Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

satanic verses

The Satanic Verses is the first Rushdie novel I read (but it wasn’t the last) – I was drawn to it by my own curiosity about the ‘Rushdie affair’, the period during the late 1980s and 1990s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a ‘fatwa’ on Salman Rushdie for writing it. For those unfamiliar with Islamic terms (like myself, until recently), this was essentially a plea for Muslims anywhere in the world to assassinate Rushdie and be richly rewarded for it. Despite the fact Rushdie lived in England at the time (and this is an astonishing violation of human rights in the UK), he was forced to go into hiding and undergo a severe regime of police protection for over a decade of his life. This was all I knew about it before I read it, so I assumed it was going to be pretty controversial – and I can’t turn away from a controversial book. Based on the general outcry I expected it to be pretty blasphemous, but I didn’t know how much, and the blurb confused me as it gave me the sense the novel was very much a work of fiction. But enough! I’ll go into all of that later in the review – let’s look at it on purely literary terms for a while. Be warned: this review contains spoilers.

I’ve always thought of Rushdie as a literary genius. He’s certainly a well-acclaimed writer, and his most famous novel Midnight’s Children not only won the Booker Prize the year it came out but was also voted ‘Booker of Bookers’ in 1993, meaning it was the best book to have won the Booker since the award’s inception (in the first 25 years), and again in the ‘Best of the Bookers’ competition in 2008, making it the best to win in the award’s first 40 years. A pretty astonishing achievement (and you know how obsessed I am with Booker winners). The Satanic Verses is his fourth novel (a few years after Midnight’s Children), and it was published during a high point of his life, when he was showered with literary acclaim.

It’s probably one of the most bizarre yet brilliant books I’ve ever read. Rushdie is renowned for his skill in writing magic realism, and indeed he intertwines fantasy and reality so well I was inclined to agree with Nadine Gordimer (one of my absolute favourite writers) and think of it as ‘a staggering achievement’. The book constantly changes up which character(s) we focus on but manages to completely avoid dragging; it has a quick pace and is compelling to the last page. The two protagonists are two Indian actors who fall to earth after a terrorist attack causes their plane to explode in mid-air. They land on an English beach (miraculously surviving) and become locked in a complicated battle of good vs evil – though you’re never sure which man is meant to represent good, and which evil.

It’s fairly obvious at first. The Bollywood movie star Gibreel Farishta lives up to his namesake and essentially becomes the archangel Gibreel (also known as Gabriel), appearing with a glowing halo around his head and visiting prophets from the past in his dreams (including ‘Mahound’, who is also recognisable under the name Muhammed) and causing those he meets to weep and worship him. Meanwhile, his adversary, Saladin Chamcha, metamorphoses into a goat-man, growing horns and becoming the physical embodiment of Satan (fortunately, only temporarily). He has a similar manipulative effect on those he meets, but of course, much less favourable. Almost instantly after they are found on the beach the two men become separated and quickly think of each other as enemies, despite being friends (or at least companions) during the terrorist attack.

Throughout the book, we are tensely waiting for them to be reunited. Even with the physical transformations the two men undergo, the lines are blurred. As a reader you’re meant to doubt Gibreel’s mind; at times he seems to become the angel but this occasionally proves to be part of his schizophrenia, and it is he in the end who you think of as the satanic character, morally, while Saladin Chamcha (who gets quite a hard time considering he’s the more likeable of the two) gets his redemption, even going back to his roots and becoming the good man.

The book is focused on immigration and the migrant’s place in a new world, something close, no doubt, to Rushdie’s heart. Both Gibreel and Saladin are men who have moved from India to England, Gibreel still with ties to his former country (though with an absent faith, having lost it during his first near-death experience), while Saladin has lived in England for a long time and has forced himself to adopt the English way of life as quickly as possible. He sees himself as the opposite of his Indian father, whom he detests – at least until the end of the novel, when he reconnects with him in a touching way that mirrors Rushdie’s own relationship with his father. Generally speaking the book seems to denote the problems of apostasy, which Gibreel suffers harder from and – spoiler alert – causes him to eventually commit suicide. With that overall message, I was surprised to see it being taken as a blasphemous work.

