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The Satanic Verses (S. Rushdie)

2008-02-11 3 min read Books marco

Well, it’s a bit early for a review of The Satanic Verses just yet, since I barely have dented the first 20%, so forgive me for sharing preliminary thoughts. On the other hand, the first impression is probably what is going to be leading into the final review, so I probably should share how the beginning feels, alright.

I always wanted to read this book. Mr. Rushdie had been heralded as one of the greatest writers of the century, and not having read anything by him was a little dirty secret that I couldn’t confess to anyone, even to me. I was going to read him, one day, I swore, constantly forestalling the moment whenever I ran into The Satanic Verses at any bookstore.

While I was in Canada, the selection of literary books was suddenly much greater, even in a tourist destination like Whistler. So I was faced with plenty copies of the Verses, and I ended up picking one of them, along with a super-pretentiously-boring first novel whose first twenty pages made me scream with ennui.

Well, you know what, Mr. Rushdie is so far succeeding at the same game.

It started badly: the first chapter of the book is greatly incoherent. It presents nobody, really, tells no story worth telling, it’s really just a plane crashing. What stands out, though, is just how fond Mr. Rushdie is of language. His language.

Mr. Rushdie seems to be (I didn’t take the time yet to find out) rooted in both India and the UK. The language he comes up with is a blend of tea-time English with plenty Indian references and words. It moved back and forth, chatters endlessly, makes fun of itself, takes itself too seriously, goes on forever.

Problem is, this language is too fond of itself. It has forgotten it has a story to tell, and so the story moves slowly while the language is fond of looking at itself.

To tell the truth, the sheer number of words is not the problem. The words are fine, there are just enough of them, and the story they are telling is worth expressing. What is surprising is just how dense that language is, how slowly I have to move through it, how amazingly rich the experience is.

I go through the book two pages at a time, at most. Every single sentence is a miniature entry for the Nobel in literature. You parse them, repeat them in your brain, then let them flow away from you. It’s gorgeous, an intellectual spectacle of marvelous proportions.

Unfortunately, it entirely buries the story to be told. And that’s unfortunate, because it seems an interesting one, and all the richness is distracting. Mr. Rushdie would have done better at writing a poem, I’d say, since the sheer size of the novel induces ennui, given the glacial pace at which one can read it.

In a different review of {moscontentlink:Staggering Genius} I remarked how the compelling story was ruined by the need of the author to attach artistic value to what was a simple, yet extremely powerful story. In that case, it seemed the author just didn’t have the experience to tell what was too much.

The Satanic Verses is in many ways the Platonic ideal of a particular kind of work. My friends who are Wagner fanatics would call it the Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art. Just like in Wagner there is no totality of art (the dramatic portion is always weak), The Satanic Verses is a novel about language and the fun things one can do with it.

Which is sad, because I am sure there is nobody that could tell the story better than Mr. Rushdie.