Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, Quichotte, just came out last month. Inspired by Cervantes’ Don Quixote, it was a finalist for this year’s Booker Prize.
But twenty years ago, Salman Rushdie had a different novel on the New York Times best-seller list (and the Booker Prize list of finalists). And it’s fitting to look at it now, with Banned Books Week just behind us.
This book ended up banned in multiple countries; there were attacks against various translators (and possibly the stabbing death of its Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi); a $6 million dollar bounty was placed on Salman Rushdie’s head. So just what was so controversial about this book?
The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
The main thread of The Satanic Verses follows two characters, Farishta and Chamcha, who are miraculously saved when their plane from India to Britain is hijacked and explodes. After this miracle, Farishta begins to take on characteristics (both psychological and physical) of the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha those of a devil.
The novel is often surreal (if you couldn’t tell from that description). It also contains dreamlike sequences involving the life of the prophet Muhammad as well as other religious figures (including one generally considered to be based on Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini).
There was a great deal of controversy surrounding whether or not the portrayal of Islam and of Muhammad was blasphemous, which is what led to the book being banned in several countries and burned in protest.
While these protests were largely Muslim, other religious figures were also involved. In 1989, the old laws forbidding blasphemy against Christianity were still on the books in England, and the Archbishop of Canterbury used the publication of The Satanic Verses to argue that these laws should be extended to include Islam and other religions.
You can judge for yourself whether this book is offensive or provocative, classic or dated. Is it part of a series of “despicable acts of betrayal” as British politician Norman Tebbit claimed, or is it, as literary critic Harold Bloom claimed, “Rushdie’s largest aesthetic achievement”?
This Week in 1989: New York Times Bestsellers
#1 in Fiction: Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
#2. Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
#3. California Gold by John Jakes
#4. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus
#5. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
#1 in Non-Fiction: All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten by Robert Fulghum
#2. It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It by Robert Fulghum
#3. Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder
#4. A Brief History of Time by Stephen W. Hawking
#5. It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner