On Salman Rushdie: Reading and speaking to thwart those who would silence us
Desert Sage column
When I bought the book I had no intention of reading it. It was an act of solidarity, I told my 18-year-old self. There was surely some defiance, a dig at my prep school, mixed in as well.
The Wheeler School had a custom of encouraging seniors to purchase a hardcover book of their choice ahead of graduation. The school would stamp it with the school’s seal and present it to us at commencement. I considered volumes by Swift, Twain, Rabelais and others before settling on a very recent book that had become an international news story: “The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie.
In the spring of 1989 it had been banned in multiple countries, bookstores were firebombed, there were riots in Pakistan and the novel's alleged blasphemies were cited by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, as grounds for a death sentence, calling on Muslims anywhere in the world to murder the novelist.
Purchasing the book and using it as a prop at my commencement was an act of resistance to censorship and terrorism, for sure; yet it was amusing that, like most of those threatening or criticizing Rushdie, I had not read the book, either.
That summer, out of curiosity, I opened the book and a jet plane exploded. Two men, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, fell through the sky ― one upside down and the other heads up like a strange human yingyang — talking, joking, singing, as recounted in the infectious voice of a droll storyteller dropping puns and song quotes in multiple languages. They survived and then transformed physically, one seemingly becoming the archangel Gabriel and the other a goat-like devil creature. And that was just the beginning.
"The Satanic Verses" is a dazzling, crazy book, a challenging read as much as it is entertaining with its braided plot lines and mixture of realism with dream sequences and supernatural events.
The novel explores identity, migration and colonialism as well as, fatefully, the birth of a religion very much like Islam within a polytheistic tribal desert culture. It is decidedly irreverent toward the authority of religion, political leaders and prophets.
Interestingly, it provoked in me an unexpected curiosity about Islam, of which I was entirely ignorant. That, and military conflict with Iraq, led me to devote my first year and a half in college to eastern studies, a smattering of Arabic and reading the Q’ran (a curious book in its own right).
Rushdie went into hiding in 1989 for what became nearly a decade embedded with a security detail. He went on writing books and gradually resumed an open and public life. Yet the ayatollah’s death sentence remained in place and Rushdie’s name again became household-famous last month when he was attacked and nearly killed, at age 75, by a man who admitted he hadn’t read the book, either.
Renewed curiosity about "The Satanic Verses" drove up sales in August, and it is deserving of an open-minded read on its own merits. Alternatively, I might suggest Rushdie’s next work, the first produced in his effective captivity: 1990’s “Haroun and the Sea of Stories.”
Dedicated to a son from whom Rushdie was separated, it is a children’s novel about storytelling and the imagination, oppressive censorship, the divide between reason and absurdity and more, in a tapestry of western and eastern idioms and folklores not to mention pop music. It is a book that lends itself to reading out loud, as I have to my own children.
The book’s central villain is Khattam-Shud (“the end”), a profoundly dull yet powerful fellow who struggles to silence all stories and even language itself because, he says, “The world is for controlling. … And inside every single story … there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot rule at all.”
Rushdie’s assailant may as well be referred to as Khattam-Shud in news coverage, and that is certainly his name to me.
The forces in the world that silence, threaten and murder novelists, journalists and artists attack not only their targets but the right of anyone to consider their work for themselves. And once again, Khattam-Shud has failed. The storyteller lives, the books exist and the ocean of stories flows on.
Or write to him at P.O. Box 84, Deming, NM 88031.
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