If this isn’t one of the best books of the twentieth century, I don’t know what is.
It’s funny, full of zest, imaginative beyond imaginative, thought-provoking, absorbing, fresh and surprising (even on its fifth reading), ingenious … and, yes, it did get its author into a bit of bother for reasons that are almost impossible for the western liberal mind to comprehend – but that’s something else altogether; nothing to do with its literary merit.
It has been said by, I believe, GK Chesterton, that you might meet Thackeray’s characters in any London club, but you wouldn’t meet those of Dickens – a Mr Micawber or a Pickwick – anywhere. And, by the same token, you would easily forget any of Thackeray’s characters, indeed Thackeray himself, but not so Dickens’. With this rubric in mind, I give you Salman Rushdie’s two protagonists; Mr Saladin Chamchawalla (anglicized Indian and man of many voices) and Gibreel Farishta (Bollywood superstar – speciality: celluloid impersonation of India’s gods and angels.)
Both fall from 30,000 feet when their jumbo jet is blown up in mid-air by terrorists. Both survive and both morph: Saladin Chamcha becoming diabolic with horns and hoofs; Gibreel Farishta becoming, like the angel Gibreel, angelic. Landing, as they do, on a beach on the south coast of England without proper papers, goaty Saladin is welcomed (hilariously) by the police and, from their hands, attempts to find his way back to his old life. Angelic Gibreel becomes the instrument of the imaginings of the Prophet Mahound, of the Ayatollah Khomeini, of a butterfly girl who leads her people into the Arabian Sea and, finally, of his own delusions. It’s wonderful stuff.
What other books of the twentieth century have such a broad, intelligent canvas as this? Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps. Which is not to say that greatness depends on breadth. Jane Austin gives us the detail to be found on the head of a pin. So does John McGahern, Ireland’s great writer – whom I’m reading as I write this. But of the books that set themselves no boundaries as to where they might go, or what shibboleths they might question, The Satanic Verses is up there with the very best of them.