Monday, February 8, 2010

The Satanic Verses: A Book Review

Author: Salman Rushdie
Year of Publication: 1988
Awards: Booker Prize finalist, winner of the Whitbread Award for novel of the year

Of The Controvorsy and The Banning

I am starting with The Satanic Verses because it's the grand-daddy of all banned books in recent history and it because it was the first book that helped create my own consciousness of the consequence of words, the power of writing, and the storms they can create. Most of us know the controvorsy but I'll do a quick recap.

After its publication in 1988, The Satanic Verses, had mixed reviews but, in the Muslim world was almost universally hated. It was considered blasphemy, the stricted Islamic interpretation of which is death. Not only was it blasphemous to the Prophet of Islamic it also had a caricature pious religious leader who lived in the West while alerting his eyes from its fleshpots. Sounds familiar? Obviously it hit close to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, because he issued a fatwa demanding the death of the infidel author, and anyone who had anything to do with the book. The fatwa challenged all true Muslims to take on the onus of responsibility.

The storm broke and Rushdie went underground.

Copies of the book were burned world-wide, and India was one of the first countries to ban the book. I remember outraged scholars--including prominent Muslim ones like Irfan Habib--protesting the ban. Obviously India was not the only one to ban The Satanic Verses. Many countries did.

Rushdie remained in hiding and was protected by constantly moving and being granted police protection by the British government. Others involved with the book were not so lucky. The Japanese translator was kiled in 1991, the Italian translator was stabbed to death, both in 1991. The Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard barely survived an assassination attempt in 1993. The Turkish language translator was the intended target for the Sivas massacre in July 1993 that claimed the lives of 37 people.

While Rushdie has gradually emerged from hiding, becoming more visible in the intervening years, especially after Khomeini's death, the fatwa remains active because it could only have been rescinded by the original issuer of it. Technically Rushdie still is fair game for anyone who wants to take him out.

The Review
It is for these reasons and many more that I chose The Satanic Verses to be the first book to be reviewed on this blog. My passion for free speech and my love of reading and writing coalesced during those late years of the 1980's. I had first read the book during that time but understood not much at all. So I re-read it recently, and so here we are.

The Satanic Verses is a book that challanges the reader. From its frame narrative approach and its magical realism to the heavy doses of Hindi and Urdu words to the shifting plot that takes us through time, place, and varying levels of consciousness some might find it a hard book to read.

I was enchanted. The language is Rushdie at his best. It is at once exuberant, lively, and mischievous while bringing emotional core truths to the surface.
We start with Gibreel Farishta (part Amitabh Bacchan, part NTR all Bollywood movie star) and Saladin Chamcha (the man of a thousand voices) hurtling through the sky after the airplane Bostan on which they were traveling was hijacked and blown up. They are the only two survivors and wash up on a snowy English beach.

What struck me was how timely this book is because it examines universal themes. Substitute the Khalistani separatist terrorist hijackers with the terrorists of today and the rest of the story remains relatable. Yes, relatable, despite its fantastical, magical-realism. Because Rushdie, above all, looks at the human condition.

Whether it is the relationship between father and son, failed love affairs or dislocation and the life of the other in Western societies, The Satanic Verses is as relevant today as it ever was.

The cast of characters is immense, moving through time and space effortlessly. The boundaries between dreams, visions, revelations, madness, reality, time and space are fluid and unpredictable, and managing these shifting lines requires a masterful hand. Rushdie handles these alternate realities with almost magical ease, while never letting us forget the real life, real people and real situations that ground the book. It is ultimately a book about life, death, love, dislocation, colonialism, post-colonialism, immigration, self-hatred, acceptance, fear...all the shades of life and living even as we go from seventh century Jahilia to 20th century London and places in between. That is what separates Rushdie from run of the mill writer.

It is one of these time-shifts that landed Rushdie in trouble. We are transported to Jahilia, a city made out of sand, on which a drop of water would wreak devastating havoc. The age of jahalat, of course (literally illiterate and ignorant) was the name given to the phase of time before Islam arrived in Arabia. The time before Allah when one of the most powerful deities was the female god Al-lat.

