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24th March
2010
written by Tony

Good book, ugly, ugly cover.

“‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’” These are the first words in a book that manages at once to confound expectations and be more than simply infamous. I must confess that I knew next to nothing about this book when I picked it up and I brought it home — if nothing more — for the novelty of having that book. You know the one. The one that made the Muslims so mad. The book that killed 40 people and put a, now irrevocable, fatwa into existence calling for all good Muslims to kill or, if unable to do so themselves, direct others to kill, anyone associated with this book. It’s a book that you feel a little nervous reading, say, on an airplane. Or in public. It has a stigma attached to it that is hard to get away from. It’s a book that sent its author into hiding for nearly a decade. I expected this book to be challenging on nearly every level. Something that could cause so much hate had to be either a blinding work of secular clarity and religious disavowal, or so basic and insulting that no one could read it and not feel tainted. In a way, it was neither. The language is stunningly accessible, and at times is almost sing-songy. If you’ve ever watched a Bollywood movie you’ll understand the verbal melody that Indian English becomes, how nearly everything becomes an idiom and the nonsense forms a meaning outside of accepted bounds. This is that feeling, put onto paper. Tune up the sitar and put on the hand cymbals and you could sway your hips in time with the writing. The plot wends its way through hallucinations, over time and geography, through moments of clarity, divine intervention, madness and fear. It wraps around two men: Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta. Cast as Satan and the angel Gibreel (Gabriel) respectively, we deal with their madness, clarity and conflict. Saladin (“Spoono,” as Gibreel calls him — among other things) struggles to leave India behind and integrate into England. Persecuted to no end for crimes he has not committed, nor been accused of, he becomes bitter and hateful toward the larger than life Gibreel who suffers no lack of blessing as he becomes ever closer and more united with the India he has also left behind. Interleaved among the tales of woe and fortune that these two men face is a satirical interpretation of the prophet Muhammad (Mahound, “The Messenger”) and his revelations that were the birth of Islam. Here we come to the eponymous act that caused much of the stir centered around this book: the revelation of the “Satanic Verses.” In short, these verses allowed the people of Jahilia (Mecca) to still worship three of their former deities while reconciling this worship with the revelations of the Mahound. Much of what this book deals with is plastic in its nature. People go by many names and places do as well (London is the mythical Ellowen Deeowen). Temporal locality and precision seems to be largely irrelevant, with the plot often jumping without warning from epoch to another, first in a recent London and then to a tribal Babylonian desert then to a recent India parallel in time to the London of the story and so on. The book, like its resident angel, is largely a semi-coherent schizophrenia that really has to be read as a whole to be understood. If you get hung up on this or that sentence, or this or that twist of plot, it’s easy to lose yourself in the wilderness of the prose and calamity of the narrative, but when you read with an eye for the gestalt, the book begins to reveal its inimitable poetry to you. Is this book inherently anti-Islamic? I would argue that it is not. It certainly calls the foundations of the religion into question, but in a thoughtful way. It seems to suggest that, like the book itself, perhaps the revelations are more figurative than literal in their interpretation. In any event, this book is less about religion and more about insanity. Within madness there is beauty. There is also disaster, pain and sacrifice, but the beauty, clarity and power are always there. Though reason and stability are the ultimate victor in this tale, it is a bitter pill. Do you need to be a cleric to understand this book? A Muslim? A religious scholar? I would say not, but the thoughtful reader would benefit from at least a casual understanding of the principles of Islam, its origins and contemporary relevance to this book. Not to be crass, but a glance at the copious Wikipedia pages on the topic would aid a great deal in grasping, at the least, the controversy of this particular work. However, the beauty of the writing, the power of the language and sweeping current of the plot are more than worth the time should you decide to eschew your Islamic primer. A contemporary masterwork, this novel showcases the intensity, genius and extraordinary finesse of Rushdie in his prime and presents a stunning vignette of India’s (and everyone’s) struggle to find a cultural identity in a strange world, even if it is the one right outside our door. Rating: 5 out of 5

9 Comments

  1. I haven’t read this one, but I’m sure I will at some point. I enjoyed Midnight’s Children to some extent, but a lot of the magical realism went over my head. I am interested in why this one got him into so much trouble with the muslim community though, but am used to checking wiki for facts, so think I’ll be OK with that aspect!

  2. 03/24/2010

    I always wanted to read this book, mostly because of the controversy, but after I failed at The Enchantress of Florence, I’m a little leery of Rushdie’s other works.

  3. 03/24/2010

    Steph, that was an absolutely wonderful review! I have tried to read this book roughly three times, and each time I seem to get caught up in the minor details, the switching of names, and the scattered feeling of the plot. I do so want to be able to succeed with this book, but have felt at times that I there were many aspects to the story that I just wasn’t getting. I would definitely agree with your description of the book as being slightly schizophrenic. I also am thinking that your advice of using Wikipedia and pushing through to get the feel of the whole book might help me the next time I attempt this book. I did love Midnight’s Children, and had hoped that this book would be similar, but found that it was in fact, very much more difficult for me. Thanks for this enlightening review, you have inspired me to want to try again with this story. I will have to report back to you about my success with it.

  4. 03/24/2010

    Oops! I just realized that it was in fact Tony who wrote this review, and not Steph! I believe that I will let my comments stand. Tony, you write wonderful reviews and I hope to see more of them!

  5. 03/24/2010

    Glad to hear it’s accessible and not as anti-Islamic as I imagined. I’m really eager to read this, and will do soon. Thanks for the great review, Tony!

  6. 03/25/2010

    Hi Tony, you’ve written another great review. I’ve always been a bit scared off of reading this but your review makes it seem accessible!

  7. Eva
    04/02/2010

    This post made me SO happy, since I’m a total Rushdie lover. And I really enjoyed this one, when I read it back in the pre-blogging days. I love the mountain climbing woman to bits and pieces. 😀

  8. 05/03/2010

    I love Rushdie, but never got to this one. Thanks to the fatwa, it is somewhat difficult for me to get a good copy of this book.

    Most of Rushdie’s works are controversial in some minor way or the other, but somehow this one seems to have caused such a huge brouhaha…

  9. […] goodness Tony attempted a synopsis in his review, because that means I don’t have to try to synthesize a coherent plot. The back cover of our copy […]

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