The Satanic Verses sets out primarily to explore the conflicts created for Indian immigrants by cultural differences between the West and Middle East - specifically, between India and Britain. But because of those very differences and the conflicts they produce, the book is unsuccessful in communicating its commentary on the immigrant experience to most readers and critics. Instead, reaction to (and therefore, discussion of) the novel becomes centered on the offensiveness of the book's criticisms of Islam and the degree to which those criticisms ought to be protected speech. The intense and public scandal that resulted from the novel therefore kept readers from grasping the intended primary thrust of the book. Yet this scandal was the main reason the novel was a bestseller.
The Satanic Verses, then, is an example of the class of best-selling novels that are not bestsellers because of anything that involves the actual text of the book, but rather because of publicity from other origins. This novel is perhaps too extreme to be seen as the average bestseller of this category; very few, if any, bestsellers have prompted serious and sustained threats of death against the author. However, an examination of the text and reception of The Satanic Verses is still useful in understanding the group of bestsellers that owe its popular status to public reaction, but reaction not concerned with the text itself.
It is first crucial to understand that Rushdie's intent in writing The Satanic Verses was not to create a work of religious satire, but rather to write a novel exploring issues of identity that are important to the immigrant. The author explained,
The Satanic Verses is not, in my view, an anti-religious novel. It is, however, an attempt to write about migration, its stresses and transformations, from the point of view of migrants from the Indian subcontinent to Britain. This is, for me, the saddest irony of all; that after working for five years to give voice and fictional flesh to the immigrant culture of which I am myself a member, I should see my book burned, largely unread, by the people it's about, people who might find some pleasure and much recognition in its pages. (Rushdie 223)
Likewise, the initial reception of The Satanic Verses
focused largely on this aspect of the book. The earliest reviews and critical responses to the novel -- that is, reception that occurred before the Muslim political reaction to the book did -- necessarily reacted exclusively to the text. In doing so, they focused on the book's discussion of immigration issues more than the book's religious criticisms.
The Satanic Verses is really a novel about the metamorphosis of the contemporary world brought about by migration and communication. It is about the conflicts within individuals and between cultures that result from the immediate juxtaposition in time (mass media, telecommunications) and space (migration) of very different worldviews and civilizations. It is a novel about the conflicts and spiritual dislocation of fragmented individuals in a fragmented world wrestling with its plural identities. (Gardels 48)
Another reviewer commented, "The verbal mixture embodies Saladin's (and the author's) dilemma of being from the East and now living in the West, and of trying to make the two realms cohere in his head as they obviously do not in a fractured world" (Wade 19).
Other reviewers saw The Satanic Verses
as not only being exploratory about inner conflict produced by cultural changes but also as being critical of the West for its role in producing that conflict: "In the end, this is a novel about trying to belong to another culture that is unable to accept difference except as otherness. It's about only being able really to belong when you've altered that culture. It's about upsetting the rigid ethnocentricity of Britain, and it's about compromise" (Hampshire 166). A similar review states, "What is telling about this fanciful and complex passage is its evocation not only of what immigrants to Britain must miss (and what they have escaped), but also of what they might bring to their adopted culture, if that culture were less scornful of them, less frightened of them" (Wood 29).
Early critical reaction (i.e. reaction untainted by political responses) almost entirely saw the book's discussion of the immigrant as the primary theme worthy of comment. This pattern of focus suggests that by itself, The Satanic Verses
was a successful execution of Rushdie's intent in writing the novel. It explores the cultural identity issues created by intercontinental immigration in a meaningful and thought-provoking manner.
Examination of the text of The Satanic Verses
supports this assessment of the novel. A majority of the book is concerned with the identity of the immigrant, with his experiences and the forces that produce those experiences, and also with the possible ways in which he might react to and be shaped by those experiences. The two protagonists, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, both immigrate from India to Britain, and their differing paths upon arrival are the medium through which Rushdie examines the possibilities of experience upon transplantation into a new culture. Examples of this alterative effect of migration are abundant in the text. For instance, Chamcha's given Indian name was Salahuddin Chamchawala, but his migration makes him feel a need to truncate it, to somewhat westernize his name. It becomes Saladin Chamcha. Rushdie uses this simple action (a voluntary one at that) to demonstrate the loss of Indian identity that is implicit in Chamcha's migration. As a result of that migration, Chamcha loses close to half of the name that had identified him in India: eight syllables become five. Insofar as a name is crucial to one's concept of self, this name change suggests that migrating has cost him close to half of his identity.
