1,620 of 1,668 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2001
Being a Moslem, and having recently returned from an extended stay in India, I read The Satanic Verses with keen interest and found that both of these experiences contributed immensely to my enjoyment of this complex work. It was a clever showcase of Rushdie's typically brilliant prose, and a thoroughly compelling read. But be warned: many of the jokes and references probably would escape the average Western reader (by average, I mean one not familiar with Islam or Indian culture).
That being said, I noticed that many reviewers here say they do not find the book offensive to Moslems, while simultaneously admitting their own lack of knowledge regarding Islam. As a fairly well-versed Moslem, I can impartially state that Rushdie repeatedly criticizes, and even ridicules, the Islamic faith, in ways both subtle and overt, throughout this entire book.
Did Rushie's criticism bother me? Not at all. Did it justify a Fatwa by the Ayatollah? Of course not. But can the book be reasonably interpreted as being offensive to some Moslems? Those who know the Islamic faith would be hard-pressed to argue otherwise.
Nevertheless, realizing that this is just a work of fiction by a gifted novelist, I enjoyed reading the book and recommend it to all my friends.
260 of 283 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2000
The Satanic Verses has been dubbed (amongst many other things!) `the most famous book most people will never read'. If true it's is a real shame, because at the centre of all the extreme opinion that surrounds the book, the condemnation, acclaim and analysis, is an incredible and accessible novel far greater than the sum of its few controversial parts. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha `crash land' together in England from India and are both profoundly transformed by the experience. Farishta begins to develop an angelic halo, while Chamcha metamorphoses into a cloven-hoofed devil complete with horns and bad breath. Both men suffer, in different ways, the brutality and indignity of their transformations in Rushdie's evocation of a tense and brooding London. Ultimately it is the `demonic' Chamcha who finds fulfilment by returning to India, the `angelic' Farishta is not so fortunate. Merging fantasy and reality, Rushdie uses the subversive excesses of `magical realism' to explore the demands of migration and how those demands can destroy the fragile assurances of identity and belonging most of us take for granted. Farishta is haunted by the nightmares of his lost Muslim faith, Chamcha by the impossible dream of reinventing himself as an Englishman. Through these and the experiences of other often outrageously conceived characters, Rushdie reflects on how people suffer, and are made to suffer, for the sake of a little certainty. If it all sounds a little heavy, don't be put off. Above all this is a great piece of story-telling, funny, extraordinary and completely absorbing. Rushdie works his usual narrative magic, writing on a grand exuberant scale that takes in everything from sex and death to flying carpets and hot wax, but also the delicate intimacies of desire and despair. Poignant and staggeringly imaginative, The Satanic Verses explores continuing cultural obsessions with purity and stability in a world increasingly lacking in either.
89 of 98 people found the following review helpful
on October 10, 2007
I am of the belief that Ruhullah Khomeini made his infamous fatwa against Rushdie (and this novel) based on one line in the book: "when the aga khan drinks wine, it turns to water in his mouth." This is a direct mocking of Ruhullah Khomeini and probably was the real reason for the fatwa. Khomeini fiercely wanted to be the grand marja' of every shia; he worked to gain supreme power in the form of a theocratic revolutionary. I believe Rushdie's comment was probably more stinging to his assumed authority than anything else in the novel. Picking on Islam would have united people under Khomeini (uniting against a common enemy), but attacking Khomeini would usurp his power and divide his support base.
This is not to say that the book does not have plenty of subtle and intertwined criticisms and twists on the Islamic faith. To understand these moments in the book the reader does need a fairly large knowledge of Islam. There aren't direct and pointed attacks, they are more so the settings of scenes, the ruminations of characters (particularly Salman the Persian). Many of these episodes which display twists on early Islamic history are presented as in a dream by a crazed Indian actor, Gibreel Farishta. So Rushdie never goes so far as to suggest that any of these sequences is even possibly true.
But to balance the above, are moments where faith and willing suspension of disbelief courageously overcome and succeed. Magical experiences which suggest that those who mock religion are actually the fools.
Rushdie's writing style can be a bit difficult, but once you get used to it, its very melodic and rich. The reader gets the feeling that Rushdie never rushes (!) his prose; there is never a hurried sense to his narrative. Aside from religious content, sex and violence are topics that are, if not explicitly detailed out, present continually through the book. The book isn't for easily disturbed readers.
