The Satanic Verses

Strange as it may sound, I had never heard of this book until I came across the name on my University reading list. I was often looked at as if I was some sort of cave dweller for this, and after doing a tiny amount of research, I could see why. It was not difficult to learn of the controversy and outrage that surrounded the novel and Salman Rushdie. After finishing the book, I was also outraged. I was outraged that a man who had exercised his right to freedom of speech could be made to fear for his life.

It is not difficult to see why the Islamic State were offended, I won’t dispute that, it does not paint their religion in an especially favourable light. BUT, the parts which can be seen as a critique of Islam are minimal. This has a tendency to happen with controversial texts. Take American Psycho; violence does not make up the bulk of the material, but that it what it became infamous for. Controversial texts are very rarely examined for their artistic merit as a whole, most are only interested in the parts which cause a bit of drama. Even Fifty Shades of Grey, it is largely a terribly written love story; the erotic scenes are frequent but by no means make up the majority of the written material- but this is what everyone remembers. The Satanic Verses is by no means constantly trying to denounce Islam, but it is known for the minimal number of pages which do not portray the origins of the religion in a positive manner.

I am religious myself, a Catholic. I’ve read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Although I was by no means in agreement with the depiction of Christianity, I felt no outrage either. We cannot all have the same views on religion, we all have the right to an opinion and the right to express it; we do not have the right to persecute other people because they do not agree with us. There was, of course, outrage in the Christian faith, there were also many Christians who commended the books. No faith is immune to the dangers of corruption and dogmatism, critiques can point these things out to people, and religions could benefit from this (even if that was not the intention of an author).

I’m going to follow my own advice now, and consider The Satanic Verses as a novel, not for the issues which surround it and the author. The opening 50/60 pages were hard to get through, the narrative is disjointed and often veers into tangents. If I did not have to read the book for university, I can’t say for certain that I would have ever finished it. The protagonists (Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha) I felt were slightly hollow, this also added to my initial lack of interest. After having read it I still don’t feel that I like or dislike Farishta or Chamcha, there was nothing about them that jumped out.

As I progressed further into the book, I began to like it a lot more. The characters did not need to be  believable, because they act as mediums by which Rushdie depicts much more important themes. One that stuck out was the manner in which a Western lifestyle can corrupt immigrants. Farishta and Chamcha, despite taking on opposite personalities (devil and angel) are startlingly similar. Both men seem thoroughly ashamed of their Indian nationality. Nationality is something most people (I assume) are proud of, but the two men wish to eradicate theirs. Farishta and Chamcha’s dramatic external changes are something which I view as relating not only to their personalities, but to the contrasting forces of English and Indian national identities.

Nationality is a theme of continuing importance, so reading about it from the perspective of two men who wish so desperately that they can become more English was interesting, but also a shame. Nationalities are not cars; something which we can trade in when it no longer meets a certain criteria. They stay with us throughout our lives.

The Satanic Verses has a wide variety of settings, I found the most interesting ones to be those in Farishta’s dream sequences. These sections made up a fascinating sub plot, and were significantly more exciting to read than the opening pages. The story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant, who claims to receive messages from the Archangel Gibreel. She leads a pilgrimage across the Arabian Sea, and the exact result of this is contested in the closing pages of the novel. I found her story interesting, because it is very heavily implied that Gibreel is not giving her any messages, while it is implied that Mahound takes the messages from the angel which he wishes to hear. The voice of the author often shines through at various stages in the text; having an author who is so involved with the characters he has created adds another layer to the novel. He often comments on the actions of Farishta and Chamcha, and will at times question the truth of the events.

Overall I think that The Satanic Verses is a book which deserves much more credit than it gets. The controversy surrounding it has, unfortunately, eclipsed what is a very good book. I would certainly recommend it to determined readers, the opening section is boring and the style can often detract from the point- but I think that it is a rewarding read once finished. I only think it is beyond shameful that the author of this book has been given a reputation of infamy, he deserves much better.






In defence of the literary classics


I’m now at the stage where I have almost finished my Literature degree; alongside this I’m gaining some experience by working in a publishing house. I keep up to date with the trends in book market; although I doubt I’d ever be able to predict them or guess how long they may last. So I really pay close attention to EVERY opinion which I hear relating to literature and the book market. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed a growing feeling of disapproval of “the classics” in literature.

Before I give my opinion on their validity, I’ll run through a couple which spring to my mind as being particularly important; Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, 1984, Vanity Fair and The Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s a relatively abstract concept, but this at least gives an idea of my own personal opinion. There are hundreds of books which fall into the category- but there are also millions that do not. Also, I don’t just have a preference for the Anglo-American literature, I also adore; War and Peace, The Aeneid, Lolita, Madame Bovray, The Iliad and The Divine Comedy.  (Side note, I would love to hear what texts other people consider to be particularly important classics, I’m making a list of highly recommended ones which I want to get around to reading).

Now that I’ve mentioned some texts, I can move on to the specifics of what I’ve been noticing. I’ve encountered a lot of people studying literature, who say that they simply don’t like the classics. I don’t pretend to get that viewpoint; I know not every classic speaks to everyone, but I think there must be one out there that appeals on a level to every one? If people aren’t giving the classics a chance, I was once hugely guilty of doing the opposite, if it was published after 1955 I probably didn’t want to know. Although, after much persuasion, I gave Irvine Welsh a chance, and realised that actually I should be giving modern literature a lot more credit than I had been.

So I’ve changed my attitude towards modern literature; after all, an editor who can’t stomach new authors would not survive very long in the publishing industry. Despite that, my pet hate will always be the association many lit students make between those who love the classics and snobs. Having an appreciation for the great writers of the past, without whom many of the popular books of our time would not have been possible, is not synonymous with literary snobbery. Without the Marquis Du Sade, Fifty Shades of Grey could never have been published- the content would have been deemed too shocking if the Marquis had not been determined to write erotic and sadistic literature all those years ago. Without  Jane Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary could have ended up as a very different story. Even the film industry has been influenced by the classics; without Shakespeare, we could not have had She’s the Man, and that is not the world I want to live in. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

The classics have an influence which is impossible to measure; take T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land; keeping track of the literary allusions in that is nearly impossible without the help of several study guides and Wikipedia- and that is just one man’s poem. Without them, literature would not be the same as it is today. I don’t think appreciating this is something which should be frowned upon. Even in university, when the electives start being decided upon, it is always those with a heavier percentage of classic titles on the reading list with the smallest number of students enrolled. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to study more modern work too, but classic literature seems to be dying a death unless it is forced upon students in compulsory modules. I know there is the popular argument, ‘the classics have dominated universities for hundreds of years, is it not time to give other authors a chance?’. Yes, give them a chance, but this shouldn’t mean that the writers who prefigured their work should be ignored either.

People often cite their reason for studying history to be this, that it is only by understanding the past, that you can begin to make sense of the present- so is literature any different? Appreciation for Austen and Nabakov does not mean that I consider Person A’s love for Harry Potter or Person B’s obsession with The Hunger Games to be inferior to my own taste; these might be books that I have read and disliked, but the world would be an incredibly boring place if we all liked the same things.