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.