Monday, April 19, 2010

The Satanic Verses

I'm about halfway through Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, but it's never too early to post some preliminary thoughts that will seem foolish once I've finished the book.  So here are some random thoughts...

  • In some ways, the book strikes me as being Joycean.  Like Ulysses, it's self-conscious, discursive, with wildly differing sections.  Also like Ulysses, it's quite funny, and yet people don't often seem to discuss that aspect of it.  On the other hand, Ulysses has a fairly obvious underlying continuity. Aside from the hidden schemata, it's easy to see that this is the story of a day in the lives of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Satanic Verses, on the other hand, has huge sections in which his major characters barely show up, like the famous chapter about Mahound the prophet, or the chapter mocking Khomeini.
  •  The book seems to scream for a symbolic reading -- Gibreel becomes an angel, Saladin becomes a devil.  But looking at it through a symbolic lens feels reductive.  Gibreel is not particularly angelic, not is Saladin particularly devilish.  But it doesn't feel like one can simply play the irony card either.  In a way, it's almost like they're part of two different stories.  Saladin's transformation literalizes his separation from British society, no matter how "British" he tries to be.
  • Gibreel's story feels comparatively underdeveloped (keeping in mind that I'm only halfway through the book).  There are some sections where he only appears as the angel Gibreel to dictate to Mahound or Khomeini or the girl with white hair whose name I can't remember.  Even there, he's not in control of what he says.  (Although I suppose that could literalize his role as an actor, but that doesn't really make sense either, because Saladin is also an actor).  It's almost as if Rushdie wanted to write those sections, and then looked for a way to tie them into the book he was writing, however tenuously.
  • I think that the narrator's supposed to be Satan.
  • Although I wrote above that the novel doesn't feel unified, there are clear thematic links between most of the parts.  Both Mahound and Khomeini's sections deal with being an immigrant to a foreign country, not fitting in.  And, of course, most of the main story is about being an immigrant as well.  But it's still a pretty weak link, I think -- more the sort of thing you might find in a book of related short stories.
  • Question:  Why is the book called The Satanic Verses, when they're only the subject of one section?  Probably worth puzzling through that.

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