80 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on December 1, 2000
An incredibly original and creative novel.
Many readers have been drawn to this novel by the provocative controversy which surrounds it. If you're reading Satanic Verses looking for a shocking denouncement you will likely be disappointed. Unless you're a scholar of the Islamic faith you likely won't understand what all the fuss is about.
I read this novel over ten years ago and have re-read it in bits and pieces many times since. Aside from the imaginative interwoven plot the most compelling feature of Verses is Rushdie's amazing lyrical writing style. Love him or hate him Rushdie is undoubtedly one of the most brilliant authors writing in the English language, and practically every section of prose could be enjoyed on it's own independent of the story. There is more word-play and double meanings is Verses than you could find in a dozen readings; every time you read a chapter you'll find something new.
Aside from a general interest in the various religions of the world I profess no great knowledge of the Koran, therefore undoubtedly there is symbolism in Verses that I missed/didn't understand. Some elements of this book that won't be accessible for the lay reader. But based purely on its creativity and masterful prose this book is a worthwhile, entertaining, and challenging read.
(A background note: Satanic Verses was the first Rushdie novel I read, and I promptly fell in love with his work. I subsequently read The Moor's Last Sigh and East West, and promptly feel right back out of love. Satanic Verses was the novel that Rushdie was born to write; in his lyrical prose, humor, and surrealistic mix of realism with the fantastic he creates an amazing work of art. Nothing he has written comes close. Unless you're a die-hard Rushdie fan, a scholar of Indian society and the interrelation between East and West simply read this novel and skip the rest.)
59 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on October 25, 1999
First of all let me start by reviewing the book. Satanic Verses is a difficult, hilarious and severe work . Since I had a Pakistani friend translate some of the Urdu where most of the attacks against Islam are, I also have a pretty good understanding of its content. I am a muslim, and not a particularly religious one, but I feel ver compelled to point out the blatant rascism most of the world shows over this contrevorsy(rather than Mr.Rushdie), I view it as a good thing to critisize religion in general because for all its virtues over the years it has been responsible for more blood shed than any single conflict ever had. Yet most of the western press says that the "muslims" want Rushdie's head and even open minded jounalists like Roger Ebert the film critic who's reviews I grew up with says "Islam is a religion not comatable with our western culture , indeed the chilling death sentence show its limitation on freedom of speech." Let make this very clear, I and most of the other 1.3 Billion muslims couldn't care less what a sociopath like Ayatullah whatever says, I live in Tunisia and don't even speak his language, nor do I wish to be judged by what a moron like Louise Farakan says they don't represent me or any Muslim I know. Yet most of you know this yet when one of these idiots says something it is the muslims who are qouted. If you are going to critisize Islam( and there are grounds for that) read the scripture itself, which for the most part is very open minded. Many events such as the prophet having dinner with a Jewish family, and never once is the wearing of veil advocated in the Quran. Indeed of all organised religion Islam is probably the most open minded , a fact that is obscured by the people who practise it (mostly third world countries living under dictators, and it is this povertly and a certain illiteracy that is reponsible for the dogmatic appearance of Islam. In the Seventh and Eightth centuries Arabian authours regularly questioned God, how can religion cuase so much Bloodshed (Crusades, Middle East, Bosnia). indeed it fits Rushdie's discription a devil with angelic features. I am generally dis-illisioned with any sort of faith that makes people narrow minded and cold, I have a natural dis-like for people who follow religious law as a manual for life, and as an Individual of faith(any faith) I think God wants to be questioned and that is why he gave the ability to question and doubt, Mr.Rushdie's book is not a fan of Islam , but it is an elequent attack , and those who disapprove should respond with "elequent" attacks of their own .
44 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on May 5, 2001
This work of Salman Rushdie has inflamed many tempers, but what is this book really about? It's not just about Islam, but faith and doubt in any religion... Moreover, it is not that simple; there is no single continuous theme. It is as multi-thematic as it is ambiguous and borderless. Metamorphoses and grotesque transformations, the confusion of good and evil, religious fanaticism, multiculturalism, migration and displacement... all these ideas appear in the book in some form or other while the reader follows the adventures of Gibreel Farishta (the angel, but not) and Saladin Chamcha (the devil, but not) from their descent from an exploded plane to London, through their absurd, mythic misadventures, to their final reunion.
