The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

Book # 203


The Satanic VersesI attempted this novel once, back in college, and gave up on it – like many other people, I know! So this time before I began reading it I took the time to do a little research, and I’m so glad I did. I also think it didn’t hurt at all that it’s more than a decade later – I’m a much wiser and more attentive reader than I once was.

One bit of research I did ahead of time was to gain a simple understanding of what “the satanic verses” are in Islam. One whole plot line of the novel is basically a wildly creative, dreamy reflection of the origins of Islam and the proselytizing of the prophet Muhammad. So a very basic understanding of this helped me understand Rushdie’s version in the novel. For a super quick overview of the satanic verses, check out page 30 of this PDF:…

There are also two quotations from Salman Rushdie I came across in my research that helped clarify the novel’s structure and goals for me before I started and helped me pay attention to what I was delving into. First, on the structure. In an interview (found here:….), Rushdie talks about his influences. He talks about James Joyce, and their joint interest in stuffing their respective novels chock full of references. But he also says this:

“Well, take Fielding; the thing that’s very impressive about Tom Jones is the plot, that you have this enormous edifice which seems to be so freewheeling, rambling — and actually everything is there for a purpose. It’s the most extraordinary piece of organization which at the same time seems quite relaxed and not straitjacketed
by its plot. I think that’s why the book is so wonderful.”

I think that’s part of why this book is so wonderful too. The world of the novel is highly imaginative/creative, and anything goes in the way of magical realism. That said, it’s a bit zanier than any magical realism I’ve read before, perhaps even too zany. Lots of it is thought-provoking, other parts are just fun/funny, and a few parts just seem silly and not much else. But the undertaking of creating several worlds (the real world – in India and London, and various dream worlds) that are occupied by overlapping characters, and ensuring these worlds and characters build on and reflect back on each other is a fantastic, immense achievement.

As the novel moves between them, dropping information and picking it back up later, equating various characters with their counterparts in other worlds (by name or action or common characteristics), the sheer puzzle it must have been to put this all together is incredible to me. But Rushdie managed it. Over and over as I read I’d see those brilliant little connections running all over the novel. It can feel a little intense and overwhelming for the reader, but I found the experience fun. How can I describe the experience? Most books you read, you’re walking down a path from point A to point B, beginning to end. As you follow the path, occasionally it loops back on itself, revisiting and building upon a key theme or idea here and there. In this book, you’re walking down three or four paths at once, each of them looping back, around and through each of the others almost constantly.

I also love Rushdie’s loose, informal, yet highly complex writing style. He runs words together, invents words, takes them apart, and makes ample use of slang, repetition, conversational/stream of consciousness tone, to express exactly what he wants to say. He also makes grammar his slave (rather than being a slave to it). He breaks a million rules, but this actually just adds to the clarity of his writing rather than subtracting from it.

The second quotation from Rushdie that shed a lot of light for me going in is as follows, from “In Good Faith,” an essay Rushdie wrote about The Satanic Verses:

“If The Satanic Verses is anything, it is a migrant’s-eye view of the world. It is written from the very experience of uprooting, disjuncture and metamorphosis (slow or rapid, painful or pleasurable) that is the migrant condition, and from which, I believe, can be derived a metaphor for all humanity. Standing at the centre of the novel is a group of characters most of whom are British Muslims, or not particularly religious persons of Muslim background, struggling with just the sort of great problems that have arisen to surround the book, problems of hybridization and ghettoization, of reconciling the old and the new. Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves.”

I would have picked up on this theme anyway (at least I think so!) but it was helpful to be able to watch for it as I read. Coupled with this theme, was a sense of the need for transformation that migrants feel, from deep within themselves (like the character Chamcha) or from the world around them (like Gibreel). I was really engaged by the ways that all of the various characters struggle with their identities as they straddle the line between their backgrounds and their new homes. Each character takes a different path on this, with a different amount of success or failure that is attributable as much to the character’s identity as to the amount of transforming they do. In other words, the novel makes clear that there’s no right answer, that there is no one path:

“‘The world is incompatible, just never forget it: gaga. Ghosts, Nazis, saints, all alive at the same time; in one spot, blissful happiness, while down the road, the inferno. You can’t ask for a wilder place.'”

This novel is also very much tied up in religion and politics, from a very contemporary and international perspective. Having been written in 1988, I was surprised by how modern and relevant Rushdie’s ideas still are today about how we view each other’s cultures and faiths. In the novel, Rushdie writes: “…because what you believe depends on what you’ve seen, — not only what is visible, but what you are prepared to look in the face.” To me this expresses a key truth about how we misunderstand each other, fostering fear, contempt and violence. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that the novel’s first section includes a hijacking of an airplane by terrorists; this scene may be even more relevant post-9/11 than it was in 1988.

Of the terrorists, Rushdie writes this: “What did they want? Nothing new. An independent homeland, religious freedom, release of political detainees, justice, ransom money, a safe-conduct to a country of their choice. Many of the passengers came to sympathize with them, even though they were under constant threat of execution. If you live in the twentieth century you do not find it hard to see yourself in those, more desperate than yourself, who seek to shape it to their will.”

The third sentence in that quotation has given me quite a bit of food for thought. Terrorism is a transformation strategy, it’s brought on by misunderstanding and fear, but it’s also an attempt to have a little power and control over your own life. We all do this in small ways – mostly non-violently, and hopefully in morally good and compassionate ways, but we’re all shaping our worlds the best we know how.