And, living the life of an outcast is the prophet...not Mohammad, but Mahound, the derogatory name given to the prophet of Islam by the British. "Here he is neither Mahomet nor MoeHammered; has adopted, instead, the demon-tag the firangis hung around his neck. To turn insults into strengths, whigs, tories, Blacks all chose to wear with pride the names they were given in scorn..."

Just as in The Last Temptation of Christ imagined Christ betrayed himself, by choosing to believe the temptations of Satan, so does Mahound betray his own principles by listening to the satan verses he says were given to him by Gibreel. These are in fact the disputed verses from the Quran that some critics say were self-serving and expedient rather than divine. This section, as well as the scenes in the brothel where the prostitutes take on the names of the prophet's wives to service the sexual fantasies of the newly converted Meccans were the most incendiary to Muslims. And, in a curious foreshadowing of the controvorsy to come, note this exchange when Mahound sentences to death the poet Baal:

"So he was sentenced to be beheaded, within the hour, and as soldiers manhandled him out of the tent towards the killing ground, he shouted over his shoulder: "Whores and writers, Mahound. We are the people you can't forgive."

Mahound replied, "Writers and whores. I see no difference here."

But there are other satanic verses too, not just semi-divine ones. As Gibreel Farishta teeters on the edge of insanity, fueled by his jealous love for Alleluia Cone the flat-footed mountain climber, he receives sinister phone calls. The caller recites sometimes filthy, sometimes nonsensical verses about having sex with Cone. This plunges Gibreel over the cliff, leading to the final showdown.

The language is sublime but for those who don't know hindi, Indian cinema, Islam and Islamic history, and a smattering of Arabic it can be rather bewildering. Rushdie does not translate...there are no footnotes, no elaborate explanations. Rushdie is primarily a proud post-colonial writer. This helps maintains the flow of the story, allowing readers to revel in his inventive and clever and totally masterful use of the English language. For the more curious literate reader it affords opportunity for research. I can, however, see that at times Rushdie can come across as self-consciously clever and even smug. If you can overcome that read this book if you haven't or re-read it if it has been a while.

The Satanic Verses is a tour de force, a book by Rushdie at his peak, sadly overshadowed by the controvorsy and violence surrounding it.

Keep a few days aside to read it. It is not an easy read, but a rewarding one. It is multi-layered, multi-textured, complex and surprising. The plot, the structure, the characters are all secondary to the story-telling. The author's hand is invisible, but intriguingly his personality comes through. The book is indelibly Rushdian and one that should be read.

Read, not only as a protest against censorship and violence but also because The Satanic Verses is a wonderfully written book by one of the greatest living writers. Yes, I sound a bit of a fan-girl here, but I'd rather be a Rushdie fan-girl than a groupie for any other contemporary author.

And this is another reason I chose Rushdie and The Satanic Verses as the kick-off review for this blog.


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sajid said...

satan rushdi or satan tasleema or you no body can stop us indian muslims to prevail the religion of truth (islam)

Islam will dominate the world
you are misguiding to all people by telling them fake story about islama

sajid said...

In the name of ALLAH most gracious most merciful

Say there is one GOD (ALLAH , ISHWER)
HE is absolute eternal
HE begets not not HE begotten
There is nothing like HIM


sajid said...

According to islam

There is someone who is running this universe and created this universe with some reasons

That unseen one is called ALLAH OR ISHWER OR GOD HIM with beautiful names

sajid said...

In Islam

All people are equal whether the person is black or white or yellow , rich or poor , indian or american or pakistani , sheikh or kushwaha or anderson .........


and believe in all prophets adam to muhammad (pbut)
and follow HIS last commandments qur'an

sajid said...