Gibreel upon his landing from the fall finds himself slowly transformed into the Angel Gibreel, complete with halo. Saladin, by contrast, grows horns, inherits bad breath, and a donkey-like lower body. However it is unclear why these two are chosen the way they are since their roles do not parallel their personalities. Gibreel is always rather selfish, and he hardly does much good, though usually gets away with anything. Saladin is deliberate and insecure, trying to connect to a nation that is not natively his. Gibreel has dreams of being the Archangel, engaging in the events of the Koran, yet these dreams seem to be a result of his diagnosed mental illness. Saladin is beaten by the police, cuckolded, forced to stay in a room as a hideous monster and what has he done wrong? And their stories go on for 547 splendid pages.
This is a truly ambitious work of fiction (with much historical basis, according to Rushdie). As such, it is fantastically imaginative, and the prose is as musical as Nabokov's. The fragmentation of events and lives, the disillusion with the sacred, the severing of one's past versus the search for personal history, and cultural distrust and misunderstanding reflect the 20th century (Western?) world with all its doubts and insecurities. Morality is ambiguous, life is uncertain and the book keeps changing, escaping our desire to comprehend fully all its interweaving patterns.
The persecution of Rushdie, though unfortunate, is disturbingly fitting. The resulting outcry to ban his book only serves to confirm the necessity of his words. Those who are sensitive and fearful of blasphemy should perhaps leave this on the shelves. But then again, its purpose is to emphasize the question which repeats itself several times in the book: What kind of idea is this? If answers do not precede questions, then can belief exist without doubt? Maybe the questions too are sacred, and the censorship of them is a sin.
44 of 52 people found the following review helpful
Many have argued that the Ayatollah Khomeni made "The Satanic Verses" a best seller. By declaring a fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, so the claim goes, the Islamic Republic of Iran's first Supreme Ruler brought the blasphemous book worldwide attention, countless additional readers, and celebrity status for its apostate author. In the typical mass buying frenzy that follows controversy, marketing departments must have felt like puerile amateurs. Dang! Why didn't we think of blasphemy? Make a note of that! An amazed public, stunned that a mere book could cause an international incident, gobbled up copies. The banned, cursed, and burned book sold in droves. Then, as if to prove that the written word still carried weight in the electronic age, the violence began. Riots, killings, bombings pockmarked India, Pakistan, England, Japan, Turkey, Norway, and California. Trembling bookstore managers across the United States yanked the book from shelves with "It Can't Happen Here" ringing in their skulls. Rushdie, whose murder carried increasing monetary value (an Iranian businessman offered $3 million), went into hiding. Though he had already gained a reputation as an author, "Midnight's Children" in particular garnered much literary attention, "The Satanic Verses" vaulted Rushdie to international fame and infamy. And it continued to sell.
Controversy sells, but without the fatwa and the international media attention, Rushdie's fourth novel would have sold at least moderately well. Before the scandals, his reputation was rising amongst fans of literary fiction. "Midnight's Children" and "Shame" swam in thick puddings of symbolism, non-western cultural references, and labyrinthine narrative structures. "The Satanic Verses" includes these same elements to a heightened degree. For one, the curlique plot twists and bends like a large narrative intestine, bouncing the reader through time, dreams, myth, and illusion. Multiple themes, expressed as conflicting dualities, also weave throughout this almost Rube Goldberg-esque tale: faith and doubt, good and evil, love and hate, reality and dreams, sanity and insanity, the seen and the unseen. To top it off, Rushdie doesn't spoon feed any of this to readers. Those unacquainted with Indian traditions and language, Islam, Christianity, England, and non-western mythology will probably miss many of the rich thematic nuances. Some have even argued that disorientation for westerners remains one of the novel's central points. Though most of the story takes place in England proper, the western elements remain in the background. British characters either have indelible ties and dependencies to the main Indian characters, or they serve as caricatures or cartoons. This subverts novels that place westerners in an "exotic" location and marginalize that locale's inhabitants by placing them in the background like plastic set pieces (some point to Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as an example). As such, "The Satanic Verses" presents a challenging, brain pumping, but mind opening, read.
