I'd been curious about this book for quite a while, obviously because of the publicity and controversy surrounding it.
My opinion: it's good. But it's certainly not worth dying for. (As a translator already has, and two others have barley survived assassination attempts).
Interestingly, the main focus of the book is not on religion, although it plays a part.
Mostly, I would say the book is about the experience of Indian - British immigrants. Rushdie explores the psychological conflicts through a story of two Indian men, both average, but one who's really rather a self-centered jerk. Falling from a plane which was victim to a terrorist attack, the two miraculously survive, but one becomes a sort of avatar of an angel, and one of a devil. Intertingly, the roles are reversed - the more 'decent' guy becomes the devil, growing horns, and the self-centered film star developing a halo.
In exploring these identities, especially that of the archangel Gibreel in Islamic mythology, is where Rushdie moves into supposedly 'blasphemous' territory, including a historical depiction of Mohammed, and a strong implication by the Prophet's personal scribe that he is a fraud, making up religious rules to suit his whims. There's also a funny, satirical episode where a brothel decides to make more money by having their whores role-play the parts of the Prophet's wives.
I suspect that Rushdie underestimated the response these scenes would get. It's pretty clear from the book that Rushdie is probably an atheist. But it's also very clear that the scenes in question are satire. They're almost incidental to the main plot of the book (which takes place in the present day), and also to the main
idea of the book, which has to do with the concepts of "Indian-ness" and "British-ness" and personal identity.
I'd say the novel is definitely worthwhile for its insights into human nature, but it does have a tendency to meander, and the colloquial language that Rushdie uses can occasionally come across as a bit too 'clever.'
Without any real knowledge of Indian culture or the Qur'an, it was clear halfway through that I was missing a vast majority of the meaning of the text. If I had some base in these fields, I think I'd enjoy this book much more. Without this info I didn't find the book very interesting (I stopped halfway through).
This is one of my favorite Rushdie books, second to "Shalimar the Clown." I love magical realism, and Rushdie is the genre's master. It's a beautiful and fantastical tale!
The premise of this book is solid and the story's beginning is powerful. (Opening line: "To be born again," sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, "first you have to die...") The imaginative approach to the battle of good and evil is done from an unconventional viewpoint that can never be explored thoroughly enough. Rushdie's writing is superb and his portrayal of Islamic belief and Indian culture gives the book an intimate and authentic voice.
For all of it's attributes and the high expectations I had for a book that illicited a religious edict ordering the author's death, ultimately I am disappointed. Although his story is sufficient- above average, even- I wasn't blown away. I was expecting an epic battle (symbolic or otherwise) that blurred the lines of good and evil, exposing the gray areas. Instead, aside from Farishta's incarnation in Jahilia with the prophet Mahound (which incited the rage of the ayatollah), there aren't very many compelling depictions of the ambiguous nature of good and evil.
Secondly, the constant back-and-forth of the past and present lives of our main characters is too disorienting. Unless you're good at keeping several characters with more than one simultaneous role in order (which I am not any good at without a character map), it's easy to confuse the significance of a past life within the context of the present one.
Overall, I was able to appreciate what Rushdie delivered and along the way I've learned that political/religious controversy doesn't always guarantee a 5-star book, and excellent prose doesn't necessarily translate into a 5-star story.
Mingling of fantasy and reality, sometimes hard to follow, but always with visual interest.