Now the truth about you great writers satan rushdi or satan nasreen or you

you guys are abusing all religions and making fun of millions of people
who follow them and practice and their sentiments

so great job earn money get honey and fame that is all you want

i will see you in aakhira (life after death)

sajid said...

lub pe aati hai dua ban ke tamanna meri
jindgi shamma ki soorat ho khuda ya meri
ye mere ALLAH burayee se bachana mujhko
nek jo reh usi reh pe chalana mujhko

manish said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
manish said...

sajid....people like you are complete retards..the earth is not going to bear the burden of the weight you stupid believers are putting on it....
Salman Rusdie is one of the greatest writers the world has evr seen..but U people can't digest this fact becoz u always want to wave the flag of your ignorance and absurdness called 'religion' even if it prevails after having drunk a million peoples' blood..

mohammad said...


i am indian muslim and i proud to be an indian and muslim

satan rushdie abused not only muslims
indira gandhi
margret thatcher
as well as

parvati wife of ram


i do not just open my mouth
but if something is true

i am muslim and i am sure that qur'an is the word of ONE ISHWER (ALLAH ,GOD) and as soon as people will understand it they will come closer to it & accept it

manish that is my personal view

and manish if you think muslims fight every where

then remember your one of muslim frnd and think
how does he behave with you ???


mohammad said...


are talking about blood

don't you know gujrat massacre

mumbai massacre
assam massacre

now international

afganistan millions have been killed including children

iraq thousands were killed

i condemn all those who are responsible for that...etc

i also condemn

who blast twin towers
who attack taj hotel mumbai
who attack akshardham ...etc

i have to speak truth manish
i can't take one side
if something is true i have to accept
i am trying to follow qur'an
i am trying to be a muslim
only by name but by practice


Anonymous said...

The Satanic Verses)..

Nobody has yet drawn the attention of Rushdie's Hindu admirers as to what he has to say about the gods and goddesses of their faith. "HERE WAS A LECHEROUS, DRUKEN RAMA AND A FLIGHTY [ Does not mean "full of flight", as one running away from illicit sexual advances, but as one who is sexually

RPS said...

hello madam ! namaste
can u help me to find the hindi translation/version of "The Satanic Verses".

thank u..

Nybs said...

Great post - informative and thorough. I have been meaning to pick this book up for a long time and I think you have just convinced me to finally do it!

manjar said...

satan rushdi type of people always involve in this kind of controversy to get the fame by defaming others. They even donot think about life after death, which is predefined in almost all religion. so without knowing the fact fool and stupid people accept satan rushdi's word(viz. book's). so use your mind and donot talk like stupid idiot as manish...

Archie Pavia said...

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Pickled Egg said...

Great review. There are so many interesting stories flowing through this book. It isn't always an easy read and I struggled through it a bit and then re-read it and found it fascinating.

There are parts of the book that you can see are going to stir up controversy. It's just a shame that it seems to stir up hatred rather than debate but that is the nature of many people. But overall I thought it was an amazingly rich book.

wiss manakel said...

i luv this book and finally some truth about islam and their qouran

updesh tiwari said...

I find it interesting that how a man,created by the god (eeswar, allah), thinks he is capable of defending the one.
Nothing ever happened in this without the consent of god.
The one, God is above to insult.If a man think that he or anyone can or had defamed or insulted the God/Allah, he is just an ignorant fool.
Happy learning Satanic Verses.

Lukas Axelsson said...

Just one thing to add:
You say that Salman Rushdie was protected by the British government although that was never the case. It was Scotland Yards independant decision to issue protection to Rushdie, the government initiated contact with him first after more than 2 years. The government was trashtalked in the novel as well, simply put they didn't WANT to help him.

gsalis said...

I recently picked up this book, reticent to begin the arduous but, most likely as you say, rewarding task of reading it. I find it risible the amount of illiterate, ignorant, depraved, delusional Muslims that have floundered to your blog to spam our intellects with mind-decaying bull shit. I'm sure if they tried reading this book, or any other book besides the plagiarist parables of the Koran, their constipated, pea-sized minds would implode.

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