Yet it caused one of the most famous literary controversies in history.

rushdie affair

Rushdie published the novel in 1988, and it was met with both literary acclaim (it was shortlisted for the Booker) and general uproar from the Muslim community. In February 1989, Ayatollah Khomeini put the fatwa on him, and Rushdie’s life was turned upside down. On the surface it seemed to be an issue of Islam vs the western world (or rather, the western way of thinking), and everyone on Rushdie’s side of the issue was similarly targeted: his publishers, editors, book-sellers, entire bookshops (some were bombed in Britain), journalists who defended him on the telly – anyone affiliated, essentially. Public book-burnings were hosted, with effigies of Rushdie as Satan being burnt down (pictured above); there’s quite a moving bit in Rushdie’s memoir when he explains having to try to explain the horrifying image to his son, who saw footage of the event on TV. I write this at a time when Islam vs free speech is a narrative that populates a lot of the media, too, what with the coverage ISIS is receiving, and some even described the Satanic Verses backlash as the ‘prologue’ to this kind of extremism. Rushdie was forced into hiding for nine years, with the British government deploying security teams to protect him. To this day the fatwa is still in place (now that Khomeini has died it cannot be lifted), and although some might say Rushdie’s life has considerably improved, supposedly every year on 14 February (the day the fatwa was issued) he receives what he describes as a Valentine’s card from Iran, reminding him of it. (NB: Believe it or not, I hadn’t realised the date when I published this blog post – happy, erm, anniversary, Salman.)

Yet the burning thought I had when I finished the book was: what’s the fuss about? It’s tricky to identify exactly what is offensive in the novel, for while there are derogatory comments made about Mahound and Islam, thay are spoken through the mouths of corrupt and dislikeable characters – the bad guys, essentially. I thought Islam was painted in a good light, but perhaps the Islamic world feared that such a high-profile writer going into such extensive detail for a western audience would exacerbate tension between the two ways of thinking. Rushdie believes he was more of a scapegoat, thrust into the drama as Khomeini needed to safe face after making political mistakes, and the book came along as the perfect distraction: something to unite the Islamic world in Khomeini’s favour. This I gleaned from Joseph Anton: A Memoir, Rushdie’s lengthy autobiography published in 2012 that describes the fallout and his own movements and protection following the fatwa, as well as the political situation of the country on the whole.

In the worst years Rushdie spent a lot of time hopping from house to house, desperately trying to remain undercover and protect his loved ones while retaining his dignity and standing up for what he believed in, thankfully aided by generous friends. Some of the houses he borrowed, some he rented, but either way it was impossible for him to live a normal life and painfully difficult to stay in touch with his loved ones, particularly his young son, which read as the most difficult compromise he had to make. Alongside that he struggled to keep his career as a writer and to get The Satanic Verses published in paperback, which he saw as essential to the cause. It’s difficult to think of him as the tough, dislikeable man the tabloids presented him as when he had such a large flock of friends ready to help him in his time of need, with some huge names across the literary world supporting him (I got a big fangirl-y reading the memoir). In his extraordinary circumstances he showed a huge amount of courage, coping with the backlash while standing by the universal right for free speech, and that comes across in spades throughout the memoir.

Back to the book, then: four stars from me. It’s not quite Midnight’s Children (we’ll get to that one later) but it’s possibly one of the best books I read in 2015, and an excellent introduction to who is now one of my favourite authors.

[Coming next: The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis]

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Beloved – Toni Morrison

toni-morrison-beloved

Toni Morrison is kind of a big shot. Beloved is perhaps her most famous novel, earning her the Pulitzer prize and undoubtedly contributing to the Nobel Prize committee’s decision to make her 1993’s Literature laureate – just six years after it was published. The novel is considered to be one of the strongest depictions of the African-American struggle in the United States during the period of slavery, and is a creepy, gothic, dramatic fiction in its own right (not that you’d know it from the typically reductive ‘female writer’ book cover; a flower, dying? Really?) but beyond that, I knew virtually nothing about it. Be warned – this review contains spoilers.

