Ok, I give up. After 40 years of slogging through any book I’ve had to endure – including War and Peace, the Bible, and various heavy-weight textbooks on theoretical physics, I finally found one that could outlast me. The Satanic Verses couldn’t hold my interest for more than 2 pages at a time, and the prospect of having to read all 561 pages of it was just way too much. At that rate, I would have read that book for more than three quarters of a year!
What is so wrong with it that it can’t hold my attention? Well, several things, really. This book is almost an encyclopedia of what can go wrong if you have talent and skill, and yet manage to bore your reader.
For one, the plot is completely unfocused. Mr. Rushdie presents us with myriads of little plotlets that are entirely irrelevant to the larger story, constant cameos like footnotes on a bad technical book. You lose sight of what Mr. Rushdie is trying to accomplish, which is a real shame, because the little of the plot that is starting to shine through is actually very compelling.
Worse still, the reason for these cameos seems to be Mr. Rushdie’s desire to parade his literary skills around. He seems to have declared comma-less enumerations an item of artistic value and employs and deploys them to unceasing annoyance of the reader. Onomatopoeia is another one of those challenges of which Mr. Rushdie never tires. Sounds are emulated, approximated, cherished in so many words.
A third hindrance to the reader is the cultural rooting of the novel. Mr. Rushdie is like one of those authors that know too much about a given topic and dull it by expanding on every detail – only in this case the topic is the double life of Indian-Muslim-Brits. References are not explained, names not translated, assumptions made about the things we know and don’t know. The idea, it seems, is that the book is written for the selected audience of those that know how to understand it.
I am not sure what moved Iran’s Supreme Leader to issue a fatwa condemning the author and the book. It reminds us too much of another ambitious book about religion that quite never excited anyone because it was trying to be too good: Dante’s Paradise, widely forgotten next to its brooding rival, the Inferno – so iconic, it even brought the Italian word for ‘hell’ into the English vernacular.
It’s a real shame: Mr. Rushdie is certainly one of the most talented writers you can find in today’s United Kingdom, with a powerful voice and great commitment to literature. I wished his editor had ignored all of that and insisted on something less lofty and more literary. As is stands, The Satanic Verses should be read only in a Reader’s Digest version. There, though, it stands a chance to be a wonderful book.