- The Satanic Verses
- Picador, 1997
Where to start?
As did most everyone who is old enough to remember, I first became aware of Salman Rushdie when in February 1989 the Ayatollah in Tehran declared fatwa, a religious decree of death, on him for writing the book The Satanic Verses. I was outraged, but didn't read the book.
I hadn't read the book, even fifteen years after its publication. It isn't the sort of material I tend to seek out. But then came the Miss World Beauty Pageant in Nigeria. One editorial which praised the charms of the pageant's contestants as being worthy of Mohammed caused rioting there which lasted for weeks, and the editorial's author was condemned to death by some Nigerian clerics.
That shameful mess put me in mind of Salman Rushdie, again, and when it happened that I came across The Satanic Verses while browsing at the library, I picked it up.
I should have picked it up sooner.
The Satanic Verses, to be brief, is a delicious smorgasbord of prose. The language is English, but it is the English spoken by Indian and Pakistani, and other Asian, immigrants to England, which gives it a marvelous lilt. Happily, Rushdie makes no attempt to impoverish his language by substituting more conventional vocabulary. This means that as you read you'll also come across brief snippets of Arabic and Urdu, sometimes used without helpful translations.
The story itself is a complex mix of fantasy and fantastic realism. Gibreel Farishta (named for the arch angel Gabriel) and Saladin Chamcha fall almost six miles from a bombed airliner (named after one of the two Gardens of Paradise), and manage to survive the plunge. They both undergo remarkable transformations. Since it isn't always clear what is fantasy and what is real it is often up to the reader to draw his own conclusions. The story's finale seems to offer a lesson, but it isn't the sort of lesson that's easy to explain.
The story is larded with references to India, and to the history of Islam itself, and it is that last which has incensed Muslim fanatics. Rushdie displays a marvellous sense of humor, but fanatics have no sense of humor. Rushdie sets bits of his story in the place of Islam's founding, thinly disguised by playing with the meaning of words. If we accept that he expresses his opinion of Mohammed and the Koran, then he says that Mohammed was a crafty merchant who knew how to use other people's gullibility to get what he wanted: power, wealth, and lots of lovely women. Suleiman, Mohammed's Persian scribe, is accused of corrupting the prophet's recitations, which is the particular source of fury amongst Shiite Muslims.
But those who focus on these facile insults miss the point Rushdie is making. Rushdie flits from place to place, London to Bombay to Mecca, and around again, examining questions like the natures of good and evil, what it means to be true to yourself, and even where we find the boundaries of sanity. The particular light he casts on these issues gains its peculiar power exactly from the primitive nature of his insult. After all, he says, it isn't what the prophet recites that determines what is good, or what is evil, but the consequences of our actions. There is no faith in blind recitation, but rather in giving your life meaning, even in the face of being made to eat your own shit.
Rushdie speaks not so much to those of us in the West, but to fellow expatriates from India and Pakistan, and to those still living in their homeland. To them he says that they have a valuable heritage, though they should look carefully at what part of their heritage has value, and what part is grounded in ignorance. (Perhaps it would help if Western readers knew that the name Jahilia means ignorance.)