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23rd May
2010
written by Steph

Man, oh man.  I am pretty sure I’ve never read a book anything like The Satanic Verses.  Probably because if literature can ever strive to do something new, unique, and original, then this is the book that does it.  Reading it is a rollercoaster, as I’ve never known a book that made me feel both so stupid and so smart.  Mostly I felt bewildered and befuddled while reading it, so confident that everything important was flying well above my head, but then when I finished it, I felt like a genius who could conquer anything.  I mean, I made it all the way through The Satanic Verses! How crazy is that?!? I probably wouldn’t have picked this book up if Tony hadn’t read it previously and loved it. I won’t lie: I was super intimidated by this book. It just has this larger than life aspect to it, and I got it into my head it was one of those great novels of our time that scholars argue over and that provokes the issuing of fatwas against its author.  I just didn’t think I’d be able to deal with it or get anything from it. I mean, I’m no expert on Islam, and a book that long and controversial has got to be hard, right? I admit that I had a HUGE inferiority complex. BUT. I’m so glad I read it, because guess what? I loved it. It was as fantastic as it was fantastical, and that’s saying quite a lot, because if you thought you knew magical realism from reading Marquez or Borges, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.  I feel like if Borges is the originator of magical realism, with The Satanic Verses, Rushdie is the guy who pushes and redefines the boundaries and possibilities of the genre. Maybe no work of literature can ever be perfect – certainly I don’t think this work is without flaws – but if ever there was a perfect example of the soaring liberation that can be achieved through fiction, this just might be it. Thank 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 doesn’t even try, and I think that’s largely because this is one of those books in which plot only gets you so far. There’s just so much going on in this book that is filled with plurality and dichotomies. It is raucous and riotous, joyful in its devastation and vitality. It buzzes, brims, and bustles with the frenzy and fever of life. Storylines start off discombobulatingly disparate, only to triumphantly unite in the end, sending this reader through a dizzying series of mental cartwheels as I sought to grasp all the threads. Or put it another way: the human body has millions of veins that course with our life’s blood, but ultimately, these veins all begin as one of two and terminate in much the same fashion (there’s that duality for you once again), and in the end (or the beginning) everything comes down to the heart as the source. That is how The Satanic Verses feels to me: a novel with many veins, but all stemming from a singular, life giving source. Obviously one cannot write about The Satanic Verses without mentioning the controversy surrounding it, namely that it is blasphemous against Islam, particularly in its depictions of the prophet Muhammed. As I stated earlier, I am no expert on Islam, so I feel like a good deal of the heresy passed me by without a blink of the eye. That said, I did spend a lot of time talking to Tony about the events portrayed in the book (as well as conferring with Wikipedia) in order to discover the roots of the problem. Essentially, Rushdie melds history, accepted religious doctrine, and fiction in this novel, for a blend that would likely offend those who adhere absolutely to Islam, simply because it provides a different account (some that call into question the role of a higher power) for events and verses present in the Qur’an. I suppose the problem I have with the controversy is that at no point is Rushdie's Satanic Verses presented as anything other than fiction. There is no pretense that he is presenting a non-fiction narrative that should be given equal weight to or supplant any religious teachings/beliefs. It is a story, a flight of fancy, plain and simple. I feel like being offended by The Satanic Verses is akin to being upset by a Philippa Gregory novel, or even Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, because these present a picture of what could have happened, but by no means assert that these things didn’t happen. In fact, the general idea behind such books is the understanding that the authors are taking great liberties and playing about with history and its people in order to entertain or make a point, but not to necessarily alter or augment one’s factual knowledge of the events in question. Ultimately, I did not feel that Rushdie’s intent was to offend or insult; at times his tale is irreverent, but I think it is clear very early on that Rushdie’s book is meant as a whimsical satire meant to address far more than religion.  If anything, I thought the book was more about the colonization and acculturation of India by the Brits, and the East-West relations and identity issues between the two countries. So, where does this leave us? Well, The Satanic Verses is a book that’s about Islam, but also really isn’t.  There’s just so much more to it at its core. Yes, some background on the subject might be helpful going in, but then again, occasionally referencing Wikipedia every now and then is also probably sufficient.  All to say, even if you know nothing about Islam, don’t let that be a reason to avoid this book. And yes, this is a demanding book that asks much of its reader, sometimes simply perseverance and faith that all will be made clear. The first 5 – 10 pages are perhaps some of the most difficult to read in the whole book as Rushdie blasts you in the face with his lyrical and brash style without any kind of precursory calisthenics. You may need to go back and read them more than once. I read the first chapter in the first section, went to bed, then woke up in the morning and started from the top in order to really get into the rhythm.  Sometimes you’ll only grasp fragments, just barely parsing the plot as your push through the pages, but if you hold on tight, you’ll make it through to the other side, lungs burning, brain whirring, and it will be one hell of a high. I was just mesmerized and awestruck by Rushdie’s gift for words.  His writing is so damn smart – playful and fluid, his language feels like it is a living thing.  He pulls off these crazy layered references with such ease it kind of made me ill.  How does a mere mortal write with such savvy and brio? He skewers and parries, and as effusive and mad as it all is, part of what’s so impressive is that he manages to keep everything juggling without having it all crash down around him. He’s effectively written the weirdest Bollywood movie you’ll ever read rather than see. The language is like its own dialect that sounds just how you’d expect these people to talk, the streets churn with the souls of thousands. Like I said: it’s fantastic. Don’t deprive yourself the experience of reading this book. You will have to work at times, but it is so worth it in the end. It will make you laugh, it will make you cry, it will make you think, it will make you feel. It will make your mind and your soul just a little bit more capacious. It might make you think that some long books are not really so very long, and maybe the best thing you could do upon turning the last page is to flip to the start and begin again. Rating: 5 out of 5

