BOOK REVIEW: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Anyone who’s ever written for public consumption knows that having one’s writing despised is not the worst of fates. While it might be preferable to have a work loved than loathed, it’s far better for it to be loathed than to be greeted with a “meh.” Like many, I read “The Satanic Verses” because any work of fiction that generates an emotional response of murderous intensity must have something going for it. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the release of this novel in 1988 triggered a fatwa (an Islamic decree) ordering the author’s murder. While the Iranian government retracted support for the killing in the late 1990’s, Rushdie lived in hiding for decades.

So, that is my full-disclosure confession, I probably would never have gotten around to reading this novel if not for the response it incurred. It’s not the first work I’ve read by Rushdie, and I’d hazard to say it’s not considered his best (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it was his best-selling book, though it may not be because it’s banned in India – a huge book market.) If I were more well-acquainted with Islamic mythology, the book probably would have been much more readable, but as things stand it was a bit of a slog. There is a huge cast of characters (a couple names, e.g. Ayesha, are used for multiple characters over different time periods – on purpose, but still….) And the story – far from a clear and readable narrative arc — is a thicket of plot, subplots, and happenings that may have some symbolic purpose but don’t seem germane to the story. Also, some scenes are meant to reflect a dreamlike or surreal quality, and the switching between states requires a high degree of attentiveness in reading. Some of the story is work-a-day realism and some is dreams and transformations. Most of it is present day, but some of it is during the dawn of Islam.

The main plot revolves around two characters who survive falling out of a plane blown up by terrorists over the English Channel. The two characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, play the role of archangel and demon, though there isn’t a clear imprimatur of good and evil to distinguish the two. Of course, rejection of the notion that good and evil are clearly distinguishable opposites is the theme of this novel. (After all, the title refers to a controversial belief that a few of the revelations presented to the prophet Mohammad [renamed “Mahound” in the novel] were the whisperings of the devil.) While one might think angels and demons above the mundane concerns like relationships, we spend a great deal of time learning about Gibreel’s relationship with his mountain-climbing girlfriend and Saladin’s troubles with his adulterous wife.

While I’ve presented the book like it’s a complete morass, I should point out that it has moments of lucidity, and — in those moments — it makes for both evocative and though-provoking reading. I would say the best example of this is the subplot that plays out through the penultimate chapter. This arc involves a woman in India with cancer who is marching to the sea because she strongly believes that when she gets to the coast the waters of the Arabian Sea will part, and she’ll be able to march on to Mecca. Along with this woman are 140 pilgrims led by one of the book’s three Ayeshas. This woman’s husband is a merchant and a secular Muslim. He is more than willing to take his wife to Mecca, but would like to do so by plane. He thinks that she’s a bit off her rocker, owing to the disease, but his love leads him to follow her to the sea (riding along in an automobile.) I got caught up in this story line as it has this tension between believers and non-believers (more accurately secular religious types who belong to religion but don’t buy into the supernatural), and an intrigue about whether the seas will – in deed — part.

If you’re up for a challenging read, I’d recommend this book. It deals with some fascinating questions. It has a mix of humor and drama, and presents interesting characters and conundrums. That said, it isn’t the type of story one get’s lost in. It’s the kind of reading that requires a high degree of attention, and which can be a bit mentally exhausting. As for whether it’s worth reading because some people don’t want you to, my guess would be that the people who wanted to murder Rushdie (and some who still do) never got past the title, probably don’t understand the theological debate that the title references, and definitely didn’t get to the subplot of the book in Chapter 3 that deals in historic events. In other words, the violent response didn’t result from reading the book, but rather from hearing about the title. [In general, I suspect the Venn intersect of “reads books” and “wants to murder people about ideas” is – if not an empty set – pretty slim pickings.]

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5 of my Favorite Banned / Challenged Classics

Banned Books Week runs from September 23 to 29 in 2018, offering a nice reminder about all of the books that are so awesome that some doofus doesn’t want you to read them.

