I sometimes buy books just for their beautiful covers or intriguing titles. And – then – it may happen that I don’t particularly enjoy them when I first try to read them. I abandon them for years, after having read just few pages, which disappointed me and then I tend to forget them.
But, after so many years spent as a voracious reader, I know, now, that that particular book just needs to wait for me to be ready for it. And that has been the case for The Satanic Verses, by the indian writer Salman Rushdie. It spent years on a shelf and – when I eventually decided to read it again, in a last attempt to finish it, I discovered how beautiful it was.
This novel is an actual masterpiece. One of the most beautiful books I have ever read. And it really made me think that pleasure requires efforts from us… in literature at least (and also in life, I dare to say).
Elements to believe in its greatness were there even before reading it. Because I knew this was the novel that put in danger Rushdie’s life and caused the death of one of its translators. All of this because Khomeini issued a fatwa, in which he sentenced to death the author, for that foul cleric thought the novel was blasphem to Islam.
So, a part of me was sure that, even if during my first attempts I didn’t enjoy the first pages of this voluminous book, I would have ended up liking it, or – at the very least – finding it interesting. And I’m glad my instinct wasn’t wrong: The Satanic Verses is a stunning reading experience!
The novel deals with a plurality of themes, such as religion, the sense of belonging to a community, immigration and integration, love, self-acceptance, forgiveness, the father-son relationship, the contrast between modernity and tradition, dream and reality, Good and Evil. They are universal and they are often found in all of the great novels of our history. And they are tackled by Rushdie with irony, intelligence and courage: for instance, where he includes the character of the prophet Mohammed and then he intertwine it with the story of the main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha (two indian actors who fell from the sky, after a plane crash, that had them turned into divine beings).
The mechanism that is used to mix these two narrative planes is the dream. Gibreel is the angel of revelation, in the book. And this device allows the author to doubt and make us doubt about its truthfulness. In fact, the Mohammed of Gibreel’s dream has the characteristics of those who just invent what can be helpful to them, in order to take advantage of people and situation, to become powerful. It’s interesting the way Rushdie uses the dream dimension to destroy koranic dogmas, legends and myths, its imaginery and doctrine. So, I can see why The Satanic Verses was such a controversial book, which put in danger the lives of so many people.
But thinking that this pages are an attack to Islam would be a mistake. We’re in front of a universal lesson, as we can see in the story of the prophetess Aysha. The message is that the rational world – as a system – cannot believe in miracles and religions. They may be for the individuals, but they should never leave the private dimension and mess with the public.
All of this, for what concerns the religious theme, that is represented by the character named Gibreel.
The other themes are related to the other protagonist: Saladin Chamcha: the most earth-bound of the two.
And maybe that’s the reason why he gets turned into a demon (while Gibreel turns into an angel). Chamcha’s storyline is about the immigrants’ aspiration to a serene life in the new country they live in. So, in a different way, we’re still speaking about the “dream”. This character represents our fights against ourselves and the whole world, to obtain peace, serenity and success, to feel and be accepted by the society and even by ourselves. But the difficulties the author has put on his the path make this character a tool to explore some dark feelings that can fill our minds, when we don’t get what we want, when life makes us suffer. So, while Gibreel is related to love, Saladin Chamcha is related to hatred.
But here comes the teaching! Rushdie shows us the harsh truth: we can overcome hardships and hatred… if we face them, by facing and accepting who we are.
These two characters, the angel and the demon, are an example of how volatile and mutually contaminating the categories of Good and Evil are.
The Satanic Verses is a dense book and a harbinger of both philosophical-theological and social reflections. In this regard, the pages in which Chamcha, hospitalized in a demonic-caprine form at the hospital, finds himself together with other mutant beings, who will turn out to be simply other immigrants, are magnificent. These chimeras are an effective representation of how society is still far from seeing individuals coming from a distant elsewhere as its own.
So, in the end, The Satanic Verses is an important work that cannot be easily summarized and that simply needs to be read. It will make you watch at life and society in a deeper way, it will make you try to find answers and solutions to the great issues of life… And that is the biggest compliment I can think of for a novel. This book is like life: not easy, but worth experiencing.
– Giuseppe Circiello –