The Satanic Verses, like the texts of the religious traditions it engages with, is a book that everyone has an opinion on but virtually no one has actually read. It’s hard to imagine, in 2015, any work of fiction having the courage to stir up the controversy that Salman Rushdie’s novel did 27 years ago or, more quaintly, any publisher giving such a book the go-ahead.
But the book continues to be relevant as the years go on, with important implications both for fiction and the real world – and how fiction teaches us to understand reality. Fantasy author Karen Michelson once wrote that
“The problem with Wall Street is not that its denizens insist on misreading Atlas Shrugged and making the rest of us suffer for it. It’s that none of them understand Dickens.”
It seems like something similar is at work with Rushdie and the Western leaders (like French president Francois Hollande) who rush to assert that attacks such as the murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff have nothing to do with religious interpretation. The Satanic Verses asks questions about how religious traditions and texts even came to be, while looking at how religion can alienate us from others, from entire countries, and from life itself. One could quote many passages from it, but I always liked this one, which seemed to predict Rushdie’s own exile as well as probe the limited perspectives of fanatics, through the episode of a poet spared by the grace of a madam:
“[W]hen the raddled poet Baal prostrated himself before her and begged for help, her decision to hide him and save his life as an act of nostalgia for the beautiful, lively and wicked youth he had once been was accepted without question; and when Khalid’s guards arrived to search the premises the eunuchs led them on a dizzy journey around the overground catacombs of contradictions and irreconcilable routes, until the soldiers’ heads were spinning, and after looking inside thirty-nine stone urns and finding nothing but unguents and pickles they left, cursing heavily, never suspecting that there was a fortieth corridor down which they had never been taken, a fortieth urn inside which there hid, like a thief, the quivering, pajama-wetting poet whom they sought.”
I like the idea of “catacombs of contradictions and irreconcilable routes,” which is what many in the liberal West now confront as they try to preserve democratic society from extremists even while remaining tolerant. Anis Shivani wrote this about Rushdie in 2011:
“Rushdie embodies in his own self some of the most important contests in ongoing history. The ultimate example of that is the “controversy” surrounding The Satanic Verses, which involved multiculturalism versus fundamentalism, the writers versus the ayatollahs, free speech versus censorship, rationality versus irrationality, transnationalism versus nationalism, tolerance versus bigotry – and ultimately, we might say, the integrity of the self in a postmodern world allegedly bereft of moral footing.”