The publication of Joseph Anton (tomorrow), Salman Rushdie’s much anticipated memoir, has given newspapers cause to revisit The Satanic Verses. The commentary focuses on the bloodthirsty and backward response that the book continues to provoke. The novel has become a totem in various political and religious ‘debates’ (a word that is hopelessly misplaced in this perverse context of fatwahs and feeling).
It is appropriate that Rushdie is celebrated as a champion of liberalism and rationality. There is no doubt that The Satanic Verses is among the most important books ever written. But, is it one of the finest? Despite the reams of brilliant and brave writing on the Rushdie affair, the question is seldom asked. The book has outgrown the placid concerns of criticism, perhaps being more talked about than read — certainly, one suspects, by those who threaten vengeance on its author and his supporters.
The late Francis King reviewed The Satanic Verses for the Spectator in October 1988, and he concluded:
‘So much of this novel is so good in the force of its intellect, the richness of its invention and the eloquence of its writing, that it is both bewildering and exasperating that one should, at the close, be left with a feeling of dissatisfaction… It is as if a master craftsman had carved all the separate pieces of some imposing piece of furniture with consummate artistry. But surprisingly, even alarmingly, the joints do not fit, and the elaborate inlays keep springing.’
I agree with much of that. The Satanic Verses is beguiling, but that quality makes it indistinct as a whole. The obvious theme of right and wrong is lost (perhaps deliberately) as various allegories compete for the reader’s attention: cancers, psychiatric disorders, metamorphoses and a parable of ‘conjoined opposites’, as the author confusingly puts it.
It is odd that such an elusive work could have inspired such murderous clarity in the minds of its detractors; this is a strange outcome, ironic even, but not wholly surprising given their predilections. The publication of Joseph Anton has made me want to revisit The Satanic Verses, because, no matter how much I’ve re-thought it, I’m sure that I’ve missed something obvious, something essential. Is it naive to hope that the literalists might undertake a similar revision?