book-reviews

The Satanic Verses

by Salman Rushdie

Rating: ★★★

I actually hadn't heard of The Satanic Verses until I picked it up in a book shop while killing time before a bus was due to arrive. Something about it struck me as potentially interesting, so I bought it on a whim. Later, I discovered that I'd picked a book which had launched a fatwa which forced the author into hiding and abolished the crime of blasphemy in the UK.

Sadly, the book fails to deliver on the controversy which surrounds it. It certainly begins well, with two bizarre men falling from the sky after a midair explosion, singing to each other as they plummet towards the ground. But in a series of flashbacks and asides this intriguing manic beginning starts to fall apart, the core plot groaning along slowly, punctuated by elaborations and digressions. The novel is certainly full of oddities, strange magical happenings which blur the line between reality and fantasy, but so little of it actually amounts to anything that it starts to wear on your patience. When one man grows horns and another wings, and one sets out to confront the other, you don't necessarily expect a theological battle, but you expect something other than both of them losing their metamorphoses and then a sniping series of phone calls.

The fatwa-inspiring element of the novel, an almost entirely disconnected strand of narrative about the early days of Islam, is quite unsurprising for a Western reader. The depiction of a form of magical-realism interpretation of the historic Muhammad is exactly what you would expect, pointing out the cynical political motives behind the convenient divine revelations. Only the dogmatic and insecure could consider it something to get excited about.

Rushdie's style is worthy of comment -- the strange use or neglect of punctuation and the run-together words give the story something of a conversational feel, but also magnifies the sense that you're listening to someone babble. Despite this, there is evidence of clever wordplay and deployment of irony sparsely scattered through the whole novel. Rushdie draws upon some rich sentiment about India and being Indian in the UK, which flies straight by me as a native-born white Brit. Indeed, in a novel about faith, immigration and India, I often felt that this really wasn't a story to which I could be expected to relate.

While interestingly constructed and evidently culturally provocative, The Satanic Verses labours on far too long without purpose for my taste in plot, and is far too exotic for my taste in style. I can see how others might like it, but it really didn't interest me very much.