The story in the book begins with an explosion. The story of the book threatened to end with an assassination. In between, slipping and sliding along the five hundred pages of The Satanic Verses, are puns, neologisms, Bollywood songs, Indian names, Arabic names, English distortions of Indian and Arabic names, mythical creatures, advertising jingles, bawdy verses, Koranic verses, and skinhead slogans. And although that list merely describes the book’s linguistic approach—an approach that possibly reached its perfection in an earlier work, Midnight’s Children (1981)—it indicates something of how seriously Salman Rushdie took the brief of the novel form to capture everything that might seem relevant about the world.
In some ways, it did, which explains the unlikely commercial success of what is neither an easy read nor particularly rich in ideas or characterization. But the novel tapped the Western zeitgeist, coming as it did in 1988, on the cusp of transformation: away from the cold war and toward the global war on terror, away from skinhead reproaches of non-Western immigrants and toward the current division of non-Westerners into colored elites—just like their Western counterparts—and unwashed masses being policed by a rainbow coalition of global overseers. The Satanic Verses had something of both what the world was moving away from and what it was moving toward, but what it had most of all was the world’s vexed intersection with politics, starting with demonstrations against the book in England and in India (where it was banned) and peaking with a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini that sent Rushdie into hiding.
It is not surprising that to most of Rushdie’s admirers, and to Rushdie himself, the issue appeared to be entirely the struggle between art and politics, between freedom of expression and the tyranny of the state, a dichotomy that the author continues to comment on at great length. Read The Satanic Verses and strike a blow for human freedom! And this was true, in part, but it was only part of the truth. There was also, in the rage against The Satanic Verses, the sense of humiliation at the long history of Western domination, of the easy recourse in the West to individual freedom against all collective attempts at reparation and redress, and the feeling—exploited ably by sectarian leaders—of being left behind by a modernity that seemed baffling in what it professed to believe or disbelieve. This didn’t make the fatwa justifiable, but it did harden postures on both sides. There were no wholly good guys or bad guys in that contest, which, ironically, may have been what the novel itself was trying to say before it got drowned out by the noise.
Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novels The Point of Return (2003) and An Outline of the Republic (2005; both Ecco). His nonfiction book on India, The Beautiful and the Damned, will be published by Faber & Faber.