The Satanic Versus found its way onto my to-read list through a combination of reputation and curiosity. Salman Rushdie’s book became an icon of the 20th Century when the heated and frequently violent reactions around the world – including the Ayatollah of Iran’s declaration of fatwah – caused the author to live a life at risk. It feels like what the story was actually about was lost in all the rage and fury as the book was used as a symbol of cultural divide between apparent freedom of speech issues and religious respect. Not being a Muslim, let alone religious, I wanted to get to the actual pages of the tale itself to try and grasp why it caused such noise.
A flight to London has exploded, two men are falling rapidly toward the English Channel. They are India’s legendary movie star Gibreel, and the man of a thousand voices, Saladin Chamcha. Washed up alive on an English beach, their survival is impossible, unprecedented; a miracle. Unbeknownst to them there is a price to pay as they become pawns in the eternal wrestling match between good and evil. As they awake, does Gibreel have a subtle but definite glow about his head? Where has Chancha’s sulfuric bad breath come from?
The style of narration, in fact the whole inspiration for the story, would be familiar to anyone who also read Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. Drawn from religions, fairy tales, Bollywood, contemporary migration narratives, Rushie pulls all of his knowledge together with a deft hand, and pulls us along with a knowing smile at a fast speed. It is entertaining, exhilarating; he relishes his role of story-teller.
“The aircraft cracked in half, a seed-pod giving up its spores, an egg yielding its mystery. Two actors, prancing Gibreel and buttony, pursed Mr Saladin Chamcha, feel like titbits of tobacco from a broken old cigar. Above, behind, below them in the void there hung reclining seats, stereophonic headsets, drinks trolleys, motion discomfort receptacles, disembarkation cards, duty-free video games, braided caps, paper cups, blankets, oxygen masks. Also…mingling with the remnants of the plane, equally fragmented, equally absurd, there floated the debris of the soul, broken memories, sloughed-off selves, severed mother-tongues, violated privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished words, land, belonging, home.”
And as for the controversy that made this book so famous in the first place; that helped turn it into a 20th Century icon? It is interesting to me that the same literary devices or tools that I admired are the same points that some religious leaders found so insulting. The echoes between the names of Muhammad’s wives and the town’s local prostitutes; the use of the name Angel Gibreel (Gabriel) for a film star; the play on Saladin for the devil; the shared name between Muhammad’s favourite wife Aeshya and a young fanatical Indian girl who takes her town on a pilgrimage to Mecca. As the stories cross spaces and times and planes the same characters, the same arcs, playing themselves out over and over again give the story a sense of timeless inevitability; a larger purpose or meaning.
And the idea of the Satanic Versus themselves is controversial. In the novel a legend about the Prophet is shown, where he speaks versus of the Qu’ran allowing worship of some of the town’s pre-Islamic Meccan goddesses. This is a politically intelligent move, but violates monotheism and the total supremacy of this new one god; the versus are later withdrawn as Muhammad believes the devil tricked him into saying them, believing they were from god. The mere existence of this legend, compromising or humanising the Prophet’s abilities to hear god is contended, so a book bearing this title was seen as insulting.
Beyond the references, the insults, the controversy, some of this book read to me as if it required serious editing. There was just so much filler. Rushdie writes with a lot of colour and wryness but when such lengthy detail with little point to the plot just keeps happening it is exhausting. He is clever, and a show-off, and that can make the narration fun and entertaining; you are in the hands of a real host. But just like that guy at the party who revels in his jester role, after a while you just want to look him in the eye, tell him kindly, carefully to take a break. Breathe. Stop performing. There was unnecessary guff and posturing taking up so much space. I love how Rushdie relishes his storytelling persona in this narration but the excessive knowing-wink-style performance grates.
I’m glad to have read this book, to know where it came from and appreciate both its political and literary influence. There were definite flaws in its storytelling, but generally the layered stories and the echoes of arcs across time and place make it feel timeless, inevitable, essential. While fantasy, Rushdie’s ever-knowing tone makes it is a story that has always been there, revealed by someone who sees so much more than you, and knows what it means. It is entertaining, sharp, and perhaps it is an extra layer of irony that so many took such an insult at a story book about a story book.