While The Satanic Verses received only the customary mix of enthusiastic and tepid reviews after its British publication in 1988, the American issue in early 1989 created an international cause celebre. Some rumbles, it is true, had been heard earlier, when the book was banned in various Islamic countries, but in February of 1989 Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini of Iran sentenced Salman Rushdie to death for blasphemy and urged faithful Muslims to execute him. This announcement and its aftermath dominated news accounts the world over. Thus a novel, which few had read, and its author, whose name not many would have recognized earlier, set astir a controversy often more characterized by political and religious implications than literary ones. Muslims at home and abroad staged demonstrations that too often turned into riots and brought about deaths. Copies of the book were burned, American and British publishers and bookstores intimidated, diplomatic relations shaken. Rushdie went into hiding. Major world writers and others, appalled by such a threat, staged readings of the novel, wrote endless articles, and formed counterdemonstrations. All the while demand for The Satanic Verses soared.
Although public interest in the affair gradually diminished, the eventual fate of the book—and its author—may not be settled for some time to come. The yet-to-be-commuted sentence of death will certainly continue to haunt Rushdie, who was at the height of his literary career when The Satanic Verses appeared. Moreover, such furor cannot but obfuscate critical judgment on the book’s artistic qualities, for will it be possible ever to divorce the fiction from the reality that now colors it? As well, the non-Islamic reader should remain sensitive to how the novelistic handling of the Prophet and the Koran must have affected devout Muslims when they read the book—or even those who merely heard about the offending passages, or perhaps read them out of context. Schooled in freedom of expression and benumbed by literary Christ figures along with irreverent allusions to Christian theology, those outside Islamic belief find it difficult to comprehend so much power being invested in the word.
These extrinsic considerations notwithstanding, The Satanic Verses, when viewed as it was intended, as a work of fiction, is an impressive achievement: complex in its plot and original in its characterization, fantastic in the telling, rich in texture and style, and essentially religious in its treatment of spiritual desolation. Rushdie’s novel was chosen by The New York Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1989. Critics have observed correctly that The Satanic Verses is not easy to read, and would never on its own have gained popular success. This is not to say that the work’s intricate design and elaborate execution of that plan fail, but it does demand much from the reader.
Conceived in absurdity, the action gets under way when the two major characters, Gibreel and Saladin, fall from an exploding airplane that had been hijacked earlier. After cavorting through the heavens, they land in a remote part of England. Once safe on the ground, Gibreel, a noted screen star from Bombay, discovers that a halo has formed above his head. At this point, he starts to assume an air of holiness and to think of himself as a latter- day archangel Gabriel, charged to save humankind from its sinful folly. In contrast, his companion Saladin gradually turns into a hairy, hoofed, and horned monster. An Indian immigrant long resident in England, Saladin specializes in behind-the-scenes narration for London broadcasting studios. Neither a man with his own identity—one an actor who had made his name playing Hindu holy figures, the other an unseen imitator of foreign voices—the two survivors engage in a series of adventures, some on a seemingly realistic level, others merging into fantasy and dream states. Their past lives also unfold, including their mutual experience aboard the hijacked jet. At times their paths intersect as they move back and forth between India and England. Throughout they encounter a wide spectrum of characters—Britons, Indians, immigrants in London—who represent all conditions of modern men and women, even while they emerge as clearly defined characters in their own right.
Within this intricately constructed tale of contemporary life, Gibreel dreams stories set in ancient times, some of which seem to suggest aspects of Islamic theology and history. It is these passages that, justifiably or not, many...