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Salman Rushdie: The Satanic Verses

Whatever I or anyone else may think of this book as a work of literature, it has all been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the book and the fatwa issued against Rushdie (and others associated with its publication) because of it. Muslims were offended by Rushdie’s implied criticism of the Koran and the satire on Mohammed’s wives. The book has been banned in many Muslim countries.

As with Midnight’s Children, there is a complex narrative and magic realism. Key themes include South Asian history and immigrants from that part of the world to Britain. The story starts off with a piece of magic realism. An Air India flight is blown up by Sikh terrorists over England and our two heroes, Gibreel Farishta, a Bollywood star, who mainly plays Hindu gods, and Saladin Chamcha, a voiceover artist, manage to float gently down into England. Gibreel takes on the persona of the archangel Gabriel (Gibreel) while Saladin becomes a devil. They are taken in by an eighty-eight year old English woman, Rosa Diamond. When the police arrive because of reports of illegal immigrants, Saladin is arrested while Gibreel smiles sweetly and is not. From then on, Rushdie follows the strange adventures of the two men in London, using magic realism and decrying the many forms of racism prevalent in London.

Rushdie, of course, does this very well and this story is worth reading for itself. But, there are also Gibreel’s dream sequences, which are the ones that led to the controversy. One of the dreams concerns the founding of Islam. It has been suggested that Mohammed originally allowed the pre-Islamic polytheistic gods to be accepted in order to win over the local populace. He later changed his mind and said this was an error induced by Satan, hence the Satanic Verses. Muslim scholars have generally rejected this recounting of events and see them as forgeries. Another dream is a fictionalised account of the life of the Ayatollah Khomeini. These dream sequences are intended to explore issues about faith and culture. Obviously, the attempt backfired. If you are not a Muslim and maybe if you are, you will find this book a first-class novel almost on a par with Midnight’s Children.

Publishing history

First published in 1988 by Viking