What a limiting thing is a weapon

When I was a boy (not as much of one as I imagined I was, now I check the date of publication) some clown wrote a trivial little book that got him into a whole load of trouble. The year was 1987 and the book was Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, and yes, I’m only kidding about the trouble.

For sure, the British government got her knickers in a right old twist, blocked its publication, even suppressed the free press on the subject wherever she could (which didn’t even stretch to include Scotland, just to make a real mockery of things) and eventually got knuckle-rapped by the European Court of Human Rights for her efforts… by which point, since it had been freely available everywhere else in the world that could be bothered to stock it, none of the so called “secrets” it contained were secrets any more, and the government gave up what had been an utterly pointless exercise in the first place. The only effect all that sabre-rattling had was to provoke a massive spike in interest and send the authors (ex-spy Peter Wright and, huh, Paul “Bourne Movies” Greengrass, didn’t expect that) laughing all the way to the bank.

Of course, I’ve never read Spycatcher, which explains how I can slander both book and author so easily. However, it does provide a handy frame of reference.

In 1988, that’s one year later, some clown (for clown read “genius story-teller”) wrote a trivial little book (for tlb read “funny, moving, lyrical masterpiece”) that got him into a whole load of trouble (no qualifying statements required).

Accused of perpetrating what has been wittily referred to as “the victimless crime” of blasphemy–or, more specifically, for utilising a disputed facet of religious history in a work of fiction–Salman Rushdie had his death ordered by no less than god’s chief spokesperson in Iran and was to spend many years in hiding, while around the world transgressing book stores were torched and several translators and publishers were violently attacked and in a few cases murdered for being associated with the book.

For her part, rather than succumbing to wounded nationhood solidarity and packing him off to face the Middle East’s literary critics, the British government did provide this threatened citizen with police protection–it seems the lessons of the previous year were learned, to a degree at least (although UK politicians of various stripes had no problem siding against Rushdie, if not to a murderous extent). Relations with Iran back then weren’t tight like they are now, mind. You have to wonder how it would have gone if Ronald Reagan had still been capable of reading. And had been a Muslim.

There is always the suspicion that those most offended by some supposedly transgressive work (especially one with a religious aspect) who protest the most loudly, decry it from a position of ignorance because they have not experienced it first hand. A recent example had Fox pundits slating Noah without watching it, but this kind of thing has been going on since… well, however long, how about ten years before Rushdie’s novel appeared, when critics of The Life of Brian missed the first five minutes and based their outrage on at least in part (and smile while you say it) a fundamental misconception about what was going on. The fact that one of these films is a popcorn blockbuster and the other is amongst the finest comedies ever made (my opinion, not Malcolm Muggeridge’s) is almost irrelevant. Opinions founded on ignorance should only be considered as evidence of such, and not considered further.

Important questions, then: how much of the railing against The Satanic Verses was informed critique (however primitively excessive), and how much just a flinch response to The Leader’s dogmatic objection? Don’t laugh. And, just to cycle back an iteration, did Ayatollah Khomeini bother to read it before deciding it was an offence before god? It’s a presumption on my part to guess either way, of course, though–Religion being what it is–it seems pretty unlikely. So, what did they miss?

The Satanic Verses tells the story of two Indian actors: Bollywood superstar Gibreel Farishta, who specialises in portraying Hindu deities in religious blockbusters; and Saladin Chamcha, man of a thousand voice-over voices, who is powerfully driven to abandon his national identity and embrace Englishness instead. Both are on a flight into London when terrorists detonate a bomb on board, killing everyone else and sending the two sole survivors tumbling towards the English Channel. As they fall, Gibreel and Saladin begin to undergo radical transformations–one into a divine figure, the other infernal–and when they wash up on that green and pleasant land their fates accordingly divide, with each of them progressively manifesting more angelic and demonic traits respectively.

