38. ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie

the_satanic_versesI once heard Salman Rushdie speak. He was giving an interview at a theatre in Venice and I went along, not noticing, as I walked up to the theatre, that the man getting out of the boat and being ushered into the back was Rushdie himself. During the talk, Rushdie talked about his time in hiding, after an Iranian spiritual leader issued a threat to kill him because of his book The Satanic Verses. I remember going to a bookshop afterwards and finding The Satanic Verses on the shelves, but I didn’t buy it because I just didn’t have the money. Now, at last, I’ve got my hands on a (cheap!) copy, so you could say it’s taken me five years to get around to reading this book.

So, was it worth the wait? I would say so. I have some experience with Rushdie: I thought Midnight’s Children was wonderful, but The Enchantress of Florence was unbelievably awful. Fortunately, this book is more in the frame of Midnight’s Children. It’s complex, captivating, and uses the same clever twists of language and meaning that are so characteristic of Rushdie at his best.

The book tells the story of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, who find themselves falling through the sky over London after their plane is bombed by terrorists. Miraculously they land in the sea and survive, but after their escape they begin to change in strange ways. Chamcha grows horns on his head, hooves on his feet and turns into a demonic goat creature. Farishta acquires a halo and begins to have vivid dreams in which he is an archangel.

I really liked how Rushdie handled his premise. It wasn’t subtle or delicate, but I don’t think using kid gloves on this subject matter would have had any useful impact at all. I love how both of the main characters are equally complicated and flawed, demonstrating that the simple dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ that is forced upon them by their new appearances simply don’t apply in any real way. I also really liked Farishta’s dream sequences: he’s an angel and everybody takes his word as truth (including the instructions to abstain from alcohol and pray five times a day), but he really doesn’t have a clue about what he’s saying.

Of course, there’s plenty more that is controversial in this book, such as the idea that the apple from the Tree of Knowledge gave Adam and Eve the ability to judge God. There’s even a character in the novel called Salman, a writer, who featured in one of my favourite scenes. Salman acts as the scribe for the Prophet Mahound, writing down God’s words as Mahound hears them but, gradually, he starts making bigger and bigger changes to what he is being told to write. The Prophet doesn’t correct him when he reads back what he’s written and Salman grows disillusioned with the whole thing: how can God be speaking when his words can be so easily altered?

All in all, this is a rich and hugely rewarding book, of which I have certainly only scratched the surface. It bears several readings but that thought doesn’t daunt me at all – it is well worth at least one read.

“Fictions were walking around wherever he went … fictions masquerading as real human beings.”

If you liked my review, why not read the book and let me know what you think?

What do you think?

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