I hope the links I’ve included here are helpful to anyone who has struggled with this novel – it’s not an easy read, but it’s well worth the undertaking. That said, even though I really appreciate what Rushdie has accomplished here (and even enjoyed it), Midnight’s Children is still my favorite novel by Rushdie.


Quote of the Week

103009-3d-glossy-green-orb-icon-alphanumeric-quote-close1I could never have dreamt that there were such goings-on in the world between the covers of books,
such sandstorms and ice blasts of words,
such staggering peace, such enormous laughter,
such and so many blinding bright lights,
splashing all over the pages in a million bits and pieces all of which were words, words, words,
and each of which were alive forever in its own delight and glory and oddity and light.
Dylan Thomas, Notes of the Art of Poetry

Reviewer Focus: Ms Oh Waily

Welcome to a new feature for 2015, our Reviewer Focus posts.

Over the course of the year we are going to recap the wonderful reviews we have already posted, but this time by the reviewer who contributed them.  Just like a favourite author we sometimes find ourselves in tune with the opinions of one reviewer or another.  Here’s your chance to see if one of our lovely folk hits the button for you.

In the second of our Reviewer Focus posts, we’re going to focus on one of our wonderful editors, Lynn, who you will know as Ms Oh Waily. She is someone who reads a huge variety of books, which is evident in the diversity of the massive 56 reviews she has contributed to this blog so far.


Atonement – Ian McEwan

Book #42

REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

AtonementOn the hottest day of the summer of 1935, thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis sees her sister Cecilia strip off her clothes and plunge into the fountain in the garden of their country house. Watching her is Robbie Turner, her childhood friend who, like Cecilia, has recently come down from Cambridge.

By the end of that day the lives of all three will have been changed forever. Robbie and Cecilia will have crossed a boundary they had not even imagined at its start, and will have become victims of the younger girl’s imagination. Briony will have witnessed mysteries, and committed a crime for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, Atonement is regarded as Ian McEwan’s “masterpiece”, and it isn’t hard to see why it is lauded so.

The novel starts slowly; the first eight or nine chapters serve to set the scene, a mundane commentary on everyday life:

There was really no point trying to arrange wild flowers. They had tumbled into their own symmetry, and it was certainly true that too even a distribution between the irises and the rose-bay willow-herb ruined the effect.

However, McEwan writes a narrative that is simple and elegant, full of fire, excitement and suspense. His prose is beautiful and evocative in its subtle simplicity; as the story unfolds, we are drawn quickly into the narrative, and fall heavily for the characters, which have been captured skillfully without excess explanation.

We watch as our protagonist, Briony, matures through each part of the novel. We watch as she loses her childish innocence while struggling to atone for her mistakes. We are with Robbie in the sobering, stark realities of war:

There were horrors enough, but it was the unexpected detail that threw him and afterwards would not let him go.

and we learn more about Cecilia and her strength through the letters she exchanges with him:

They turned on you, all of them, even my father. When they wrecked your life they wrecked mine. They chose to believe the evidence of a silly, hysterical little girl. In fact, they encouraged her by giving her no room to turn back.

There is, of course, a plot twist. A twist that makes the reader smile and at the same time, scratch their head and turn back a few pages to hunt for clues. This is a novel about love, guilt and the desire to atone for one’s mistakes, and the inequalities (and impact) of social class.

Atonement is a clever and wonderfully-written novel; if you haven’t yet read anything by McEwan, this is guaranteed to leave you wanting more.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Book #92

REVIEWER: Tall, Short, Tiny & a Pickle

The God of Small ThingsIt’s been a number of years since I first read The God of Small Things, and in order to write this review, I had to flick through a few pages to reacquaint myself with the story. After choosing a few pages at random, I soon found myself lost in the magical world that Arundhati Roy has created, and an hour passed before I surfaced for air.

The opening paragraphs set an amazing scene; Roy’s ability to capture the everyday so profoundly is evident throughout the entire story. The reader is captured and consumed by her descriptive passages – it is too easy to imagine the scenes as they unfold, given Roy’s astounding skill at awakening every sense, so we smell, see, hear, touch and taste everything the characters smell, see, hear, touch and taste.

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

The nights are clear but suffused with sloth and sullen expectation.

The God of Small Things is a little bit magical. Roy has created a reality that is unlike any I’ve read before – it is beautiful, painful, exquisite and yet far more real than any other novel I’ve read. Jason Cowley (The Times) is quoted on the dust cover of my copy as saying, “She has a heightened awareness of the natural world, of smells and sounds, of colour and light…” and I think he has captured the writer perfectly. Her gift to weave such a tale rewards the reader with something like a sensory explosion – Roy manages to capture life and the mostly mundane in the most sensationally poetic way.

It is a witty novel, with so much passion and humour threaded throughout:

She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma, she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage. As for a divorced daughter from an intercommunity love marriage – Baby Kochamma chose to remain quiveringly silent on the subject.

The God of Small Things is a novel about love, life and death. It is about relationships and the unseen, intangible forces that draw two people together, as well as the bonds within and between a family. It is about forbidden love and consequences, about society and class. All of these themes are weaved through a beautiful, poignant tale, forming a novel that is nearly impossible to put down.

A highly recommended, unforgettable read.