Thirty years ago, in the fall of 1988, the Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie published his fourth novel, a sprawling allegory of the lives of Muslim immigrants in England, that alien land of forbidden and inedible foods and oppressive gray skies. The Satanic Verses combined literary seriousness and comedy to satirize life in the First World and the demands it makes on newcomers. It seemed destined for the quiet life of the midlist, for The Satanic Verses, after all, while playful and subversive, makes allusions and cultural references that few Western readers command—hardly the makings of a bestseller.
But then an Indian parliamentarian, enraged by what he took to be the blasphemies of a book he admitted he had not read, petitioned the government of Rajiv Gandhi to ban The Satanic Verses in India. The Gandhi government acceded, declaring that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work,” to which Rushdie retorted, “thanks for the good review.” The Indian government replied by saying that it would not permit “literary colonialism” in any form, especially in the guise of what it termed “religious pornography”—which, one supposes, only a censor would know when she or he saw it.
The Satanic Verses was banned as well in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and South Africa. Back in India, pirated editions sold briskly, the parliamentarian appeared to be satisfied, and life went on as before. But the Rushdie affair would not end. Conservative Pakistanis, testing the new government of Benazir Bhutto, demanded that the United States ban the book, too, while the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini denounced Rushdie, saying that the author deserved to die for “insulting Islam.”
Rushdie had courted controversy before, having said that literature takes the place of religion in his life, and his novel abounds in provocative stories of Muslim djinns, martyrs, seers, and angels doing odd things; its very title recalls a set of suras that Mohammed is said to have deleted from the Quran as the work of the devil. Rushdie’s main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, are unwilling prophets, adrift in the foreign city they call Ellowen Deeowen, persecuted by natives who assert their status by force, as when a policeman stops beating Chamcha only long enough to yell, “I’m from Weybridge…where the fucking Beatles used to live.”
The protagonists of The Satanic Verses are stateless and abandoned. Unlike them, Salman Rushdie is a citizen of England and, as of 2016, of the United States, fully protected by the force of Western law. But it took years for the price on his head to be lifted, and there are doubtless many would-be avengers out there still.
Thirty years later, The Satanic Verses remains in print, and though the circumstances surrounding it are not much remembered, the title still sounds a ping of recognition. In a time when free speech and religious diversity are under ever broader assault, it merits a fresh reading as a pointed reminder of what it means, as Albert Camus said, to write dangerously.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.