Review of The Satanic Verses by

Book cover for The Satanic Verses

Hard to say whether this is the most famous Rushdie, but it’s certainly the one that got him into the most hot water. The Satanic Verses contains, in part, an irreverent telling of the genesis of Islam as revealed by the prophet Mohammed (Mahound) retold through the visions of Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood superstar-turned-archangel. Yet, in that trademark way of his, Salman Rushdie manages to turn such irreverence into a kind of sacred worship all its own. Through plots both parallel and hopelessly entangled, Rushdie chronicles the falls from grace and redemptions of two men: both born in India, both actors, both somehow imbued with powers not of this Earth.

I’m very glad that I come to The Satanic Verses with other Rushdies under my belt. Its narrative is much less straightforward than either The Enchantress of Florence or Midnight’s Children. In this respect, it was more difficult to read and comprehend. Rushdie’s overall style remains the same, though. His characters are broad-strokes creatures viewed against the cardboard backing of a pinhole camera. They are caricatures, fantastical in description and dialogue, as Rushdie recreates the world ever so slightly as it is not. The narrative bifurcates and trifurcates, its branches diverging before looping around and returning to their origins—everything has its purpose, even if the purpose isn’t evident at first.

I’m becoming ambivalent about this whole "magical realism" as a genre thing. It seems like a construct of a Western tradition of literary criticism that is uncomfortable with anything less than stark delineations between realistic and fantastic literature. I don’t have enough experience with Indian literature (or entertainment in general) to say for sure, but the more I experience of it, the more it seems like this dichotomy between real/fantasy is mostly a Western thing. (We like our binaries.) Hence, when Rushdie infuses these unreal elements into a book that is otherwise grounded in modern society and conventions, he’s actually just emulating the great literature of India. This fact flies over the heads of most Western readers, though, and this is a shame. It makes the book seem more inscrutable than it has to be.

I won’t pretend to grok everything about The Satantic Verses from first page to last. This is a story that demands multiple readings of multiple types: long, lingering ones; quick, frantic ones; even, thoughtful ones … the complexity of the plot and nature of the narrative, with its multiple characters and layers of meaning, make this book more challenging than, say, a "beach read". I suspect that when I revisit it, I’ll be able to understand more, and give it a higher rating and sing its praises even more loudly.

As it is, the dualism between Gibreel and Saladin is one of the more obvious and most easily comprehensible of plots here. Gibreel the angel, Saladin the devil … and between them, the mysterious narrator, reluctant to reveal itself as God or Lucifer or Other, happy to remain aloof yet mischievous. Gibreel dreams of revelations to Mahound and the peasant girl Ayesha: for him, the transformation triggered by his fall from the airplane is a chance to realize what he has only portrayed on screen. Similarly, Saladin’s more diabolical countenance is linked to his careful, almost systematic attempts to eliminate any trace of personal character.

Of the two, it’s interesting to note that I found Saladin more fascinating. He turns his back on India and Indian culture, embracing with open arms "Englishness" as he perceives it. The root cause for this might be his relationship with his father. In a broader sense, Saladin’s choices seem to represent one of the many paths India faced in the twentieth century (and still, to some extent, faces today): to embrace an ersatz Englishness as the path to engagement with global (Western) civilization. (Gibreel, therefore, is the antithesis: he achieves success by embracing Indian culture, heritage, and mythology in an attempt to retrieve some of what was diminished by colonization.) As the book begins, Saladin is an established voice actor in England, his experience in removing traces of his native accent having furnished him with the talent to twist his voice into myriad others. He thinks that he has successfully divorced himself from his heritage, but a visit to India casts doubt on this. Thus, as he plummets to his certain doom alongside Gibreel, Saladin is a deflated man, forced to confront the fact that, ultimately, he has yet to find a place.

His transformation into a goat-like, devilish being only emphasizes this fact as Saladin’s friends and family turn from him. He loses his job. He is, technically, dead. And he only regains human form after he harnesses the power to hate: something Rushdie does not because he thinks hatred is good so much as he thinks it is a necessary component of the human condition. Saladin for so long had been repressing his hatred as part of an attempt to become as bland and unremarkable as possible (see also his lack of politics, his inability to have children, etc.) Hate is a strong emotion, and strong emotions are what Saladin needs to begin reconnecting with the world.

This thread of the necessity for connection and community runs throughout The Satanic Verses. What else is the creation of a new religion, a new god before all gods, or the declaration of a pilgrimage, but an acknowledgement of the need for common ties, for something that binds people together and provides identity? Mahound’s struggle for the recognition of Islam mirrors the struggle of the Black and Asian communities in London to find a worldview other than the one of thuggishness being fitted around them by others. Ayesha’s pilgrimage is a classic story of faith versus scepticism.

Layered atop this storytelling is Rushdie’s well-established talent for description and narration. His flair for manipulating the English language like a well-tuned musical instrument makes the book, though not easy to read, enjoyable to read. The Satantic Verses doesn’t quite approach the pinnacle atop which I’ve placed Midnight’s Children—to me, that is Rushdie at his best. However, it is certainly worth reading, as a work of art and a piece of incredibly multi-faceted storytelling.

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