Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie: A review

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie's notorious 1988 book that garnered him a fatwa from the ayatollahs, has been on my to-be-read list all these years since, but somehow I just never got around to it. Until now. Maybe it's just as well. Perhaps I wouldn't have had the patience for this complicated tale earlier. It is a difficult but ultimately rewarding read. 

The book is so famous as to almost not require a description, but it is full of magical realism and of allusions to Islamic texts, not only the Qur'an, of which I have a woeful ignorance. I'm sure that my ignorance led me to a lack of understanding of some of Rushdie's points and yet I felt that his overall theme regarding human, and especially family, relationships was universal and fully accessible to me. 

He begins his story with a hijacked airliner that is blown up over the English Channel by the terrorists who hijacked it. We meet Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha as they are tumbling toward the earth from thirty thousand feet up. Miraculously surviving the fall, they land in the Channel and swim to shore, ending up on a beach in front of the home of an irascible elderly woman named Rosa. The woman confronts them on "her" beach and takes them into her home. The unusual activity on the beach has been noticed by neighbors, however, and they have called the police. The boys in blue arrive and take Chamcha, who seems to be metamorphosing into a goat, into custody. Farishta, who has dressed himself in some of Rosa's dead husband's clothes and claims to be an old friend is left behind.

Did I mention that the two are actors? Farishta is the biggest star in India and Chamcha an actor who provides voice-overs for commercials and gives voice to cartoon characters. He is an expatriate who is just returning to England after his first visit back to Bombay in fifteen years. He is estranged from his father who has married a second wife named Nasreen. Saladin's mother, the first wife, now dead, was also named Nasreen. The relationship between Saladin and his father is in some ways the core story of this book, but it is surrounded by stories of Gibreel (Gabriel) the archangel who may or may not be the being with whom Saladin fell to earth or maybe he's just a paranoid schizophrenic; Mahound (Mohammed) and his twelve wives, particularly the favorite Ayesha; a poet named Baal and twelve whores who play the roles for customers in a whorehouse of the Prophet and his wives; a prophetess named Ayesha who, clothed in living butterflies, leads a village on a haj to Mecca that will take them across the Arabian Sea - on dry land because the seas will part for them. And on and on. 

It is often hard to separate reality from magical reality here, but I eventually held onto Chamcha as the bright thread that would lead me out of the maze. After he fell to earth and began to change into a goat, he suffered abuse by the police who arrested him and then was in hospital for a while where he continued to change, until he was befriended by a physiotherapist and helped to escape, along with many other inmates/patients, from the hospital. As he met others who were willing to assist him and as he learned to channel his anger and stop being a patsy, he began to lose his goatish characteristics and returned to being fully human again. Unfortunately, being fully human meant that he was occasionally something of a jerk.

Chamcha causes much pain for some innocent people and eventually ends up in a burning restaurant, trapped under a beam, from which he is rescued by Gibreel. Things have seemingly come full circle. After his recovery - including heart bypass surgery - he is called back to India by Nasreem II because his father is dying. I have to say that perhaps my favorite part of the book was his return to India and his reconciliation with the people he had left behind, because it tied up so many of the loose ends of the story and maybe because it seemed most real and devoid of magic. 

This is, in many ways, an amazing book. I understand how fundamentalist Islamists can be offended by it. I don't understand how someone professing a religious turn of mind - or anyone, for that matter - can call for a writer to be murdered because of his words. I am offended by many books, e.g., every one that Ann Coulter and Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly have ever written. But I wouldn't wish them dead or even silence them. They are idiots but at least they serve the purpose of making the rest of us look smarter in comparison. But I digress.

This is the first and only book of Rushdie's that I've read, but it has certainly piqued my interest. I think I'm ready to tackle some of his others now.

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