As they plummet from the sky following the explosion of the jetliner carrying them to London, Indian actors Gibreel Farista & Saladin Chamcha experience revelations, vivid dreams and startling metamorphoses. Miraculously surviving the crash and awaking together on an English beach, they discover they have been transformed into the Angel Gabriel and a horned demon/ half-devil. What follows is a fantastical, over-the-top, often hilarious and occasionally blasphemous study of the nature of good and evil – and the art of a good Bollywood movie.
I quite honestly had no idea what to expect from this novel. I first heard about in 1989 – from my Catechism teacher, of all people – when we discussed the banning of the book and the fatwa or death sentence placed on Salman Rushdie by the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini. (Side note: that was easily the best year of Catechism classes. Along with this, we discussed relics, exorcism and haunted houses!)
The death sentence was a reaction to Rushdie’s portrayal of the prophet Muhammad, who Gibreel visits in two of his angel dream sequences, describing the origin of the satanic verses. (Explaining this would take forever, and not be particularly relevant to the review, so if you are interested, follow the link provided.)
The Satanic Verses was on last year’s TBR reading list, and I confess I was so intimidated by the book, I left it to the very end, only picking it up mid-December. While not a long read, it is heavy, and I did not finish by the end of the year. Rushdie uses elements of “magical realism” (think Like Water for Chocolate or 100 Years of Solitude) to skillfully weave the dreams, the metamorphoses and the miracle survival into an otherwise modern tale of Asian immigrant life in London. Along with troubling magical events, the characters are dealing with everyday life, including racial tension and rioting, marital woes, teen sex and career crises.
I admit it took a while to get into it – part of why it took about four weeks for this speed-reader to get through. But by the time I was about 100 pages in, I was hooked. Gibreel & Saladin are charming yet frustrating characters, as are their friends, rivals & family members. It is well worth the read if you have the time.
Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada; 1 edition (May 27 1997)