The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

I bought The Satanic Verses in irritation at all the fuckwits who were complaining about Rushdie getting a knighthood. Not surprisingly perhaps, having bought it as a gesture rather than because of an urgent desire to read it, it ended up at the bottom of my to-read pile. It didn’t help that it has a bit of a reputation as being unreadable.

section of ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ by William Blake

You know what, though? It’s actually a really good novel.

It’s full of inventive ideas and images, playful use of language, barbed social comment and, you know, good novelly things generally. It’s magical realism – two men mysteriously survive falling from an exploding plane, only to find themselves transforming, one into the image of the archangel Gabriel and the other into Satan – but the realism part of the equation is strong enough to keep the book grounded in the real world of London and Bombay.

I can understand why quite a few people found it hard to finish, though. It has that rambling quality that quite a lot of Serious Literary Novels have had ever since modernism: lots of characters, lots of narrative threads which are only loosely connected, long digressions which seem a bit irrelevant. I have to admit it’s not a quality I find particularly attractive. It seems like an excellent recipe for a book which is less than the sum of its parts. And a great way of reducing the book’s forward momentum; I don’t demand that everything I read is an un-put-downable page-turner, but I do like to feel it’s going somewhere. There were times, reading The Satanic Verses, when it felt a bit becalmed.

On balance, though, I enjoyed it.

detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel from the dome of St Sophia Cathedral, Kiev

I suppose I can hardly review the most controversial novel since Lady Chatterley’s Lover without some comment on the controversy. Mohammed is a character in the book – or at least the Gabriel character has dream visions in which Mohammed appears – and he is presented as self-serving, opportunistic and not a real prophet. Which I can understand might irritate Muslims. But actually it wasn’t nearly as inflammatory as I thought it might be. Compared, for example, to the portrayal of Moses in Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted On The Voyage, it’s really very gentle. It just portrays Mohammed as human.

picture credits: the first is a detail from William Blake’s ‘Satan in His Original Glory’ from Tate Britain; the second is a detail of a mosaic of the Archangel Gabriel in the dome of St Sophia Cathedral in Kiev.

6 Comments

  1. 15 August 2007 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    Sounds pretty cool. I actually like novels that I don’t feel obligated to finish.

  2. Harry
    15 August 2007 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Really? I get mildly annoyed when I leave a book unfinished, though I don’t know why that should be.

  3. 16 August 2007 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I read the book soon after it came out – I found an American copy in a corner of Waterstones, where it had supposedly been temporarily withdrawn at the time. I enjoyed it, although I also thought it could have been trimmed.

    I can see why some people might not have been pleased at the depiction of Mohammed, but it was, after all, a work of fiction. Also, there are ways of voicing legitimate disagreement that don’t include trying to kill an author…

  4. Harry
    16 August 2007 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely. Even if it had been so offensive it amounted to hate speech, death threats still wouldn’t be the right answer. I was just curious.

  5. 21 August 2007 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t finish “The Satanic Verses,” and I like Rushdie’s writing. “Midnight’s Children” and “The Moor’s Last Sigh” are just as expansive, but more tightly structured. The two make an interesting comparison because the latter revises some of the aesthetic and political ideas in the first.

  6. Harry
    21 August 2007 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    The only other one I’ve read is Midnight’s Children, when I was at university. I seem to remember it irritated me somewhat, but I think it was when I was having a rather antagonistic relationship with critical theory, so I was probably just intolerant of anything with any hint of the post-modern. I should give it another go. Or read The Moor’s Last Sigh, perhaps.

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