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Unique, yet confusing and frustrating
on 22 December 2009
Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses" has polarised opinion to an extent almost unprecedented in the modern era. Some people have viciously condemned the book for its "blasphemous" references to Islam and confusing narrative, while others have applauded the novel for its unique characters and clever storytelling. In reality however, although "The Satanic Verses" remains an intelligent work of fiction, it is ultimately a very difficult and frustrating read.
The story revolves around the two characters Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha who miraculously survive the destruction of an airliner jet. Upon falling thousands of feet through the sky and washing up on the shore of a small English town, Gibreel finds that he has acquired a halo while Saladin begins to develop hooves and horn-like appendages. What follows is an epic tale in which both men come to terms with their transformation, and what this all means in the world's eternal fight between good and evil.
The main problem with "The Satanic Verses" is the unique and original - yet extremely confusing - way in which it is written. Rushdie constantly shifts the narrative between numerous characters, subplots and realms of reality, which requires an awful lot of effort on the part of the reader in order to merely understand how the story is progressing. I have an A-level in English Literature and a postgraduate degree in Middle East studies and although I realise that this does not automatically make me an expert on the subject matter of this book, I believe that the difficulty I had in reading it reflects just how unnecessarily complex the storytelling is.
That said, there are a number of positive aspects to "The Satanic Verses". Although as I have mentioned, the story is extremely confusing and even convoluted at times, I cannot fault the scale of Rushdie's imagination. At times I was forced to sit back and admire the bizarre nature of the events that unfolded and the depth of the various colourful characters that were scattered throughout the story. There are also a number of genuinely funny and heart-warming moments throughout the book that helped to make my journey through this grand tale more enjoyable.
However, I find it very difficult indeed to recommend this book. If you are looking for a straightforward, light read then this is not it. If you are looking for a classic piece of modern fiction then this is not it. If you are looking for a good example of Rushdie's work then this is not it either (instead, I would recommend either "Midnight's Children" or "Shalimar the Clown", which are both more accessible and enjoyable). The only person I could recommend the "The Satanic Verses" to is an individual who wishes to make up his or her own mind as to what all the fuss is about, and who doesn't mind the difficulties associated with constantly shifting narratives and subplots.
In short, I did not ultimately enjoy reading this book. Epic, intelligent and funny at times it may be, but the extremely confusing manner in which "The Satanic Verses" is written tested my patience and at times left me frustrated. If truth be told, I honestly believe that the novel would have disappeared and been forgotten had the supposed "blasphemous" references towards Islam in this book gone largely ignored, no fatwa declared on Rushdie and no resulting media circus taken place.
Even so, as I mentioned at the beginning, no book has polarised opinion to quite the same extent as "The Satanic Verses" - you either love it or hate it. The best advice I can give anyone is to pick up a copy, approach it with an open and patient mind, and decide for yourself.