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Salman Rushdie – The Satanic Verses

Title: The Satanic Verses
Author: Salman Rushdie
Year: 1988

I wonder if Salman Rushdie knew that his 1988 book The Satanic Verses would be burnt in public and that Ayatollah Khomeini, the then leader of Iran, would issue a fatwa urging all good muslims to kill the author. Probably not, but that’s what I think is what people know about The Satanic Verses twenty years after it was published (if indeed they know anything at all). Picking up this book, then, I felt a bit uneasy, because books made famous mostly on political or religious grounds are seldom worth reading (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a good example, review in Swedish). Being well known because of religious or political issues doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a skilled author, but it’s certain that they aren’t one and the same..

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised by The Satanic Verses, mainly because of three things. First, the story of is intriguing. Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, two unfortunate Indians who, after survining falling from an airplane flying ten thousand metres above sea level, are transformed into the devil and the archangel Gabriel respectively. These mutations (Chamcha grows hooves and horns, Gibreel a halo) are hard to reconcile with modern society and being supernatural isn’t easy. People have expectations. Besides, is it really given that the angel is always good and the devil always evil?

Throughout the narrative, there are a number of dream sequences attributed to the gradually more deranged mind of Farishta (he who turned into the archangel). One of these is based on the life of Muhammad (he isn’t called that, even though the reference is obvious) and this is most likely the part many Muslims regard as blasphemous. The prophet is portrayed as a person interpreting God’s will to suit himself and his message is soon degraded from piety and spirituality to mere rules (“the Rule Book”, as they refer to his text). The other dream sequences tell the story of a modern hajj, or pilgrimmage to Mecca, and that of a fanatic imam living in London.

Second (yes, I had a lot of things to say about the content in general), the language is rich, entertaining and creative. I stop several times, thinking to myself that a particular sentence or way of saying something was very effectful or beautiful. Filling 550 pages with this kind of language isn’t easy, but Rushdie manages, seemingly without much effort. I would be prepared to read more of his books only because of the language.

Third, I should also add that I like The Satanic Verses because of the elements of magical realism Rushdie employs in his writing (see One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Master and Margarita for two other examples, the first only in Swedish). In one of the dream sequences (the one about the hajj), the girl Ayesha has a special relationship with butterflies and the author manages to create a tale which is realistic, but yet includes supernatural elements, such as the butterflies. I happen to like butterflies in general, but this is just one single example of what I like in this book (the whole transmutation of the two main protagonists is perhaps an ever more obvious example).

I think I would have given five snails to Salman Rushdie if the book was a bit more focused and didn’t span more than 500 pages. Everything is good, but there’s just too much of it and perhaps also a bit diluted at times. Still, The Satanic Verses is a very good book indeed, and not only will I award it four and a half snails and recommend it warmly to anyone interested, but I’ll definitely read more by Salman Rushdie in the future. Any suggestions?

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