Tuesday, November 27, 2012

When a Physical Book Becomes a Symbol: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses

In February 1989, a fire-storm erupted over Salman Rushdie's 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. It had been building for weeks, but finally burst into full-blown crisis when Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against Rushdie, meaning that any Muslim was compelled to kill Rushdie over the supposedly blasphemous novel. The fatwa did not just apply to Rushdie, though. Anybody who edited, published, translated or dealt with the publication of the novel in any way could also killed. People were murdered, including a few of Rushdie's translators. Rushdie went into hiding for years, moving a total of 56 times in the first few months alone.

Though Rushdie no longer lives in hiding, the fatwa has never been officially lifted. This past year, he published a memoir in novel form of his years in hiding, Joseph Anton. At the time, what got me mobilized, beyond my utter belief in freedom of speech (and yes, I defend the right of some offensive fool to say whatever they like just as much I defend my right to tear his or her arguments apart), was when bookstores in the US and UK, such as Barnes and Noble, began to fearfully remove the book from their sales racks. My reaction to that news was to head out to a bookstore in Toronto and immediately buy a copy. Since the chain stores now seemed too terrified to sell the book, I went down to Queen Street West to the (now-defunct) Edwards Bookstore. (I don't remember if Coles or WH Smith removed it from sale or not, but I wanted, in this case, to give my business to an independent bookseller.) They had new copies on sale, but before I took one up to cash I decided to check out their 'reduced' tables. Back in the day, Edwards Books was a treasure trove of great books on many subjects, but it was their bargain tables where I found so many wonderful ones I could regularly afford. As I glanced through the tables, my eye caught sight of two or three books without dust jackets, spines up. From a distance, there seemed to be pieces of white tape over the spines of these books. Out of curiosity, I looked closer. It wasn't tape, I realized, but white thread had been used to sew up damage on their spines. I got closer and looked at the title. I took an involuntary step back. They were all repaired copies of The Satanic Verses. I picked up the one that had the most elaborate work. The repair job was immaculate, like it had been done by a surgeon (they looked like stitches). Bisecting the word Verses (you can see an image further down the text). This white thread held together what looked like a scalpel-like cut right through the letter R of Verses. The others copies were repaired too, but none as intriguingly as this.

I knew I had found the copy I had to buy. Had this copy been attacked with a razor, its dust cover lost? Or had it been a completely serendipitous happening? Had the book arrived damaged, but instead of returning it, had someone with great skills (or a rather unique sewing machine) decided to repair the book and then sell it at a reduced price? Whichever it was, it could not be an accident that this specific book had been repaired in such a way and then casually put on sale. The fact they were being offered for sale in the shape they were in had to be a deliberate act. For me, this one copy summed up perfectly what was happening with the fatwa, Rushdie and the attack on freedom of speech. It had been attacked in some way, but had survived. Someone had come to its rescue to fix it so it could 'function' as a book to be bought, read and enjoyed. For me, it's very existence as an item for sale spoke clearly about the willingness of people to stand up to authoritarian regime's outrageous, illegal and criminal demands. (The travesty of this whole thing is that more protesters running around condemning Rushdie have, over the years, died in riots than anybody actually involved in the publication/selling of the book. That blood is on Khomeini's hands.)

Franz Donker (with white beard)
(A side note. This is also a commentary on ebooks – an ebook could never be repaired like this because they do not exist in the physical world. Though I'm not anti-ebook for certain types of reads, such as crowd-pleasing thrillers and the like, the books I adore for any number of reasons will always be a physical thing.)

As I write this, I remember another incident that reinforced the need to always be vigilant, to always stand up for what was right. Twenty-five years ago, probably around the same time as the Rushdie incident, I was in another favourite independent bookstore, Book City, on Bloor Street West (thankfully they still thrive). As with Edwards, they had a fabulous collection of new and remainder books. Again I was poking through the remainder tables. The store also had a couple of racks of magazines, including a slightly 'blocked' collection of “lad” magazines high up on the shelves. I didn't hear how the conversation began, but I will never forget how it ended. Frans Donker, owner and founder of the store, was behind cash. Laying on the counter, obviously put there by the irate young woman standing facing him, was a copy of Penthouse magazine. All I heard was this:

Wounded Copy of Satanic Verses (Photo: David Churchill)
“In the 1930s, Nazis came into my father's bookstore in Amsterdam and demanded he remove certain books from sale at his store. He refused just as I am refusing you now.” Clearly offended, she had demanded Donker remove the girlie mag from his shelves, and he refused. She was struck dumb. What response was there to his comment? His defiance was minor compared to the obvious risk his father had taken 50 years prior, but it was a lesson Donker had learned at this father's knee: never let a bully win.

Because I don't have as many bookshelves as I'd like, I have only a selection of books on display (the rest are in boxes), but one book I always have on the shelf, at eye level, is my wounded copy of The Satanic Verses. They tried to kill it, but they didn't succeed. So the very least I can do is make sure it is always there, always on display, always showing its wounded face to the world. Have I read it? I tried a couple of times over the years, but I always seemed to pick it up when I wasn't really in the mood for a challenging read, but last week I tried again. I'm about 100 pages in and it has finally really hooked me, so I read a little every night. For a short term, my wounded book is not currently on eye-level shelf, but my bedside table. As I said, the actual book is a challenging read at some points (and pretty straight narrative at others) that requires concentration and patience to get into the rhythms of how Rushdie wrote it; the beauty of his language and storytelling skills are hypnotic. But the final irony is this: I guarantee that 99% of the people who protested it, and Khomeini himself, never have read it. If they picked it up to try, they would have put it down within two or three pages because there is difficulty there, especially at the start. So, as with most thugocracies, they pick on something to deflect people from real issues (the bread and circuses method -- or in his case, the fact he was losing the Iran-Iraq war), rouse up the rabble and set the mindless hoards loose on something else. It's happened throughout history and will continue to happen until the ends of time. But thankfully, there will always be a Rushdie, a Donker, and others out there to say no, this will not stand. And my wounded copy of The Satanic Verses will also continue to stare anybody down who dares to challenge it. 

– David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to http://www.wordplaysalon.com for more information (where you can order the book, but only in traditional form!). And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel, The Storm and its Eye.


  1. I still have my button which reads "I am Salman Rushdie", from a reading in 1989 or 1990. Bob Rae was passing them out.

  2. Awesome essay! I remember seeing an NYT book review of The Satanic Verses before the affair began and looked forward to reading it. I had never read any Rushdie before other than a fabulous sarcastic essay he had written in Film Comment about the Raj nostalgia films that were popular at the time (Passage to India, et al). The novel sounded fascinating, and I remember thinking to myself that here's a book that will come and go quickly and quietly. Ahem.

  3. Great post, David. One that flies in the face of the fools participating in the campaign to whitewash the Islamic Republic by pretending, among other things, that the lack of military bases outside of its borders makes it a benign, non-confrontational entity.