Here are five of my favorites:

5.) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey: Randle McMurphy conducts a con to convince authorities that he’s insane and belongs in an asylum rather than doing hard time in a prison. It’s a commentary on how free-spirits are viewed by society and the pressures put upon them to conform. It’s been challenged many times on the usual grounds of sex and language, as well as for the “glorification of criminal activity.”

4.) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess: In a dystopian England, the head of a small band of thuggish teenagers is imprisoned and convinced to undergo operant conditioning that will make any future attempts to engage in violent behavior personally painful. The book is a critique on social engineering, though it should be pointed out that there are two different versions of the book in circulation, one with the final chapter written by the author and one without it, and the inclusion or deletion of that chapter has serious implications for the book’s message. Instances of sex and violence are the usual basis for challenges to this novel.

 

3.) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: Two men fall from a plane and survive, one archangel and one demon. The title of the book, and much of its controversy, is owed to a plot point about the Islamic prophet Muhammad (Mahound, in the book) receiving both angelic and demonic guidance and prophecy. This is the most explicitly banned book on the list with at least a dozen countries explicitly banning it — most of them were Islamic countries offended by the portrayal of events when Islam was first coming into existence, but a few banned it out of public safety fears over extremist activity. The author is under Fatwa, religious approval of Rushie’s execution, by Iranian authorities.

2.) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley: In this soft dystopia, people are kept in line by readily available drugs and promiscuous sex. Among the American Library Association (ALA) list of challenges to this book was one suggesting the book be banned because it: “makes [promiscuous] sex look like fun.” Which made me laugh a little.

1.) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck: A family, bankrupted by the one-two punch of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, packs up and heads out to the promised land of California, only to discover that it wasn’t all that it promised. Objection to language is the most prevalent cause for challenges to this book.

BOOK REVIEW: The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

The Moor's Last SighThe Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Moor’s Last Sigh tells the tale of three generations of an Indian family that built its fortune in the spice trade. This isn’t the type of book that would usually float to the top of my stack. I read it because I was traveling to Kochi (Cochin), and it came recommended because much of the first part of the book is set there. (The same recommendation might be received by someone traveling to Mumbai because the latter half of the book is set in that city; granted, there are a lot more stories set in Mumbai [Bombay] than Kochi.) Ultimately, I was pleasantly surprised by this book, despite its soap opera like tone.

The book does read like a soap opera, at least until it gets into the narrating character’s story. There are strong women characters in this male-dominated environment of an Indian family business, though they tend to fall into the categories of “petty bitch” or “prima donna” or both. In the first generation there is a matriarchal character who dominates the family by manipulation and cruelty. In the second generation, the female lead—a strong-spirited, independent artist—falls in love with a Jewish employee of the family. Those familiar with marriage as practiced by the Indian elite will recognize how this inter-sect wedding with an underling might result in no small grief. The resulting marriage produces two female children and a boy. The latter would be nothing but a source of bliss, but for a birth defect that results in a malformed arm. While his mother smothers him with love and attempts to display a progressive spirit that’s beyond biases against such infirmities, under the surface there is the need to come to grips with the fact that handicapped children aren’t supposed to happen in high-caste families. The man with the infirmity is the narrator and overall protagonist of the book. He—as seems inevitable—will eventually fall for a woman of which his mother does not approve.

Beyond the soap opera pettiness, there are genuine intrigues that unfold in the latter half of the book. However, the pettiness of narcissistic people is the root of the protagonist’s ultimate trial.

While Rushdie builds characters in the manner we expect of literary fiction, he doesn’t abandon story. There is a narrative arc that unfolds over the course of the novel. Surprises are revealed and twists unfold.

This is the first Rushdie novel I’ve read. I’ve always intended to read The Satanic Verses to see what all the hullaballoo was about, and the readability of this work makes me even more interested in following through. You know a writer has to be good to inspire a country to take out a hit on him.

I’d recommend this for more than just people visiting Kochi or Mumbai—though it will be particularly interesting for those who are. If you’re interested in the lifestyles of the rich and famous in India more generally, you’ll find this work enlightening. In general, it will appeal to those who like their literary fiction with a bit of a storyline—and if you like the low drama of bitchiness, all the more so.

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