The book also strains readers' suspension of disbelief throughout its dense pages. Characters metamorphize, change color, perform extraordinary mystical deeds, and see gods and goddesses. Much of the story works at the level of myth. Don't look for stark realism here. This evenholds for the novel's main characters, the thematically conjoined twins, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. At the novel's outset, they plummet from an exploding airliner. Gibreel, the cheery one named after an archangel, annoys Chamcha by singing. "To be born again first you have to die. Ho ji! Ho ji!" Chamcha, even while falling, begins to grow stubby horns. He will transform into a satyr devil goat like creature, complete with fire and brimstone halitosis. Gibreel, the duality's other half, becomes a God-like messiah figure. Many swear to see him levitate or to witness his blazing holy halo. On the surface one represents good and the other evil. But symbols can fool the senses, and the "angel" does not only perform angelic but also devlish acts. He drives his first wife to her death, betrays Chamcha, defies his religion by devouring pork ("no thunderbolts"), and convinces himself that he embodies the archangel Gabriel. But he also saves Chamcha's life, arguably twice, provides on-the-go therapy for outcasts, as well as other "angelic" duties. In effect, the angel devil symbolism doesn't validate the actions of the symbolized and the novel thus breaks down a false dichotomy of absolutes. Both characters contain requisite amounts of good and evil regardless of their disparate facades. So are the main characters people or symbols? They seem to exist in a hazy middleground between reality and myth. As does the entire book.
In February 2006 Iran announced that the fatwa was permanent. Regardless, Rushdie has resumed a "normal" public life. What inspired the Iranian government to put that enormous price on his head? "The Satanic Verses," after all, is not a diatribe against Islam. But two of its chapters, "Mahound" and "Return to Jahilia," retell the story of the rise of the Prophet Muhammad. "Jahilia" and "Yathrib" represent Calvino-esque reconstructions of Mecca and Medina. Muhammed gets renamed "Mahound," a name once used as a satirical insult. And, worst of all, one of Mahound's scribes, named Saladin (which ties him to the devilish Chamcha), intentionally alters Mahoud's recitations as a test. Mahound never notices these sleight-of-hand changes, even when Saladin changes "Christian" to "Jew." Though this relates to the book's theme of doubt, many Muslims saw this as a direct affront to the Prophet and to Islam. Rushdie also unearths the controversial story of the satanic verses. Through his research at Cambridge University he came along a story in which the Prophet Muhammad declares certain recited passages as "satanic" in origin. They get struck from the record. In the novel, Gibreel, acting as a confused and bumbling archangel, tells Mahound to accept the idols of Jahilia as a compromise. Mahound at first accepts but later renouces the recitation. The story remains controversial as it suggests that Shaitan himself once spoke through the Prophet. "The Satanic Verses," for these and other reasons, remains anathema throughout the Muslim world today.
No book in the last century has caused more furor. No book in recent memory has bisected two worlds so vividly. Rushdie, a former Muslim from India transplanted to England, straddles both. The wounds from the expanding fissure between these worlds have not yet healed. If anything they have festered and become gangrenous. We need perspective. In this vein, "The Satanic Verses" not only provides a rich and engaging literary experience, but also some perspective from which to examine the differences between two worlds that seem on the verge of a calamitous collision.
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
This is a tour de force, a show of strength, a performance. It's the sort of novel that requires a Big Style and a lot of learning to write. It's not the sort of thing that can be attempted by just anybody.
I could not write this book. Few people besides Rushdie could even attempt it. It is stamped with the mark of the man himself--his culture, his milieu, his education, his beliefs, his passion and his experience.
And what are "The Satanic Verses"? They are lyrical yearnings made verbal depicting the clash between the world of rationality and that of superstition, between the world at the time of the Prophet and today's world, between the cold fog of England and the hot sweat of India and the Middle East, between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the mythology of a time long ago, between a secular interpretation of life and a religious one. In short there really is a clash of civilizations that is being worked out in today's world, and Rushdie is here to give us his take on this earth-shaking process.
