Definitely one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve had to date. This is the fourth Salman Rushdie book I’ve read and I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t appreciate his writing. Which is unfortunate, because he’s very good. His work is descriptive and complex, with these long involved sentences which wind around you like a slightly malevolent, parasitic vine. But for some reason it all just leaves me feeling cold. It’s a personal failing, I guess.
Verses is an exercise in memory. You’ve got to keep track of everything that happens, every character and tidbit because Rushdie is going to work them all in again later on. It will also help if you have a thorough understanding of Islamic history, Indian history, and maybe brush up on current events from the time too, just in case? Riots factor in to the plot of the novel at one point, and I found myself wondering if Rushdie had invented them or was pulling from the evening news. It may have been a little of both, I could see him taking an actual riot and tweaking parts of it for the effect he wanted.
This novel was infamous when I was growing up. I remember seeing it mentioned constantly in news articles and magazines, banned in this country or that one as obscene. After its publication Rushdie spent just over a decade living under an alias, sharing secret houses with body guards and moving constantly, because the British government deemed the threat against him was that serious. Rushdie writes eloquently of this time in his memoir Joseph Anton, the name he took while living under the fatwa. It disturbs me to think that someone could write a work of fiction, even an offensive one, and have their life be endangered. Rushdie questions the origins of the Islamic religion and in return some question his right to keep breathing. How heartbreaking to think that there are people so terrified by dissension they will kill someone else to stop it. I’m a big fan of tolerance and acceptance for opposing viewpoints, but how do you tolerate someone who wants you to die because the things you think aren’t the same as the things they think? Or even worse, someone who wants you to die because somebody else told them that’s what they should want. Read the book! Be offended, if you find it offensive! But no killing. No death threats.
As a final aside, having read The Satanic Verses after Joseph Anton I kept seeing Chamcha as Rushdie himself, in a bizarre prediction of what his own life would become after Verses was published; he starts out plummeting towards the earth and spends the rest of the story struggling to put his life back together. I’d really recommend reading them both together because it adds so much more to the books when you have the background, and the similarities between the plot of Verses and Rushdie’s life after its publication are quite…novel. Assuming Rushdie didn’t fictionalize his memoir to play up those aspects, it’s very ironic that he almost became one of the characters from his own books. But please don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. Read them both yourself, and make up your own mind.
PS: While I didn’t think very highly of Joseph Anton when I first read it, having finished Verses I find I appreciate it more now. The additional backstory is worth the extra effort.