11 Comments

  1. 05/24/2010

    I am so glad you loved this, and your review has given me heart! I tried this book twice, and never got past the fifth chapter because I just felt like too much was going over my head. I hadn’t thought to read some of the wikepedia entries while I was reading, but that seems like a good idea I could get behind. The parts of this book I do remember reading were wonderfully colorful and entertaining, and I think the fact that you mention that the magical realism is done so well in the book spurs me on even further. I will definitely have to try this one again, though it might be a bit slow going at times. Ridiculously wonderful review, Steph!

  2. 05/24/2010

    This is an absolutely beautiful write up about a book you loved. I particularly love this sentence:

    “It might make you think that some long books are not really so very long, and maybe the best thing you could do upon turning the last page is to flip to the start and begin again.”

    I am not sure I’m sold on this book being for me right now. Maybe in a few years I’ll feel ready to give it a go.

  3. I really want to read this book at some point so I am thrilled to see that you loved it. I love books that make me laugh, cry and think – I’ll have to try to read this soon.

  4. 05/24/2010

    I’ve read three Rushdie novels, with varying degrees of enjoyment, but this is the next one I plan to try. It may be years before I get to it, though!

  5. mee
    05/24/2010

    To say that I’m intimidated by this book is a huge understatement. I first heard of Rushdie’s Satanic Verses from my dad, before I even touched English novels, when I was in primary school. He briefly mentioned that it’s the novel that made the Muslims go mad and sent the author into hiding. I remember what he said til this day. I know I’m going to read it someday and I’m glad to know that you think highly of this book (you know, from a normal reader point of view).

  6. 05/24/2010

    @ zibilee: As I said, I actually had to go back and start again when I decided to read this one, because I felt like I was missing something. Re-reading the fist chapter consecutively helped me get a better grasp on the characters and help anticipate the eventual thrust of the novel and was really helpful. But I completely understand feeling utterly confused and lost in this book. I think it’s one of those ones you need to read many many times in order to truly get it. But definitely being able to reference bits here and there via wikipedia helped too!
     
    @ Rebecca: I’m glad you enjoyed this review so much! I think this is a book that deserves a wide readership but I think everyone should come to it at the right time for him or her. I don’t think I would have been ready to tackle this a few years ago, but feel great that I am a strong enough reader now to have gotten so much from it!
     
    @ Jackie: I can’t recall if you’ve read any Rushdie before, but I thought this was magnificent. I think you read Midnight’s Children, right? Now I’m super excited to read that one!
     
    @ Teresa: This is only the second Rushdie I’ve ever read, but he’s now up there on the list of authors who really impress and wow me. I’ll probably read Midnight’s Children next, though I think I’ll give myself some time before I do.
     
    @ mee: Yes, there is a certain cachet about this book than can really hinder readers, I think. I’m glad I had a regular reader (in this case, Tony) to test the waters first and come out invigorated rather than drowned!
     
    @ Nishita: I realized it was a divisive book but I guess I didn’t realize it was outright banned in India… but it makes sense, of course, and I could see how even if it weren’t one might feel uncomfortable owning/reading it. I am pretty sure the next Rushdie I read will be Midnight’s Children, which I’m now really looking forward to!

  7. 05/24/2010

    There is this general feeling that Rushdie is tough going, but I have never found it so…I am so in love with his writing, and his very humorous, irreverant, and sometimes poignant take on events.

    Some of his books are duds though (The Moor’s Last Sigh was one of them), but really they are duds only judging by the standards of his other novels.

    I haven’t read Satanic Verses, it’s banned in India. I just hope I get a chance to read it sometime.

    I’m glad you liked this book. And your review is absolutely terrific 🙂

  8. lovely review! i have the same apprehension going into Midnight’s Children, which will be my first Rushdie book, but i have a feeling i will really enjoy it.

    if you, or anyone else, is interested, Midnight’s Children is the monthly readalong selection this month over at my blog. feel free to stop by and sign up!

  9. 06/04/2010

    @ lisa: After reading Satanic Verses, I’m really excited for Midnight’s Children. A friend of mine has read both and said that MC is absolutely stunning, even better than SV, so I have high hopes! I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

  10. Midnight’s Children IS absolutely stunning; it is one of my favourite books of all time. I really must read The Satanic Verses but, until now, I have felt apprehensive and intimidated.

    P.S. Really glad you are joining Claire and I for the Love read-along (and we should reschedule The Homemaker now that I am no longer a.w.o.l.)

  11. 06/07/2010

    @ Claire: I don’t think you need to worry about this one, as I’m sure you’ll love it! I somehow don’t think that it’s any more intimidating or difficult to wrangle than Midnight’s Children!
    And I’m super excited to read love with you two Claires! 😉 And after that, I’d certainly be up for rescheduling our joint-read of The Homemaker!

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