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The Satanic Verses

2013 April 4

When I was home for Easter this past weekend, I was working my way through The Satanic Verses, which I had been reading for the better part of two weeks.  Several family members noticed I was reading it and asked, “What is it about?” A seemingly simple and straightforward question. But how to answer it with a book so sprawling as this one?

It’s about religion and race and identity and families and love and jealousy and human nature. Does that sum it up?

It’s also about mythology, dreams, pride, celebrity, and madness. Does that answer the question?

The book opens with two men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, tumbling through the sky toward London from the wreckage of an exploded hijacked plane. The two men are traveling from India, their native homeland. Gibreel is a revered celebrity in India, noted for his roles in religious films, where he portrays various gods, while Saladin is a voice actor living and working in London, having distanced himself as far as possible from his Indian heritage. After crashing to the snowy shores of England, both men undergo strange changes–Gibreel glows with a golden light, while Saladin grows horns and cloven hooves.

Are you lost yet? It’s extremely easy to become lost in the dense thicket of characters, both real and imagined (often with the same names), that Rushdie creates. The book is divided into distinct parts, and it seemed that as soon as I would pick up a thread and feel relatively comfortable that I was following the action, that part would end, another would begin, and I was lost again in the shift. The shift being from the “real” to the imagined, from present day to past, from Gibreel to Saladin and back again. At first, this was frustrating, but after a few parts and story lines, I grew accustomed to the shifts, and even started to appreciate them, as they significantly opened up the perspective of the novel, and the reader’s experience.

Frankly, there isn’t much I can say about this novel that hasn’t already been said. In fact, the book was at the center of a controversy when it was published back in 1988–due to intense Muslim opposition to the book, Rushdie was the subject of a fatwa calling for his death, issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. So, yeah, this novel is pretty serious stuff.

But it’s also playful at times, with beautiful imagery and memorable characters. The same tensions exist today, down to terrorism and anti-religious sentiments, making the book timely as well as timeless.

It was a challenge to read this book, but a challenge I’m glad I accepted.

Have you read The Satanic Verses? What books have challenged you?

 

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