Textual examples are present that relate to other aspects of culture and identity as well. As Farishta and Chamcha are falling out of the plane at the beginning of the novel, a point at which they are falling towards their new home but are still in the transitional stage of migration, Farishta sings a familiar song, but sings it in English: "'O my shoes are Japanese,' Gibreel sang, translating the old song into English in semi-conscious deference to the uprushing host-nation" (Satanic Verses
5). Farishta's action is not a fully conscious one -- it is clear that he is not aware of the culturally transformative effect that his migration is already having on him. This is telling about the power of the migratory destination's culture. The immigrant's sense of cultural identity that is tied to familiarity with language and choice of a language is altered. And moreover, that identity is changed without the immigrant really feeling the effects of that alteration, and even before he has actually arrived in his new country.
The novel is largely concerned with these issues; many more examples could be cited. Rushdie goes to great lengths to demonstrate the pervasiveness of the transformation that migration causes, and he makes profound statements about the effects of those changes on the immigrant and his concept of identity. But the aspect of the novel to which the Muslim world reacted was not the book's discussion of the condition of the immigrant, but rather the parts of the novel that satirize Islamic beliefs and practices.
It is easily seen in retrospect how these sections of the novel could be inflammatory. Though their effect is moderated by the fact that they are framed as a dream of Gibreel Farishta, who is very confused, even delusional, they suggest some strongly critical things about Islam. Rushdie depicts the prophet Mohammed as the character Mahound, which was a derogatory name used by Westerners in medieval theater to depict satanic characters. Furthermore, a group of 12 prostitutes in the novel take the names of Mohammed's 12 wives. And Rushdie's city of Jahilia, which represents the holy city of Mecca, is constructed entirely of sand, so its inhabitants live in constant fear of water, which would melt their city away. This can be seen as commentary on the fragility of a city like Mecca, as water can be interpreted as a metaphor for reason, secularism, or Western influence.
These elements of the novel are difficult to interpret. One can see that Rushdie's satire may have offended Muslims. Yet, the strength of Rushdie's statements is mitigated by their framing as the mental ramblings of a confused, dreaming character, and also by the fact that they are presented in a purely fictional context. In this light, and combined with the absence of a significant reaction to other works that have been at least, if not more directly critical of Islam, the Muslim reaction seems disproportionate. Indeed, some have suggested that the Ayatollah used The Satanic Verses
as a political tool; that is, that the book was "a convenient target" for the Ayatollah's efforts to "whip up a new wave of fanaticism" in an Iran that was becoming increasingly moderate and pragmatic (Carter 47).
It is close to impossible to sort out the true motivations of those involved in the Rushdie Affair, or why it unfolded as it did. But it is not necessary to fully understand the controversy the book created in order to gain something from examining that controversy. The passages in the novel that were objected to constitute only a fraction of the text: one critic estimated that the controversial debate over the novel focused on less than a third of the text (Leonard 348). However, after the initial reaction of the Ayatollah to the novel in February 1989, discussion of The Satanic Verses
was dominated by religiously-focused commentary on this fraction of the book. In fact, much of this discussion did not closely examine the religious aspects of the novel, but rather focused on larger conflicts over religion and free speech. The text of The Satanic Verses
itself was largely lost as a subject of discussion by the literary community, and was displaced by debate within not only literary but also political, religious, and cultural contexts over issues much larger than the text. One reviewer said of Rushdie, "Almost worst of all, for a writer, his work of the imagination - and an exceptionally complex work of an uncommonly fertile imagination - is now being treated as if it were a heretic's pamphlet; The Satanic Verses
has been turned from a book into a talking point" (Iyer 84).