The plot follows Sethe, a former slave and single mother who lives in a house known as 124, a place she inhabited after escaping her life in slavery. Originally she lived there with her mother-in-law and group of children, but since her mother-in-law died and her two sons ran away, Sethe is left only with her 18-year-old daughter, Denver – and the malicious spirit of the baby girl she murdered herself 20 years ago. The story begins when a man she knew in her time as a slave arrives at the house, Paul D, who drives away the spirit and begins to implement a family structure in the absence of Sethe’s vanished husband. However, just as he succeeds, a young woman appears who coincidentlly shares the name of Sethe’s murdered daughter – Beloved – and is generally believed to be a revenant of her. As Sethe and Denver welcome ‘Beloved’ into the family home, their small chance at familial bliss is threatened by the newcomer’s intentions.

Perhaps the most persistent question I had throughout the novel was: what drove Sethe to murder her baby girl? She is not presented as a dangerous, insane or unloving mother throughout the novel, and for a long while I was mystified. Yet Sethe not only killed Beloved but attempted to murder all of her children at the same time, including a very young Denver, and would have succeeded were it not for an intervention. It was only when I researched the novel did I unravel the reasoning; Morrison was inspired by the story of Margaret ‘Peggy’ Garner, an African-American slave who notoriously killed her two-year-old daughter instead of allowing her to grow up into a world of slavery. It’s probably no coincidence that the surname of the slave masters and thus the slaves in the novel is Garner. The dark reasoning behind this is dwelt on later in the book; Morrison details how slavery corrupts them and leaves them permanently ‘dirty’ – by killing her children before they have a chance to be sucked into this world, she prays her children can retain their purity and not be tarnished by the influence of white people. Yet there was a supernatural element to it, too: when Sethe is discovered with a dead child, trying to murder her other children, it is described as being almost ritualistic, and her eyes have gone completely black, with no whites visible.

As you’d expect, the lines between the living and dead are very much blurred, which is a typical trait of magic realism. Beyond the fantasy, there’s a very real, human story at play. I haven’t read another novel with comparable tension between mother and daughter; having had a close relationship with my own late mum I struggled to envision a distant relationship between Sethe and Denver (particularly as, as pathetic as it sounds, Sethe’s physical description is quite close to my mum’s), but given Sethe’s past actions it’s not exactly surprising that Denver would stay wary around her.

When Beloved ‘returns’ she is a fully fledged adult, much as she would have been had she lived. I’ve read some reviews that imply it’s ambiguous as to whether or not she is in fact Sethe’s daughter, back from the dead – I thought it clear that she was, particularly when she drops hints to Denver, but critics seem to find it an issue for debate. An interpretation I read is that Sethe and Beloved’s relationship is there to represent separated families – this adult Beloved lost her parents, whilst Sethe lost her daughter, so they turn to each other to try to rebuild something they both lost. This is speculated in the novel, too – a secondary character believes that Beloved is in fact a random woman who escaped from captivity.

Am I convinced? Not so much. Beloved’s disappearance at the end is pretty fantastical, as is her entire final scene (the women of the village gather to drive Beloved away and see their own younger selves looking back at them; Beloved is described as having exploded). Plus, the adult Beloved has the scar on her neck from when Sethe sawed it as a baby. To me, Beloved’s a revenant, all right.

Predictably important themes in the book are memory and past trauma. Sethe and her husband are both haunted by a scenario in which Sethe was attacked while pregnant and had her milk ‘stolen from her’ by white men, not long before she attempted to murder all her children; this incident contributes to the theme of the breakdown of the mother/child relationship, as that milk was not theirs to take. Given that a strong theme in the novel is the dehumanising effect of slavery, this was a particularly stark example of the entitlement the whites felt over the blacks, and was horrifying to read.

There’s a fairly famous film adaptation starring Oprah Winfrey, but with poor reviews I didn’t feel inclined to watch it, even though a young Thandie Newton plays Beloved, which would be interesting to see. Still, I think for the time being I’ll let the story stay in my memory as it is on the page, not the screen. So, four stars from me – a truly shocking, haunting, and altogether compelling read. Not one to be missed.

[Coming next: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie]

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