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 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]