Salman Rushdie has explained his controversial The Satanic Verses as a book about how newness enters the world. Rushdie read history at Cambridge, where he first heard of The Satanic Verses, a non-canonized story from Islam about the temptation of the prophet Mohammed to include in the Qur’an three of the goddesses from the native, polytheistic religion that was more popular than Islam when Islam originally came into being. This inclusion, this compromise, could have potentially made Islam more palatable to non-believers, but Mohammed eventually declined to compromise, being firm in his beliefs of the one true God.
This story makes up a significant portion of the overall text of The Satanic Verses, but, despite it offering its name to the book, the novel is about a good deal more. The prime story deals with Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, two Indian men who fall to earth after their airplane to London is bombed, and live. Their living is clearly the work of the intercession of some supernatural being (perhaps Satan who interjects himself as narrator from time to time). Their fall results in Gibreel, an Indian film star, turning into the angel Gabriel (Gibreel) while Saladin, thusly, becomes the devil, horns, hoofs and all. Gibreel’s dreams are angelic—he dreams of conferring with the prophet Mohammed regarding the Satanic Verses, and he also dreams of a modern-day prophet, a young girl who intends to lead a group of pilgrims from India across the Arabian Sea to Mecca. He also falls in love with a steely, strong mountain climber, Alleluia Cone, who, having been to the top of Mount Everest, has gained her own degree of prophetic truth.
Rushdie uses Saladin’s story to explore the question of newness through the immigrant experience. Saladin embodies the assimilated immigrant: He is so in love with his adopted home of England that he hardly is able to see the anti-immigrant racism and violence happening around him (though, granted, he is rightfully fairly consumed with his own personal transformation into the devil). Is Rushdie suggesting that the desire to reinvent oneself, the desire to become other than what you once were is somehow devilish? If he is, he is sympathetic to the devil. One of the greatest strengths of this book is its ability to look at questions of good and evil and complicate the picture. While Rushdie says it’s a book about newness, I read it more as a book that rejects the myth of dualism: Saladin is a sympathetic, big-hearted character who has a hard time being seen as more than his horns, and Gibreel’s angelic powers end up, like many of the Biblical angels, wreaking havoc.
The other strengths of the book are its playfulness, expansiveness, and clever language. Rushdie is dealing with big ideas and big histories. While much of the novel is allegorical in nature, it never comes across as simplistic or didactic. This is magical realism at its best: While much of the book feels fantastical and fun, it never is only that. The ending, an accounting of Saladin’s father’s death—admittedly drawn heavily from the death of Rushdie’s father—is absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful and un-fantastic.
Ironically, the furor over the novel when it was published, gave it the prominence it deserves. Despite your views of Rushdie as a person, he’s a brilliant writer, and I think The Satanic Verses is the best expression of that brilliance.