Sunday, September 21, 2008
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
Wow! Wow. Wow! What a fine and fabulous book. Yet again, Mr. Rushdie has absolutely outdone himself. Wow.
The Satanic Verses is a sprawling epic of men, women, angels, prophets, devils(?), martial artists, movie stars, and nearly everything else between Bombay, Mecca and the great wet city Ellowen Deeowen. Like several of Mr. Rushdie’s other novels, it is told with a frantic post fall-of-Babel style. Everyone talking, multitude of voices in the wilderness, every sentence near competing with tits fellow, falling over itself to delight, entertain, amuse and perplex the reader. It is downright funny, a comedy first and foremost maybe; a tragedy second, a deadly serious meditation on faith third.
The core of the framework tale concerns itself with two men, both of whom fall from an exploding jetliner over the English Channel. The jet has been destroyed by muslim militants. One of the men, Gabreel, is a Bombay film star. The other, Saladin, is an Indian expatriate voice actor living in London. As they fall, the one takes on the countenance of angel Gabriel and dreams. The other adopts a more satanic countenance. Then things start to get really complicated.
Along the way, there are two other critical tales told. One is the story of the Prophet, Mahound (Peace Be Upon Him). The other is the tale of a young woman who is visted by the angel Gabriel, becomes covered in a gown of butterflies, and leads the residents of a North Indian villiage on a doomed crusade to walk to Mecca.
All of the above plot bits and major story arcs make up just the primary weave of the garment. As usual with Rushdie, there are hundreds or more sub-threads which are all woven together to ask some really compelling questions about faith.
So was the fatwa upon Rushdie justified? Is the book blasphemous? Why is “Satanic” in the title?
For a devout muslim, particularly one uneducated enough to miss the rich tradition in which Rushdie is operating, certain passages in the book would certainly seem sacrilegious. The prophet is not presented in the best possible light, and any number of questions about his veracity are slyly woven into the narrative. There’s a really haunting sequence in which an Iranian imam brings about and revels in the slaughter of students during the revolution. And one of the core question at the heart of the book could be summed up as “did the prophet compromise his message for political gain in the early days of Islam.” This is where the title comes into play. Turns out that some accounts indicate that Mohammed (PBUH) may have at one point acknowledged, however obliquely, the power and divinity of earlier three goddesses who were much favored by the people of Mecca. Later, the prophet rescinded his statement, indicating that Shitan had spoken to him in the voice of the angel Gibreel and misled him. These so called “Satanic Verses” of the Koran were excised completely about 600 years later, and are not recognized by most fundamentalist Islamic scholars, as they imply that the prophet was not infalliable.
Now, this Satanic Verses bit is really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to the blasphemous portions of the novel. And, since it doesn’t seem to take much to get radical islam riled up, it’s no surprise, I suppose that they didn’t like what was in the novel. What is more surprising is that there were any who were both educated enough to read it and rigid enough to want to kill a person for writing a novel. But then, as the prophet in the novel suggests, there are only two types of people for whom God has no forgiveness, “writers and whores, which are the same.”
I loved this book. Not quite as much as Midnight’s Children, but still among the finest things I’ve ever read. It really helps that, as anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’m trainwreck-fasinated by the muslim faith in its modern incarnation. I wish very much that I could travel to some muslim counties, or even more that I had a smart, educated friend who was also a devout muslim. I’ve certainly got a lot of questions…
Fine book, Mr. Rushdie. As always, you amaze.