“What kind of idea are you? Are you the kind that compromises, does deals, accommodates itself to society, aims to find a niche, to survive; or are you the cussed, bloody-minded, ramrod-backed type of damn fool notion that would rather break than sway with the breeze? – The kind that will almost certainly, ninety-nine times out of hundred, be smashed to bits; but, the hundredth time, will change the world.” The Satanic Verses
A pinnacle of postcolonial writing and kaleidoscopic jewel in the crown of magical realism, Rushdie’s “love song to our mongrel selves” is a gargantuan, smashed-up hybrid of everything under the sun. It is a meticulously-crafted, messy sprawl of a novel. Expansive and excessive, Rushdie imagines a world in which all borders are transcended, reality is provisional, truth illusory and subjective, and possibility infinite. Amid his seemingly limitless panorama of interconnecting influences, references and cultural citations, something truly new is born. Within this universe language is an instrument to create ideas and realities, curtailed only by the relative power of your mind.
I first got into reading Rushdie as a literature student, in love with language. Now, more jaded perhaps, I favour tighter, more economic prose, but in those days The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children were my absolute ideal of what literature could be. Rushdie celebrates heterogeneity in an ecstatic frenzy of styles, and concepts – as though someone high on acid has dived head first into a dictionary and surfaced with all the most florid, mismatched words possible.
The Satanic Verses also appeals to my infatuation with the pace and pulse of the Indian subcontinent. Brash, like her biggest cities and as colourful as her freakiest religious festivities, to understand Rushdie’s pluralities, I think you have to have experienced the sensual explosion that is India. The complex layered flavouring of curry, the constantly altering terrain glanced from train windows, riotous colour, the impossible gulf between wealth and poverty, the clash of modernity and tradition wrestling in teeming metropolises, a tangle of different language and dialects,the intensity of daily festivities, the pertinence of mysticism and the proximity of death. If ever there is a writer well place to discuss the shortfallings, tragedies and positives of our confused multicultural planet it is surely the British Indian intellectual?! In terms of imagery and cultural allusions I would struggle to cite a richer tale. Better read and more world weary, my obsession with Rushdie has waned, but The Satanic Verses remains close to my heart.
I donate this book to the world in the hope that it will set someone else’s on fire, as it did mine once upon a time. The themes of immigrant alienation as well as identity in general, and the controversy and censorship issues that come hand in hand with talking about this novel are also particularly pertinent in 2016.
As the novel opens two Indian emigres fall from the sky to British soils after their plane is hijacked; on landing alive one becomes the archangel Gibreel and suffers delusions that may be a product of schizophrenia or a God-complex (is there a difference?), whilst embroiled in an affair with an Everest mountaineer under the influence of her own ghosts. The other is abused by the police in the physical form of a goat-like Satan embodying the disorientation of the immigrant experience.
It only gets more nuts as it goes on… extended dream sequences (where all the controversial sh*t goes down) follow the prophet Mahound in Mecca in an Shaitan-inspired and later revoked revelation in multiple-Gods, as well as Indian peasant girl Ayesha as she leads her people to the Arabian sea and an unnamed despotic religious leader in exile. In this book nothing is sacred and even less is off bounds. Rushdie hops carefree, from the structures of epic high verse to a pastiche of advertising jingles, in any given sentence. The effect is a disorientating whirlwind that tackles and satirises a plethora of contemporary issues but never resolves or cements anything… as though he is all too aware of how impossible and fruitless that task is.
Writing a reductive, straight-forward digest of The Satanic Verses’ plot ignores what the title’s name conjures for most people. I have come to the novels’ baggage later because I believe it is second to the simple and profound gift that Rushdie’s epic provides the world – a privilege which you will have to read yourself to enjoy…
This doesn’t detract from the fact that when one says The Satanic Verses, we think of one of the most high-profile literary scandals in recent history: what happened after the book was published is like something out of a novel… a Rushdie novel at that! Reacting to the blasphemous passages about Muhammad, there was outrage in international Islamic communities – the book was banned in India, burned in the UK and protested against in Pakistan. Then came the fatwa from Iran’s Supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which saw one of his publishers stabbed to death and forced Rushdie himself to live in hiding, under police protection for years. The novel’s publication became a battleground between religious totality and freedom of speech. See Rushdie describing his thoughts here:
It should be noted that, what on surface reading comes across as an insult to Islam, is actually bigger than that. It is a satire against ‘oneness’ and totalitarianism in all it’s forms. Rather than an attack on any one faith the text rebels against singularity of thought, politics and culture, arguing that in our postmodern societies these dictates make no sense.Speaking after the Charlie Hebdo attack, Rushdie said “religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms” and it is this “medieval unreason” rather than faith itself that the novel mocks. Against the fraught backdrop of rising Islamophobia in Europe and global abuses of freedom of speech, I no longer feel qualified to judge the inherent rightness or wrongness of this literary act.
Perhaps the reader who finds this book will have more clearly defined views… here’s a picture of where I left it (in a smart London cafe) – if you found it please share your views on The Travelling Book website! (either comment below or donate the book further – see how here)