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I Read 'The Satanic Verses' So You Don't Have To

Earlier this year I finished reading Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses and wrote myself a "little" review on it. When I came up on it again a few days ago it dawned on me that it might be useful to anyone who, like myself, was wondering what all the hubbub was about and is considering picking it up. Don't take this post's title too seriously, any book you want to read you should read, but if you just wanted to know what all the brouhaha was for, back when it was published, then my Rushdian review, below, should help answer the question.

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Where do I begin? With the intro, where Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, dropping out of the sky, the lone survivors of the bombing of the hijacked airliner, Bostan, sing a tune - I forgot which -  while free-falling so that they may begin to fly rather than drop like stones into the waters off the English coast; where a lonely old lady with a storied past in the rugged pampas of Argentina takes them both into her home, and where, several days later, after a retelling of her story, of Saladin’s - the Indian who wants to be British - and Gibreel’s - the god-playing Bollywoodian - immigration officers swoop in to take Saladin away while Gibreel passes himself off as the woman’s husband and passively watches the arrest, doing nothing for his friend who is taken to a detention center where he becomes a hoofed, goat-like creature? That’s the first 50 pages or so, maybe more, can’t tell because of Kindle, but it’s a hefty chunk as far as intros go. 

But speaking of Kindle, here’s a benefit to reading it on an electronic device: vocabulary building. Sure, I forgot most the words already, but I noticed that one particular word, new and delicious, was repeated three or four times throughout the novel: Deliquesce. And, as I deliquesced into the pages of Rushdie’s magnum opus - some say this would be Midnight’s Children, however, I have to put my money on the book that got two people killed; its Japanese and Italian translators by way a fatwa issued by a certain Iranian Ayatollah -  I wondered, more than once, ‘why the fuck am I still reading this?’ Not because it’s bad, you understand. But because it was so long and I never quite understood why. 

Okay, so Saladin, the wannabe Brit, who is married to the posh Brit, Pamela, who wants to be anything but, is exposed - through his goat-horned ordeal - to the life of south-Asian immigrants in London. Long story short, he goes into hiding and eventually reaches gargantuan proportions as a black, sulfur spewing goat-devil before reverting, suddenly, to his human shape. All the while, the cast of characters around him live their own lives in the context of their own backstories; rebellious teens, scoundrel lawyers, jumpy gym teachers, immigrant parents, nightclub owners, former work associates and their spouses, and so on, the cast is expansive. 

The story is similar on Gibreel’s side, however - and we get some of this in the intro - his is also a double story; that of Bollywood super-star/prophetic archangel/paranoid schizophrenic, okay so a triple story, and with all of those personas Rushdie builds a solid and vast cast of characters as well. 

There is also Alleluia Cone, the Everest climber, and then there is Mahound (Mohammed, the prophet) and his trips to Mount Cone. We’ll get to that…

But first, why the fatwa?

This is really the only reason I ever wanted to read The Satanic Verses. That, and the title - though I figured they were interrelated. So I’ll spell it out. It turns out there are - or were - some verses in the Koran which acquiesced to three goddesses of the pre-Islamic Arab tribes as legitimate ‘co-goddesses’ alongside Al-lah, the one god. In the story, Mohammed is ‘Mahound’, the name used by medieval Christians to vilify him as a false prophet, a pagan, and a demon who inspired a false religion. The manner in which ‘Gibreel’, the very same Bollywood superstar who, when he dreams, dreams that he is the Archangel Gabriel passing on Koranic revelation to Mohammed is also blasphemous (to a man like the fatwa-issuing Ayatollah, perhaps to Muslims in general). 

The scene where an unnamed Ayatollah in a London hotel is happy to urge children to their deaths might also be seen as insulting to such a holy office. The way Mahound declares it acceptable to have twelve  wives while all other Muslims may have but four (for the angel had decreed it) and how, always, he wins any argument simply by following up with a consultation with the angel who - somehow, surprisingly - always takes his side. How such a wily merchant was “revealed” such precise rules of accounting, of trade, of possessions - all coincidental to his life and upbringing -  and how he loved his youngest, child-wife, and his oldest, mother-wife, most and how, the women of Mecca - those of his age and stature - previously at the head of their quasi-matriarchal pagan society, were decreed to be immodest unless they hid away behind men and heavy garments, therefore ‘subdued’ in the religion of submission. So many coincidences, most of them historically verifiable, nonetheless the building blocks of today’s billion person religion. Yes, that pissed off the Ayatollah and he issued the fated fatwa, the fucking fanatic. But I’m sure other things pissed him off too.  

And so I kept reading. I toiled rather, over four long months, reading several other books in between. Always, at the back of my mind, fighting against the urge to quit, but could not. I began to sympathize with the victims of the Nigerian Scam each time I picked it up and the Kindle; my favorite device now became a burden, heavy and pregnant with this unfinished tome. The only way to lighten the load was to keep reading, to grind away and to learn new complicated words in long, but generally uncomplicated sentences. I had to read about Alleluia Cone, the flat-footed mountaineer, and of her visions during ascents up the mountain, which, although spiritual, were bereft of religious fervor  - unlike certain other characters’ ascents up a certain mountain. Then about her love-affair with Gibreel, and about her mother, and her sister, and her father - and his philosophy - and so on…

Somewhere, Rushdie writes that, “a book is a pact with the Devil that inverts the Faustian contract...Dr Faustus sacrificed eternity in return for two dozen years of power; the writer agrees to the ruination of his life, and gains (but only if he’s lucky) maybe not an eternity, but posterity, at least. Either way...it’s the Devil who wins.” Well, Mr. Rushdie, much the same can be said about reading The Satanic Verses, except we’ll take it down a rung, for the reader gains neither power (maybe very little) nor posterity, but the Devil still wins. 

This is not a page turner, nor do I believe that well-written books need to be (and this is a very well-written book) but I do wish it had been. 

Comments

  1. Congratulations on your persistence -- and on your perspicacity!

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