Normally I would not read such a novel. Five hundred and sixty-one pages--over 200,000 words! Life is too short to give that much time to a singular view. Better to risk the time on Tolstoy, Melville or Joyce where one has the report of literary history as a guide. Here we have a novel reviled and revered but only a little over 22 years of age. A lot of flash and glimmer goes by the way of the popular mind toward something Great, but in time may be more clearly seen as pedestrian, even banal, faddish and brought before our eyes by the celebrity of some event--like a sentence of murder upon its author--only to fade with the yellowing of the newspapers of yesteryear.
I will say however that "The Satanic Verses" will outlive its author and will outlive the memory of the Ayatollah Komenini who did in fact issue a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death, and thereby greatly increased not only the sales of the book but helped to spread Rushdie's message that Islam is a religion full of evil, lies and deceit, born like most religions from the very human lust for power. It will stay in print for decades and remain a torn in the side of the followers of the Prophet until they lose their hatreds, their prejudices and especially their fears. Yes, Islam fears. It fears science, education, Western culture, women and much of what constitutes the post-modern world. Unlike learned arguments and reasoned debates or shouting matches that change no minds, this novel will persuade many (mostly young) minds that a religion born in the barren, superstitious desert, sired by the tribal mentality of the Bronze Age, and forced upon others by the sword has no more relevance to today's problems and challenges than the religions it replaced.
The problem for the reader is not the length of the novel. It is in the fact that few readers will have the background necessary to appreciate much of the references, allusions, puns, jokes, asides, and other bits of wordsmithing from the very cosmopolitan and worldly Salman Rushdie. But no matter. It will require some effort of attention and concentration, some very real investment of time and effort on the part of the reader; but as the pages turn and the fantasy begins to stand out from the realism, as the time of Mahound clashes clearly with the time of an Indian/Muslim Bollywood actor, as the Ayesha of ancient is differentiated from the Ayesha of today, as the Gibreel of the film is made distinct from the Gibreel of legend--indeed as the web of mystery and magic, of fact and fantasy, of goats and gods becomes a fabric like a woven rug of artistry, one begins to appreciate Rushdie's intent and artistry. And this is the way it is with all great works of literature: there are levels. On the level of the mass mind, there is a world of people and events; on the level of the initiated, there is added a rich vocabulary of shared intellectual experiences. But Rushdie is no dry intellectual novelist: he can create intriguing characters and the tension necessary to sustain a narrative.
Now what is needed (I believe) for all but the most learned readers is a guide to the novel written by someone who knows Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, modern culture and has a good grasp of their histories. Such a guide will be written by some academic somewhere--and indeed may have already been written, or is being written.
And so I read the novel from beginning to end and found it uneven and marvelous, a bit obtuse at first but as my familiarity with Rushdie's intent, style, and structure grew, so too did my enjoyment of this rich satire. Yes, this is a satire similar in intent to the works of Voltaire or Twain however distant in style they may be. It is a satire upon not only Islam and Hinduism and the mass culture from Dhaka to Manchester, but a satire on the never-ending delusions of a pitiful, but ever hopeful humanity.
[Note: Nearly a hundred of my fiction reviews by great literary artists and others not so well known are now available in my book, "Novels and other Fictions." Get it at Amazon.]
Novels and other Fictions: reviews by
46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Salman Rushdie's THE SATANIC VERSES is an often touching, occaissionally brilliant, and always entertaining novel. Over 500 pages, Rushie ties together exploration of such themes as the crass consumerism of modern culture, the Indian immigrant experience in England, the origin of Islam in the idolatry of the Arabian peninsula, and the nebulous duality of good and evil. However, it is such a good time that one almost feels that the novel is *too* entertaining, that it doesn't maintain the decorum that Great Literature is supposed to have.
