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Magical realism

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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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English title: The Master and Margarita
Swedish title: Mästaren och Margarita
Original title: Мастер и Маргарита
Author: Michail Bulgakov
Translator: Lars Erik Blomqvist
Year: 1967

I do not hesitate to give books a grade close to perfection, like four or possibly four and a half snails if the novel truly deserves it. However, I tend to be very meticulous in my choice of books worthy of five snails and I have hitherto only awarded eleven fives out of roughly 300 novels. The Master and Margarita is the twelfth.

This fantastic story takes place in Moscow sometime around the 1930s. Woland, a magician with strange and dark powers, arrives in the city, and corruption, calamity and bewilderment follows in his wake. Soon (almost from the start, so this is not really a spoiler) it becomes clear that it is no other than Satan himself who has come to wreak havoc on capital of the Soviet Union. Many people are pulled into the chaos, but an author simply called “the Master” is among the more prominent one. A novel of his concerns the life of Pontius Pilate around the trial and execution of Jesus, and parts of Bulgakov’s novel is written as excerpts from the Master’s narration.

I truly adore some of the characters in this book, especially some of Woland’s companions. The cat, Behemoth, with his fancy for guns, chess and marinated mushrooms, is a favourite. This is not to say that the other members of Woland’s retinue are not fantastic, of course.

What is so astoundingly good with this novel is not the story itself, albeit it that it is satisfying as well. Instead, the language usage and the style are what really enraptures me and make me unable to quit reading at times (if I would not have been so busy with studying, I would probably have finished The Master and Margarita in no time). In some way, the style is reminiscent of that of Gabriel García Márquez in his fantastic book One Hundred Years of Loneliness (review in Swedish), especially when it comes to the blending of fairly trivial narration and absolutely bizarre events. Of course, I cannot comment on the original, but the Swedish translation is an excellent piece of writing and inspires me greatly.

As is customary, I shall conclude by a comment on recommendations. This is a book I recommend to everyone, without hesitation, because it has everything a good novel needs. Not only is it brilliantly written and narrated, but it also covers interesting themes of a broad variety (love, the struggle between good and evil, as well as satiric comments on society). I found all different aspects of this novel entertaining and awe-inspiring, but I am sure that even if you might not find all of them attractive, there will be something in this novel that makes it worth reading it anyway.

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Titel: Hundra år av ensamhet
Originalets titel: Cien años de soledad
Författare: Gabriel García Márquez
Översättare: Karin Alin
Utgivningsår: 1967
Recenserad: 2007-01-23

Jag fick den här boken rekommenderad av Yassilus, som menar att det är en av de bästa böcker som har skrivits. Så långt är jag inte villig att gå, men det är ingen tvekan om att Hundra år av ensamhet är riktigt bra. Boken handlar om släkten Buendias öde i den Colombianska byn Maconda. Som titeln skvallrar om, handlar det om en hundraårig krönika med växlande fokus från generation till generation. Tydligen är berättelsen också en metafor för regionens historia, men mina kunskaper om sydamerikansk historia är alltför bristfälliga för att jag ska kunna tillgodo göra mig den delen.

Boken är skriven på det bästa och mest intressanta sätt jag någonsin stött på, möjligen med undantag för Fight Club. Det är målande och nyttjar sig av liknelser som lyckas vara effektiva samtidigt som de är magiskt nyskapande och fantastiska. Själva innehållet är också det exceptionellt på många sätt. På ett sätt är boken mycket realistisk, men samtidigt känns det inte alls konstigt med zigenare med flygande mattor och människor som lever alldeles för länge. På så sätt har författaren verkligen lyckats.

Den enda invändningen jag har mot boken är att den inte hänger ihop överhuvudtaget. Visst finns det länkar mellan personerna och platserna, men rent berättarmässigt finns det inte mycket samband. Det är synd eftersom boken på alla andra sätt är fantastisk. Dock sätter jag bara femmor på böcker jag inte kunde föreställa mig hur de kunde skrivas bättre och i det här fallet kan jag faktiskt det. Därför får det bli fyra och en halv snigel till Gabriel García Márquez, men den halva snigeln är vansinnigt stark.

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