sometimes witty book reviews
I don’t believe I would ever have read this book had not the BBC done such a good job of documenting of Rushdie’s life in hiding after the issuing of a fatwa calling for his death. For ten years after the publication of The Satanic Verses Rushdie’s well being was matter of national security in both the UK and the US. So controversial were his depictions of aspects of the Muslim faith that some extremists were incited to attempt and commit acts of homicide. Though the fatwa no longer demands that he be killed, it is still in place to this day (there is a Wikipedia article detailing the decade-long debacle). During the documentary Rushdie explains his style as a reaction to cool, calm, flowing prose of E. M. Forster (A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread). I was intrigued as what Rushdie’s opinion of the hot, distracted, fragmented opposite would look like.
Difficult. That’s what it looks like. Over 500 pages of difficult.
Let’s start with the confusing multiple narratives. There is a kind-of central plot-line which concerns two men who survive a plane exploding at 30, 000 feet. Both born in India, one believes he has successfully become an Englishman the other was travelling to the UK for the first time. As they tumble through the sky towards the ocean one is turned into what he believes to be an angel and the other we are lead to believe becomes his opposite, a horned devil. After plummeting into the sea and being washed up on an English beach, the pair separate and attempt to fit into English society. The pair find their race and supernatural attributes a hindrance and ultimately both they and the reader are left wondering exactly which was the angel and which the devil.
Two less frequent but concurrent narratives also struggle for dominance. The first is Rushdie’s take on the life of the prophet Muhammad, a whimsical and highly heretical interpretation of verses eighteen to twenty-two in suraht An-Najim of the Qur’an. Thi section of the holy text is colloquially referred to as ‘the satanic verses’ as they recount Muhammad’s encounter with the devil. The second is the story of a Indian peasant girl who is renowned for her visions of the Archangel Gabriel and for eating butterflies. She ultimately persuades the local villagers to begin a mass pilgrimage to Mecca, convincing them that they shall cross the sea by foot. All three narratives are pockmarked with seemingly unrelated anecdotes between and within their respective chapters.
I must hand it to Rushdie – his language is most definitely the opposite of E.M. Forster’s. To begin with every sentence is a smack in the face, each page a thorough beating and the end of each chapter a merciful release. I concede that this is a master writer at work, methodically dismantling any straight-forward expectations of language and contorting them into something clever and bit unholy. I can also understand why it caused such a furore upon its publication. What makes this a great book is its place in English literary history and also its thorough and unflinching explorations of the emotional turmoil of non-white and/or Muslim immigrants in the UK at the time.
What I did find fascinating was the use of various English dialects. English language publishing continues to be dominated by the codified constraints of big American and British publishing houses from which an author might occasionally stray into ‘their opinion’ of a dialect (I’m thinking of Bryce Courtenay’s horrendously racist rendering of ‘slave English’ specifically). Rushdie writes his sequences of Indian-English dialects with great authority and total disregard for those not fluent in it. For me as a member of a dominant race, this brought into focus the strikingly different use and purpose of a language many consider universal. Rushdie uses the Western-English speaker’s understanding of ‘their language’ against them. This makes the reading itself an isolating experience which in turn heightens one’s understanding of the alienation plaguing the non-Western characters throughout.
Ultimately though, were such a book to be published today I doubt many but the most extreme would have batted an eyelid. The Satanic Verses is not for the faint hearted, but reading it in its entirety does give you plus-ten book-club bragging points.
Reading suggestions: Not before bed.