For Gibreel–who is gifted with a hypnotizing halo, insight into the thoughts and fantasies of ordinary people, and visions of his influence over the beginnings of Islam as the Archangel Gibreel–this means awkward incidents of public adulation, the regaining of lost love, and a welcome resurgence in his flagging career. For Saladin–goat-horned, pointy-tailed and prodigiously empenised Saladin–it means abuse at the hands of racist policemen (who are not fully aware of his developing characteristics even as they beat him) and incarceration in a mental facility where he encounters other bizarrely transformed people. They break out and Saladin heads for London, to discover what has become of his life in the wake of his presumed death; to dwell on his cruel fate, and the fortune laid at Gibreel’s feet; to plan revenge…

In addition to this central split narrative, there are a series of other stories which Gibreel experiences as dreams or visions. Two are key: in one, an Indian peasant girl vanishes from her rural community only to return touched by the divine, eventually leading her neighbours on an epic pilgrimage towards Mecca, and the sea which separates them from it; in another, far back in time, a young prophet named Mahound struggles to convey the word of his new god to the citizens of Jahilia, a desert city; and in both, Gibreel’s sleeping consciousness impacts on what takes place. There are, then, slight differences in detail between this second visionary story and that of Islam’s origin–but Rushdie’s fooling no-one, least of all the Ayatollah, with that. Unless he is.

None of this summarising goes in any way to capture the flavour of Rushdie’s writing, which is simply astoundingly good. This story is beautifully written. It is bitter, funny, shocking, sad, cruel, and fascinating, and “funny” should probably separate each of those labels instead of commas too. The Satanic Verses is, by the way, my first audio book: over twenty-one hours of spoken word, and wonderful it was too. There were times when I would have liked to have the text before me, but given that this was a “reading” experience punctuated by lengthy gaps I rarely found myself lost on returning to it. Rushdie’s prose is lovely in the ear, and though I suspect the novel would be more satisfying to read than to listen to, the experience has whet my appetite for the format.

This said, in the very early stages I floundered a little. As I found with Mikail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, in which we see a non-canonical rendering of Pontius Pilate’s encounter with a version of Jesus, it was the step back into a religious past that first really grasped my attention here–and, of course, it is this which apparently brings us face-to-face with the book’s central scandal… or one of them, there are probably more.

Historically, the “Satanic verses” are thought to be a passage briefly included in (and then permanently removed from) the Qur’an. They suggest that Muhammed, struggling to convert those around him to his new monotheistic faith, was prompted by the Devil to invoke the names of three female, pagan deities in an effort to win over the polytheistic people of Mecca. It seems that scholarly thought is divided on whether the verses were even included in the Qur’an, with Muslim thinkers considering that notion alone utterly heretical, let alone what the verses actually said; while non-Muslim thinkers accept the idea more or less on the grounds that it is implausible any story so unflattering to the faith would have been invented, so it is probably true–a perspective that probably doesn’t go over particularly well on the other side.

However, Rushdie takes a further step across the line. In his novel, it isn’t the Devil who prompts the prophet to say this shocking thing at all: it is Gibreel, a man seemingly embodying the divine, who is prodded by the big man himself when he slackens off in pursuing his god-given mission, and who is perceived by Mahound during their encounter as an Archangel. It would seem a more appropriate title would be The Angelic Verses, but I would argue that these problematic passages are not the titular satanic verses at all. It is others, more mundane, those enjoying “doggerel’s special potency” that prove the turning point in the story–which could just as easily be looked upon as one about mental illness as it is a religious and social satire, its provocative flights of fancy no more than an imbalanced mind touching upon an indelicate subject. Is that something to kill over?

Rushdie’s demonisation by those he so offended with his piece of play is deeply ironic. It is trivially apt too, since the parallels between the suffering of Saladin and that of his author are sufficiently close as to make Rushdie’s decade of hiding and persecution seem like a farcically elaborate marketing campaign–but what strikes me most is the coherence of his rendering of that religious genesis, the presentation of the ancient characters and their world, their lives, fears and society, as real. From the point of view of an irreligious person, like myself, Rushdie imbues his fabrication with more credibility than the real thing could ever hope to achieve. I came away with a more contemplative perspective on the nature of this religion. But the believers wanted to kill him for the same thing I found so moving come the climax.

When offence is taken, in response too many still turn to weapons and the terrible constraint they impose on their wielders. The pen is mightier than the sword. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie demonstrates the boundless utility of the one and reflects on the tragic limitation of the other. I can hardly wait to read it for the first time.

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