This is a tour de force, a show of strength, a performance. It's the sort of novel that requires a Big Style and a lot of learning to write. It's not the sort of thing that can be attempted by just anybody.
I could not write this book. Few people besides Rushdie could even attempt it. It is stamped with the mark of the man himself--his culture, his milieu, his education, his beliefs, his passion and his experience.
And what are "The Satanic Verses"? They are lyrical yearnings made verbal depicting the clash between the world of rationality and that of superstition, between the world at the time of the Prophet and today's world, between the cold fog of England and the hot sweat of India and the Middle East, between the rationality of the Enlightenment and the mythology of a time long ago, between a secular interpretation of life and a religious one. In short there really is a clash of civilizations that is being worked out in today's world, and Rushdie is here to give us his take on this earth-shaking process.
Normally I would not read such a novel. Five hundred and sixty-one pages--over 200,000 words! Life is too short to give that much time to a singular view. Better to risk the time on Tolstoy, Melville or Joyce where one has the report of literary history as a guide. Here we have a novel reviled and revered but only a little over 22 years of age. A lot of flash and glimmer goes by the way of the popular mind toward something Great, but in time may be more clearly seen as pedestrian, even banal, faddish and brought before our eyes by the celebrity of some event--like a sentence of murder upon its author--only to fade with the yellowing of the newspapers of yesteryear.
I will say however that "The Satanic Verses" will outlive its author and will outlive the memory of the Ayatollah Komenini who did in fact issue a fatwa calling for Rushdie's death, and thereby greatly increased not only the sales of the book but helped to spread Rushdie's message that Islam is a religion full of evil, lies and deceit, born like most religions from the very human lust for power. It will stay in print for decades and remain a torn in the side of the followers of the Prophet until they lose their hatreds, their prejudices and especially their fears. Yes, Islam fears. It fears science, education, Western culture, women and much of what constitutes the post-modern world. Unlike learned arguments and reasoned debates or shouting matches that change no minds, this novel will persuade many (mostly young) minds that a religion born in the barren, superstitious desert, sired by the tribal mentality of the Bronze Age, and forced upon others by the sword has no more relevance to today's problems and challenges than the religions it replaced.
The problem for the reader is not the length of the novel. It is in the fact that few readers will have the background necessary to appreciate much of the references, allusions, puns, jokes, asides, and other bits of wordsmithing from the very cosmopolitan and worldly Salman Rushdie. But no matter. It will require some effort of attention and concentration, some very real investment of time and effort on the part of the reader; but as the pages turn and the fantasy begins to stand out from the realism, as the time of Mahound clashes clearly with the time of an Indian/Muslim Bollywood actor, as the Ayesha of ancient is differentiated from the Ayesha of today, as the Gibreel of the film is made distinct from the Gibreel of legend--indeed as the web of mystery and magic, of fact and fantasy, of goats and gods becomes a fabric like a woven rug of artistry, one begins to appreciate Rushdie's intent and artistry. And this is the way it is with all great works of literature: there are levels. On the level of the mass mind, there is a world of people and events; on the level of the initiated, there is added a rich vocabulary of shared intellectual experiences. But Rushdie is no dry intellectual novelist: he can create intriguing characters and the tension necessary to sustain a narrative.
Now what is needed (I believe) for all but the most learned readers is a guide to the novel written by someone who knows Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, modern culture and has a good grasp of their histories. Such a guide will be written by some academic somewhere--and indeed may have already been written, or is being written.
And so I read the novel from beginning to end and found it uneven and marvelous, a bit obtuse at first but as my familiarity with Rushdie's intent, style, and structure grew, so too did my enjoyment of this rich satire. Yes, this is a satire similar in intent to the works of Voltaire or Twain however distant in style they may be. It is a satire upon not only Islam and Hinduism and the mass culture from Dhaka to Manchester, but a satire on the never-ending delusions of a pitiful, but ever hopeful humanity.