The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie has been recommended to me a few times, but I wanted to see exactly what got him in all that trouble–his depiction of the Prophet Muhammad. The librarian who checked the book out for me warned me she hadn’t been able to finish it. Soon after, the Answer Bitch made a passing comment about Rushdie’s fatwah on a podcast, and her current Bitchling piped up that she hadn’t been able to finish it. Naturally, I was determined to read it and finish it. I have never backed down from a book before–not even Slaughterhouse Five, which I absolutely loathe. (But not as much as I hate Samuel Beckett.)
The Satanic Verses is the story of two Indian men–Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood superstar, and Saladin Chamcha, an actor who has spent his life trying to reinvent himself as a British gentleman. After their hijacked plane from Bombay explodes in midair, the two fall to Earth and miraculously survive. The miracle continues in England–Gibreel develops a halo, and Saladin develops all the trappings of a satyr, from horns to hooves. Other stories interweave, as Gibreel’s dreams force him to play the Archangel Gibreel in several Islamic tales, such as the Prophet Muhammad’s encounters with the Archangel Gibreel (Muhammad is called Mahound, “The Messenger”, in the novel), and the story of Ayesha, who led her village on a Pilgrimage to Mecca. The title of the novel comes from a few renounced verses of the Qur’an, which would have allowed prayers to three Pagan goddesses of Mecca.
These interweaving stories make The Satanic Verses very, very dense. While I enjoyed Gibreel’s dreams (which serve the function of making Gibreel believe he’s the Archangel himself), Rushdie follows them through long after they’re necessary to the story–but, of course, you want to know what happens next in each of Gibreel’s dream stories, especially the strange story of Ayesha. I’m ambivalent about the stories– obviously, I think the novel would suffer if they were removed, but I can’t help but feel that the story of the Prophet Muhammad is the only one that’s actually needed.
The main theme of the entire work is migration, and how it affects a person. Saladin, who brutally rejects his Indian identity for his idealized dream of England, suffers the most–turning into a demon, brutalized by the police, losing his job, losing his wife, and being abandoned by his fellow survivor. Things end happily, if poignantly, for Saladin, making his sufferings worth it.
Gibreel goes about the other way, forcing his culture into his English surroundings, to the dissatisfaction of his English lover, Alleluia Cone (whose extensive backstory is heartbreaking). Gibreel grows jealous (which is horrifically exploited later on in the novel), and treats their shared apartment as if he were back home, attended by servants. Despite his halo, Gibreel is the worse off of the survivors, steadily declining, and slipping in and out of his delusions that he is the Archangel Gibreel. At the end of the novel, Gibreel confronts Saladin in India, and we are treated to a short passage spoken from Gibreel’s point of view. Finally seeing how damaged Gibreel is was almost horrifying, especially concerning the content of the passage (for which I will not spoil you!).
There is much, much more going on in the main story, however. Gibreel lives in the strange, isolated world of a celebrity (which probably didn’t do any good for his mental state), while Saladin finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into an immigrant community he had previously shunned. Watching their lives is fascinating, especially the compressed downward spiral of a woman, Hind, who chafes against her nonchalant husband and laments her Anglicized daughters’ morals and actions.
The stunning climax of the main story deftly interweaves their worlds, as a riot breaks out in the community and a delusional Gibreel encounters it head on. Rushdie is marvelous at scenes like this, where every action means something in a very short span of time, and the compressed backstories of nearly all the characters.
However, those fairly elaborate backstories contribute to the novel’s density. There is so much going on in The Satanic Verses, I have to say, that sometimes it feels like a chore trying to find the main story again, especially when you’re in the thick of Gibreel’s dreams–interesting, to be sure, but not as interesting as the main story. It’s a good novel, to be sure, with plenty of marvelous things to say and moments of real beauty (Saladin’s dream about his never to be son is almost haunting), but I can’t help but get the feeling that Rushdie was a bit too ambitious with this novel. And this is his fourth, so I’m not sure what that says about how I’ll like the rest of his work. I haven’t read any of them to compare, although Midnight’s Children is on my reading list.
Bottom line: The Satanic Verses suffers from its sheer density of stories and backstories, but the main story, that of the angelic (or is he?) Gibreel Farishta and demonic (or is he?) Saladin Chamcha, is solid, with the theme of migration firmly in its heart.
I rented this book from the public library.