A hijacked jet is blown apart over the English Channel one winter morning. Falling through the sky amid blankets and drinks trolleys, oxygen masks and severed limbs, are two men. One is a Bollywood star, the other an anglophile Indian who earns a living doing voice work on radio and television. Both are Muslims.
They talk on the way down. "Here we come," the movie star yells. "Those bastards down there won't know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm! Wham, na? What an entrance, yar. I swear: splat."
When the men wake up on a snowy English beach, they have been reborn as deities. The actor has acquired a halo, the anglophile hooves and horns. The first is "Good," in the William Blake sense, the second "Evil." Until, that is, they reverse roles, with the demon behaving like an angel and the halo hiding a devil within.
So begins The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie's phantasmagoria of metamorphosis and migration. Fuelled by the author's roaring prose and negotiated via his own culturally divided self, the novel is a comedic wonder, at once silly and serious, generous and provocative. On publication, it was greeted as a benchmark of literature about the globalized identity, a dialogue aimed at crisscrossing continents and races - if not, it now seems, religions.
Though few are celebrating the occasion, The Satanic Verses turns 20 this autumn. Why so little affection for one of the essential novels of the last century? Two reasons come to mind. First, through no fault of its own, the book triggered a parallel explosion to the terrorist attack described in its opening pages. The bomb wasn't the complaints by Muslims who took offence at two dream sequences, deliriums induced by the derangement of the movie star character, which they decided were blasphemous.
Instead, the bomb that detonated the fall of 1988 and into the next year involved the banning of The Satanic Verses in a dozen countries, followed by the issuing of a fatwa against Rushdie by Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Assaults on various editors and translators associated with the book, including a murder, came next. All the while, shops and libraries in many more nations withdrew it from their shelves, for reasons of caution and security.
Rushdie himself, of course, went into protective custody for a decade, although he did continue to write and publish. But his novel, even once back on those shelves, appeared to go to ground as well, as if by consensus it had to pay the same price for the fanaticism of its detractors.
In fact, The Satanic Verses has ultimately paid the price more for the weakness of its defenders. The metaphorical explosion the book set off is still ringing, a two-decades-long plunge from the heavens by Western liberals, whose courage and commitment to freedom of expression have been repeatedly tested and repeatedly found wanting.
Since Rushdie, there have been those suppressed Danish cartoons and productions of classic plays and operas altered or cancelled out of concern for Islamic ticket holders. There have been human rights commissions scolding magazines for saying unkind things about Muslims and, this past summer, a New York publisher changing its mind about issuing The Jewel of Medina, a purple retelling of the tale of Mohammed's child bride.
The publisher worried that the book could be "offensive to some in the Muslim community." Worse, it might "incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment." No surprise, Salman Rushdie was dismayed. "This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed," he said. For this observation, he was dubbed a poster boy for the U.S. First Amendment - a lame occupation, apparently. The novel, at least, found someone else willing to take the chance.
On their way down to the Earth these many years, the chatter among falling liberals has centred on the moral and, occasionally, business wisdom of showing prudence and caution and, in the instance of The Jewel of Medina, partaking of a pre-emptive grovel before bullies, many as yet unidentified and almost all clichés, if not actual racial stereotypes, of the scary "other."
Self-censorship and timidity, dressing up a failing faith in art and dialogue in the clothing of progressive publishing and newspaper editing, defines our age. A collective fear of extremism, real or hyperventilated, polishes our shiny values. Books are certainly being vetted for their non-offensive merits, and too many writers are responding with paeans to a better world full of politically sensitive sorts - all angels, perhaps, with no devils around to whisper dangerous thoughts.
In such a world, or such a book, no one would think of writing dream sequences with characters called "Mahound," who receive revelations that mix the satanic with the divine, or peasant girls visited by the Archangel Gibreel. That wouldn't be a nice, or smart, thing to do.
Therein lies the second reason the anniversary of The Satanic Verses is going uncelebrated. As a culture, we'd rather the book had never been published in the first instance. What a lot of upset it has caused. What an unwelcome test it still poses of our beliefs. Editors presented with the manuscript in 2007 or early 2008 might well have done Rushdie a favour and declined to publish the novel at all. Cooler heads would then have prevailed. Planetary harmony would have won the day.
But like it or not, The Satanic Verses is at large, unrepentant and unreformed, a model less of artistic liberty than of excellence. The novel is also coming to resemble more a foundational work of the 21st century than anything from an earlier time.
If, as some historians have argued, the political 20th century ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, its literary equivalent may have wrapped up, abruptly and violently, back in the fall of 1988. That was when a brilliant, somewhat reckless work of fiction fell out of the sky and into our uneasy consciences.
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's latest book is the essay collection Join the Revolution, Comrade.
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