The novel begins as the Indian movie star Gibreel Farishta and Bombay-born Englishman Saladin Chamcha fall from the sky, their London-bound airliner having been blown up by Sikh nationalists. Miraculously they survive the fall of thirty thousand feet and wash up on an English beach. From here, Chamcha, arrested by police believing he is an illegal immigrant, begins to change into a devil, growing horns and cloven hooves. Farishta goes the opposite way, he becomes his namesake archangel and starts to have strange dreams, in which the reader is transported to, among other places, Mecca in the time of the prophet "Mahound." Although Farishta and Chamcha are now total opposites morally according to appearance, each continues to live their lives in an unpredictable fashion, and the ending, with Farishta's Joycean soliliquoy is truly a tour de force. The transformation and subsequent experiences of Farishta and Chamcha form the main point of THE SATANIC VERSES: there are no polar opposites, no God and no Satan, but rather ready two sides of a single coin. Rushdie has stated that one of his greatest influences in writing this novel was Mikhail Bulgakov's anti-Soviet satire THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, a book in which the devil is, ironically, made a suave hero. With such inspiration, it's plain that Rushdie wants to present an alternate view of human character, and THE SATANIC VERSES triumphantly rises above its predecessor, Bulgakov's rather shabby novel.
While most people are vaguely aware that the publication of THE SATANIC VERSES resulted in Rushie being forced to go into hiding after Iranian clerics led by the ayatollah Khomeini issued a death fatwa, few know just why the novel led to its author fearing for his life. Rushdie, born a Muslim, was sentenced not for merely speaking against Islam, which millions of people do daily. Rather, it was for "apostasy", or attempting to leave Islam once he was already a Muslim. According to the Qu'ran, attempting to leave Islam is to be punished by death. The book brought on this tempest in two ways. One is the book's antepenultimate section, ''Return to Jahilia" in which Rushdie openly declares - in a clever way which I shall not spoil for the reader - that he now believes Islam is a total sham. The second is the pathetic character of the exiled Imam, who is a thinly valid allusion to Khomeini himself. Of course, this all came to the attention of hard-line clerics by the book's skewering portrayal of the founding of the religion and repeated jabs against Muhammad's favourite wife Ayesha.
THE SATANIC VERSES does have one flaw, however, which for me made it only a four-star work: Rushdie often weaves in quotations and allusions to literature without doing anything meaningful with them. Rather, it seems like he is regurgitating the Western tradition in order to add further weight to his already excellent work. Perhaps Rushdie, like his character Saladin Chamcha, feels he must wholeheartedly embrace Englishness and show it off for his readers.
I'd certainly recommend THE SATANIC VERSES. While not a perfect novel, it is one of the most worthwhile reads in contemporary English literature, and spurs the reader to learn about many of the topics Rushdie presented, such as the archaeological exploration of early Islam, the experience of Indian and Pakistani immigrants to London, and religious fundamentalism. Furthermore, since the novel caused such a tempest in the media and was brought to the attention of the world, it's important to read the novel to understand exactly why the fatwa happened.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on January 12, 2012
Heinrich Heine once wrote "where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings." This quote must have been reverberating through the mind of Salman Rushdie in late 1988 as anger to his book The Satanic Verses grew and the first burnings began. Martin Amis wrote in Vanity Fair in 1990 "Everywhere he looked he saw burning hardbacks and writhing moustaches." Anyone who knows about Salman Rushdie knows that this was followed by the Ayatollah Khomeini announcing a fatwa (with the added kicker of a princely sum for the successful assassin) on the head of Salman Rushdie in 1989 for the crime of publishing the work of fiction. The fatwa included anyone who published or translated the book. By 1990, under enormous pressure and despite having many years earlier shed the mind-forged manacles of religion, Rushdie wrote that "A man's spiritual choices are a matter of conscience, arrived at after deep reflection and in the privacy of his heart. They are not easy matters to speak of publicly. I should like, however, to say something about my decision to affirm the two central tenets of Islam - the ones of God and the genuineness of the prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad - and thus to enter into the body of Islam after a lifetime spent out of it." Rushdie renounced those words not long after and continues to say that this passage was his biggest regret in the whole affair. However, having already survived an attempt on his life the year earlier owing to the bomber blowing himself up before the bomb could be deployed to its intended target, it is understandable that Rushdie disingenuously claimed to share faith with his attackers. (The death squads were seeking him out - over the few subsequent years they murdered, or attempted to murder, several people involved in the book's translation or publication). What is not understandable, or perhaps not reasonable, is the disingenuous and hysterical outrage that was displayed by millions of Pakistanis, the majority of which were illiterate in English as well as their native tongue, a language the book had yet to be translated to so could not have offended them anyway. But when the tribal mob is energised by a cynical irony, cynical irony is required in response, and what could be more so than feigning religious solidarity in order to quell the tempers of the devout from the very religion that has supposedly been mortally offended. I suspect, however, that Rushdie's coarse parody of the Ayatollah in the book as a paranoid, secluded and exiled Imam may have been the real cause of the Ayatollah's anger, which, if true, makes the brouhaha even more cynical than most would care to realise. The Ayatollah himself is unlikely to have ever read the book and the fatwa nothing more than an attempt to reinvigorate support for his decrepit regime.
