book has its fair share of criticism to dish out and everybody gets a full plate. Postcolonial thinking is one I mentioned before, but also the movie industry in general, and religion. But not to a degree I would order snipers to take down the author. It is and remains a work of fiction. Yes, there are controversial ideas in it, but nothing overly offensive. A world in which we could voice criticism and make fun of other things and no one would view it as an infringement of their personal freedom or right of religion would be a much better world. Not that religious people would ever accept this in their backwards way of thinking.
The Satanic Verses is a ride from start to finish, a rough ride, but a ride I can recommend. You’ll want to quit at some point, but the narrative will keep you invested and turning the page once more. A feeling of “What the fuck was that?” will sometimes creep into your mind and you shouldn’t shush it away. This seems to be somewhat intended. Ultimately it’s a book about freedom and the freedom of choice. Which makes the controversy all the more hilarious. Like people who do not vote, but complain about politics. It is also in your right to dislike the book, in the end it is up to you. It trusts you to make your own judgments and does not force them onto you. Gibreel does not represent the good simply because he is an angel and Saladin is not pure evil. This shading of the moral spectrum is probably the greatest achievement of this book and makes it such an entertaining read. I will say though that it is also somewhat liberating to not see Salman Rushdie on my nightstand anymore and now being able to return to the Discworld where I can read sentence and understand what I just read.