Banned Book Club: The Satanic Verses

Title: The Satanic Verses

Published: 1989

Author: Salman Rushdie

Challenge status:  #55 on  Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century and frequent target of banning attempts according to the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Book #8 on Summer of Banned Books ’13.

Why:  In Pakistan five people died in riots against the book, which was banned in Pakistan (as well as many other countries including Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, South Africa, and India) due to its criticism of Islam. The book was also burned in England, and police requested the book be withdrawn from at least two bookstores due to threats made to staff and the stores. In Venezuela, owning or reading the book was declared an imprisonable crime, while in Japan sale of the book was banned (violators would be fined). Several people involved in selling, translating, or publishing the book were threatened or attacked (e.g. Igarashi – stabbed to death, Capriolo – wounded in an attack, Nygaard – shot and injured). Rushdie himself was subjected to a fatwa (issued by Ayatollah Khomeni of Iran), and lived in hiding/under police protection for several years. Now out of hiding, threats have continued to be made to Rushdie’s life as recently as 2012.

First line: “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'”

Synopsis: 547 pages of some of the densest prose ever. Ok, first let’s talk about reading experience. Part I, nearly the first 100 pages — unpleasant. In the sense that it is hard to figure out what’s going on and unclear what direction the whole tapestry is being woven towards. There is just some serious friction happening that keeps the reader working to get to the next page. However, towards the middle of the book the different storylines start to firm-up and things get a little easier to follow — there’s still a ton of characters, stories within stories, and parallel plotlines to keep straight — but at least it’s not such a mad jumble. And then things reconnect into one plotline through the finale.

Regarding the bannability. Ok, so, reading the book grabs onto characters across the divine spectrum, churning through them without making much distinction about which faith be being critiqued. What I mean by obvious is that the treatment of the divine happens at the most superficial level. A deeper point is that the fiercest competition between good and evil happens in the hearts and minds of individuals. Maybe that is the greater sacrilege, that a faith (or god, or pantheon of gods) can be bent in the service/interpretation/strategem of the faithful/faithless. It is not a pretty theme that good and evil are in the eye of the beholder, it is much easier to keep track of goodness and evilness if they simply adhere to absolutes.

Regarding the book itself; it is incredible. It is a symphony. The two main characters of the main plotline are two Indian actors (one famous in Bollywood (Gibreel), the other famous in London (Saladin)) who, in their miraculous survival of a plane hijacking/crash, literally re-enact a fall from grace with one character becoming a human embodiment of a demon (a satyr-like figure) and the other of the divine (Gabriel walking amongst us). The characters walk amongst us, first working through the trauma of their fall, then trying to reincorporate themselves in the world as though nothing happened, then following the directives of their “new” natures. In parallel there are a few other parables that replay some of the themes of the main plotline: faith vs truth, acceptance vs exclusion, abandonment vs connection.

My hypothesis is that the entire allegory is commentary on the modern Indian experience. The whole story was full of this tension of immigrant vs émigré, and long journeys that ultimately take the pilgrim to a home worth fighting for, and how the fight changes when the clash is between religions (prophets of Allah vs followers of Al-Lat), cultures (racial tensions in London), or personal (Gibreel vs Alleluia). Certainly the struggle to find meaning and belonging in life are human imperatives, not limited to one culture, but the narrative richly incorporates ideas and experiences specific to India and it’s particular diaspora. Also notable is the ebb and flow of power. The David defeats Goliath, then gets lazy and another underdog comes along to tumble the new king of the mountain – or perhaps more aptly in this story, someone falls further and becomes the new bottom of the pyramid.

A peculiarity for me as a reader: one of the lead female characters is a strong-willed mountain climber named Alleluia Cone, Allie for short – she has a few independent adventures but is primarily in the book as Gibreel’s girlfriend. I would not describe any of the female characters as protagonists, because they are mostly in the book as a counter-point to Gibreel, Saladin, Mahound, or Baal. This is not a problem for me except the most well-developed female character (who is not that well-developed) I felt strangely protective of (gee, I wonder why I felt protective of a character named Allie..haha), I wanted her to have her own destiny. Of course it was not to be — because that’s the thing about destiny: nobody gets their own, everyone is connected and our destinies intertwined. But there were a few lovely passages, human and tender, like this one: “her secret fear of her secret desire, that is, love; – owing to which she was wont to retreat from, even hit violently out at, the very person whose devotion she sought most; – and the deeper the intimacy, the harder she kicked” gives her some depth and vulnerability that made me cheer her on, as a character with an inner life kept secret from the readers and maybe even the author. The butterfly-covered Ayesha and the heart-eating Hind, though fascinating, seem to lack internal complexity that would make them more (or less) sympathetic as characters.

The book is a masterpiece by an incredibly talented writer and story-teller. I do wonder, a bit, how much of the book would need to be extracted to quell the controversy raised. Some reviews pointed to a few lines that may have been responsible for the anger of the Ayatollah and the resulting fatwa. Maybe. Certainly the high-minded attempt at irony/satire fell flat – removing references to Muhammad including (the denouncing) satanic “errors” in early revelations he’d provided might have calmed some of the fury. But then then readers would still be left with all kinds of questions about the miraculous vs profane vs reality (with a shot of mental health implications in there too, actually), and the socio-political drivers in religion. Pretty intense social commentary, and not sugar coated, either.

What do you think?

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