Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Writing a Death Sentence: Salman Rushdie, His Work, and the Unforeseen Consequences

In writing a novel, an author no doubt has many thoughts on the process. They think of plot twists, what words work best together. They think of what it will feel like to write the final word of the final sentence, then to edit, and finally, to have to published. They dream of the success they might have with their work, if it could become one of the greatest books ever written. They certainly don't ever imagine that their books could be the literal death of them.

That, however, is what has happened to Salman Rushdie.

Born in India to parents of Muslim heritage just weeks before the nation's independence from Britain, Rushdie has endured great success with his novels, which are based mainly on his native land. Though his first work, a sci-fi novel named Grimus, was a blip on the screen, he compensated for its failure by writing Midnight's Children, a complex tale about a boy born at the stroke of the midnight of India's freedom, and consequently given the power of mind-reading and a connection with the other children born at that time. It was also his first brush with controversy: in the novel, he criticized Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, who nearly took him to court for defamation; however, she was assassinated before anything could go further.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, caused a far greater stir. The book was published in 1988, and is about two men who are the sole survivors of a plane crash. One, who has retained his Indian Muslim identity, takes on the persona of the archangel Gibreel while the other, who has left behind his heritage, is transformed into a devil. The two men go their separate ways, with the "angel" committing a murder/suicide and the "devil" reconciling with his estranged identity as a Muslim.

The striking title refers to verses apparently from the Koran which allow the person praying to appeal to three pagan goddesses. The book also was loosely based in part on the life of the prophet Muhammad as well, and it was for this reason (derogatory references/blasphemy, in Muslim leaders' eyes) that the book was banned in many Muslim countries, and eventually a fatwa (religious opinion concerning Muslim law) for Rushdie's death was proclaimed by Ayatollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989. While Rushdie has not since been harmed, others connected to the book have apparently suffered and died in the years following the fatwa.

To think that a book, a relatively small, innocuous pile of papers bound by string and cardboard, could be so damning to a single person or group of people. To think that simple suggestions, ideas, and words printed from imagination and not supposed fact, could hold so much weight and even cause people to want to kill someone else. It's almost unimaginable, isn't it? But it happened to Salman Rushdie, and even though Khomeini is long gone, the fatwa and threats remain in place. It's almost terrifying to think that one can't speak his or her mind without the threat of death hanging over his/her head in some places, but unfortunately this is very true in many parts of the world. Too many, in fact.

The Satanic Verses is a long-weekend read, at the very least; it is dense, filled to the brim with words and lovely images and devices, and it takes you on an incredible journey (if you can hold on through the entire thing). I unfortunately was unable to finish it on my first try, but sometimes soon I will try again, and I intend to make it. This is one book that you can't let pass you by, if you ever get the chance to read it. Take the risk.

(Sources: Wikipedia (links within page))

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