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 The book was also burned in England, and police requested the book be withdrawn from at least two bookstores due to threats made to staff and the stores.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.

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