Furthermore, none of Rushdie's other books have come even close to matching the public success of The Satanic Verses
. Yet many reviewers and critics consider Midnight Children
(1981) his best novel. This fact, combined with the presence of a scandal that is capable of explaining widespread interest in the novel, indicates that we must look outside the pages of the novel to explain its becoming a bestseller. In other words, The Satanic Verses
was a bestseller primarily because of the attention generated by the scandal it caused, instead of because of the words on the pages of the book.
The Satanic Verses
is not alone in this category. A number of other bestsellers have factors other that the text alone to which their success should be attributed. Quite a few books become bestsellers because of previously successful works by the same author. Books of this type sell very well as soon as they are released (before many have read or commented on it) because of the hype created by the author's previous works and by advertising. Others, like The Satanic Verses
, become bestsellers largely because they cause a scandal or controversy and receive tremendous media attention as a result; people buy the book because they have heard a lot about it, or because they want to see firsthand what is so controversial. The Satanic Verses
is a prime, though perhaps unusually strong, example of this category of best selling books whose popularity is attributable to the effects of controversy.
Insofar as the novel represents this type of bestseller, then, it raises questions about the bestseller's place in the world of fiction. Rushdie was unsuccessful in exploring (at least for the majority of his audience) the main issue he wanted to explore with this novel -- namely, the conflicts and cultural identity problems produced by the inter-cultural act of immigration. If we measure the success of the novel in these terms, The Satanic Verses
is a failure. But the curious characteristic of bestsellers is that they are successful only if people buy them, not if they read them after purchasing them or like what they read when they do. As a result, the text itself is often lost in the process. Rushdie himself commented on this, saying of his publicity, "It's a sort of dreadful paradox, because you need all that noise when you're publishing a book to bring people to it in the first place. Then the noise gets in the way" (Salon interview). And furthermore, the fact that a book becomes a bestseller -- and its being labeled as such -- is likely to make even more people buy and read it; the cycle is self-propagating. But most importantly, as The Satanic Verses
demonstrates, it is a cycle of publicity that can propagate itself independently of the quality of the book itself.
This is not to say that bestsellers are necessarily not good books, that the text itself doesn't matter to the book's place in the literary world. Rather, bestsellers such as The Satanic Verses
prove merely that factors other than the quality of a text are capable of securing for a book a prominent place in the literary world. The literary world never really finished passing judgment on The Satanic Verses
. Once it became a bestseller, the task of assessing its purely textual merit was, for the most part, abandoned. But because it was a bestseller, few noticed.
This demonstrates that, unlike most other types of writing, bestsellers succeed (or fail) independently of textual quality. The Satanic Verses
teaches us that, while bestsellers are not necessarily bad texts, they aren't necessarily good ones either.
"The Salon Interview: Salman Rushdie." http://www.salon1999.com/06/features/interview.html
Carter, Susan. "Why the Ayatollah is Whipping Up a New Wave of Fanaticism." Business Week.
3094:47. March 6, 1989.
Gardels, Nathan. "The 'Word' Against Words." from "Salman Rushdie: A Collage of Comment." New Perspectives Quarterly.
6(1):48-55. Spring 1989.
Hampshire, Carole. "Fiction is Fiction." Meanjin.
48: 161-6. Autumn 1989.
Iyer, Pico. "Prosaic Justice All Around." Time.
133(10):84. March 6, 1989.
Leonard, John. "Who Has the Best Tunes?" The Nation.
248(9):346-9. March 13, 1989.
Rushdie, Salman. "Choice Between Light and Dark." The Observer.
January 29, 1989, p11. [cited in Contemporary Literary Criticism.
Vol. 55 (1989).]
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses.
Henry Holt and Company: New York, 1997. [primary source; cited as Satanic Verses
instead of by the author]
Wade, Alan. "Rushdie in Wonderland.' The New Leader.
72(4):19. February 20, 1989.
Wood, Michael. "The Prophet Motive." The New Republic.
200(10):28. March 6, 1989.