Monday, April 14, 2008

The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie

The Satanic Verses
Salman Rushdie

For weeks now I've been clawing my way through The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. For those only interested in the short and sweet, summary review, here it is:
I don't know nearly enough about India or Islam to have a clue about this book. I found it almost entirely unintelligible and nearly unreadable. At some level I'm sorry I took the time to finish it. I'm sure, however, that this says a lot more about me than it does about the book itself or its author.
With that out of the way, I'll give it the longer review it deserves.

For starters, I'd always wondered what caused the fatwa against Rushdie. Why all the fuss? And I'd heard glowing reviews of the book itself. That combination put it on my list of things to read "someday". Then, two reviews appeared in Doug's book review site:
  • Eisworth's review from December 2005, which increased my interest.
  • galactic_dev's review from February 2008, in which he says he didn't finish it. That didn't change my interest, but by then I already owned a copy of the book and was planning on reading it soon.
Well I've read it now. All 547 pages.

I should have known I was in trouble when the copy of the book I got came from someone I know who told me she couldn't finish it. She reads the way fish swim, so her statement should have set off alarm bells in my head. Live and learn, I guess.

Doug has some wonderful reviews of painful books in his Top 100 Novels review page. (This isn't that far off topic. Just bear with me for a moment.) You might enjoy his review of Ulysses, for example. His review of The Ambassadors is also relevant, as is his review of The Adventures of Augie March. These reviews give some insight into what it is like to read, from cover to cover, including every stinking word, a book you despise. I have not read Ulysses, The Ambassadors, or The Adventures of Augie March, so I can't really compare The Satanic Verses with them in any way, but I can say I feel Doug's pain much, much more clearly now that I've read it.

So what's it actually about? Well, two guys are in an airplane flying from London to India when it is blown up. However, instead of dying like everyone else, they are saved by some supernatural entity. In the process they are changed. One takes on the persona of an angel, the other a devil. Eventually there's a confrontation of sorts. Oh, and there are some dream sequences as well, that are probably in the mind of the angelic character. There are also some brief points where the author (I think) speaks to the reader directly. Very odd.

But that's a lousy description because it makes it sound like things actually happen. It's true, we do get a plane exploding in flight and the characters are saved. But after that, we have a LOT of pages of nothing going on. 500 pages - give or take - of nothing, that don't advance the plot (such as it is) in any way. Sentences - if you can call them that - sometimes go on for an entire page without saying anything useful or meaningful. I regularly had to back up - searching, possibly through several paragraph shaped objects - for the start of a sentence to see if I could figure out what it was about again.

And I'm sad to say the prose itself - even those bits that weren't formed of absurdly long sentences - wasn't that good. It really did border on unintelligible at times, and even when it wasn't quite that bad it was florid and meandering. Rushdie needed a visit from John Belushi as the Samurai editor in the worst possible way.

I did some additional research after finishing the book. I read a few reviews on and googled it as well, finding some good articles (or at least, I think they're good) on Wikipedia and elsewhere. I did this because despite the fact that I read every single sleep-inducing word on every single wasted page, I still didn't understand what was going on. Some of the dream sequences were hard to place in time, and their contents didn't mean much to me as a non-Indian, non-Muslim. I was, frankly, lost in a sea of text. And nothing explained the fatwa either.

It was only from that external reading that I learned some small bit about why some Muslims are so offended by the book. (Mind you, I think the fatwa is wrong on any number of levels, but I'm an atheist with little tolerance for religious zealotry, so that's not exactly a surprise.) The Wikipedia article about The Satanic Verses controversy is quite good, actually, and helped a lot.

But even though thirty minutes of outside reading had clarified what four weeks of banging my head against the brick wall that is this book left obscure, I'd still like to have the last month's reading time back. At various points I seriously considered dropping this thing and reading something - anything! - else, but then I'd fall back on my odd native optimism. I'd keep hoping something would give me an "aha!" moment. Just maybe something would leap out at me and I'd understand why Muslims hated it, or why critics liked it, or just what was going on. Alas, the book left me without any of that knowledge, as if I'd never read it at all, and it was Wikipedia that eventually explained it. I should have started there.

In conclusion, I must admit to being a poorly read buffoon. I lack the literary and cultural background to understand much of "Great Literature" - including The Satanic Verses - and my criticisms thereof are worth exactly nothing. Slogging through - and reviewing - this book has only reinforced that point, even for me. Oh well. If The Satanic Verses is an example of Great Literature - with or without the capital letters - then I'll happily keep on reading my lowbrow trash instead.