The Satanic Verses, from which the book derives its name, are controversial because they suggest that that Muhammad acknowledged intercessions by the pagan gods of Mecca. Later, Muhammad would renounce these verses, suggesting that he had been corrupted by Shaitan (Satan). In other words, the verses suggest Muhammad's monotheism was, at least for a time, shaky. The authenticity of the verses is highly contested and debate seemingly goes on in a vacuum, ignoring the underlying problems of discerning the exact authenticity of any quotes on account of Muhammad's illiteracy and the Qur'an itself having been scribed by others from recitations.
Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses wonderfully traverses the stories of Gabreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two Indian actors whose lives intertwine when they survive the explosion of a plane and a landing that was "twenty-nine thousand and two feet" in the making. Their stories are focussed upon and constructed around themes of immigration, finding a place to fit in, knowing oneself, love, betrayal, forgiveness and solidarity. Following their survival both are transformed: Gabreel develops a halo, while Saladin becomes more and more like a devil, with goatish features and sulphurous breath. Rushdie tells their tales with prose that is as near to poetry as one could ever hope to achieve and at times it seems to be almost melodic, as though music could be presented through words alone. The first 10 or so pages are some of the most beautifully written in all of the twentieth century, an inventive and creative opus. Indeed, Rushdie is an innovator in the written word, in the mould of James Joyce or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it isn't in the least surprising that he lists those authors as influencers on him. He also has a fantastic ear for the linguistics and mannerisms of the peoples of the sub-continent.
As well as having silk like prose, Rushdie's borrowing of characters from the Qur'an and the history of Islam is exceedingly clever and extremely well meshed to the storyline, a considerable achievement given the clear intention to criticise religion (so many books these days merely sermonise whereas Rushdie makes his characters inseparable from the actions). Many of the characters inherit their names from prominent figures in the history of Islam, including a fellow named Mahound, which in medieval times was a slanderous term used to infer that Muhammad was a false phrophet. The meaning is inverted here to become his actual name, and is therefore a satirical and ironic adoption, much in the same way the Tory party took its name.
It is incredibly cliché now, but one simply can't honestly review The Satanic Verses without mention of the `offending' section in some way. The context of the supposed high offence - The Satanic Verses - occurs in the disturbed dreams of Gabreel, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. It is hard to imagine where the offence may arise given it is a fictional moment about a possibly fictional event in a fictional book. Yes the offending chapters show Mahound to be a charlatan in the manner of Joseph Smith, willing to alter his incantations and supposed beliefs in order to gain power and a following (in one chapter an apostate of Mahound's explains how revelations always came at the convenience of Mahound). But still, how absurdly sensitive must one be to be so wounded by it? So sensitive that one would seek out the murder of the author? So sensitive that esteemed authors such as John le Carré, John Berger and Roald Dahl would go all-in on the Salman bashing, leaving the defence task to Christopher Hitchens and liberal muslims, including many brave Iranian writers? And if Rushdie were to offend the Ayatollah and, even if such a thing were possible, offend Islam, shouldn't that be his right? If one really wishes to set the test for the limits of freedom of speech and expression at the low bar of what causes offence, they encourage the corollary of being able to be denied anything and everything. But still it goes on. As recently as January 2012, an Indian Muslim cleric demanded that Rushdie be banned from travelling to India to appear at the Jaipur Literature Festival, citing that he "had hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims in the past."
The Satanic Verses is quite simply spectacular. For some time I found it to be almost inhumanly challenging and impenetrable, however once the vastness of the tale had emerged I began to enjoy it more and more. By the final page, it had become the best work of fiction I have read in the past couple of years. I am sure it is a novel that, on benefit of rereading, would become ever more appreciated.
Post script: Rushdie has had to cancel his trip to India for the Jaipur festival due to emerging death threats. He will now appear via video link.