I know, I know. Why am I starting a series on classic novels with a book that was only published in 1988? Whose author is still living, and who’ll be in Melboune at the end of the month?
Okay well maybe that last bit is part of it. But for the purposes of this series (and my own reading habits), a classic is something that has so affected or shaped the time in which it was written that future generations look towards it as an accurate representation of the culture of that time. And The Satanic Verses definitely fits that description.
I first read The Satanic Verses as part of a literature course – in fact, during the writing of this post I may just dig through my old uni essays to find the one I wrote about it – and my reactions have always been mixed. It’s an incredibly dense, involved book. It follows two completely separate protagonists, Farishta and Chamcha, as they find themselves the survivors of a plane accident and suddenly playing the parts of the opposing end-of-days beings.
Despite the angel and demon that our two protagonists suddenly find themselves becoming, The Satanic Verses isn’t a fantasy novel. It’s very much realistic – magical realism is the term – and that, I think, lends a sense of seriousness to the novel that might not have been there had it been a more fantastical thing. Rushdie’s characters go off on tangents, and their neighbours are interrogated and given background, and then we, the reader/s, are thrown back into Chamcha or Farishta’s life, seeing a fresh hell of blinding lights or horns growing from the head.
Honestly I think magical realism is one of my favourite genres. It’s the matter-of-fact way that the fantastical is slipped into the everyday that makes it seem entirely possible, like one misstep could lead to my own set of devil’s horns.
I strongly recommend The Satanic Verses if only because it can’t help but open up discussion about the relationship between fiction and real life, the way that one holds a mirror to the other and holds it accountable. The mere fact of the conservative Islamic reaction to the novel, the way it was found so offensive as to justify a death warrant for the author, really calls into question the relationship between conservatism and curiosity.