The not so Satanic Verses

I’ve finally buckled down to read Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, that most satanic of books, diabolical to a diabolical regime, incommodious to British conservatives, difficult for British Muslims, thoroughly inconvenient for its author and plainly daunting for a misinformed teenage heavy metal fan.  Several times over the better part of a decade I’ve opened it and started earnestly into the surreal opening sequence which culminates in the two principal characters plummeting to earth in an apparently mythic sequence from a Boeing 747.  But its lack of conventional satanic content (if there is such a thing) or its off-the-wall magical realism always got me in the end and I conceded defeat, or maybe exhaustion.

Having successfully navigated my way to the closing pages, I’ve come to realise that the notoriety afforded the book is disproportionate.  That a story about a character that is insulting to an analogy of a religion should be held offensive to members of that faith in the real world is not straightforward.  Having said that, this is a book whose plot is fixated upon outrage, pivots around ethnic and religious tensions, and culminates in violent confrontations.

At the centre of the controversy, I suppose, would have to be the character Mahound.  That God’s prophet should be renamed so as to be associated with a demon is no doubt insulting, as is some of the description of the character’s story.  But Rushdie uses this name to echo medieval European derision of Islam and its use in The Satanic Verses is intended to underline the conflicts of a dual identity associated with emigration.  The use of the insulting name powerfully portrays the author’s notion that integration into British society cannot be achieved without adequately dealing with the issue of self-loathing or betrayal of one’s cultural origins (it was written in the 80s; give him a break!), and this very issue is at the heart of the book.

The story jumps between events in India and London, and as such it is eerily prophetic that the publication of The Satanic Verses caused such a furore at home and abroad (although Iran was the main eastern counterpart in the real-world story as it turned out), with tensions running along religious and ethnic lines.  Worst of all, there were numerous deaths across the globe linked to the book in some way.

When the religious controversy is put aside, Rushdie’s book emerges as a sumptuous and thoughtful reflection on identity and community, family, religion and change.  It is a multi-layered treatment of the complexities of life in a multicultural setting.  It doesn’t belong on the shelf beside other notorious rabble rousers, scandalous Alistair Crowleys or anti-religious Dawkins-esque sermons, but is at home amongst literature about diaspora, emigration and modern life.  The experience of reading it recalled for me films like My Beautiful Launderette, My Son the Fanatic, and East is East – films noted for their sensitive treatment of British Asian communities’ lives and adaptation, perspectives on and relationships with ‘home ’ countries and cultures, and how it all comes together for better or worse in the UK.

It’s a pity then that there has been so much controversy (not to mention death).  The book has of course been a huge success and has sold plenty of copies, but there have no doubt been readers who might have gained a lot and been touched by it had they not been scared away by its apparently blasphemous treatment of Islam.

I commend it to you if you’ve not already read it.

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