Review: ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights,’ by Salman Rushdie
Fiction Chronicle: Djinning Up Drama.
If you add up the figures in the title of Salman Rushdie’s “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights” (Random House, 290 pages, $28), you come out with 1,001 nights, which points to the guiding spirit of this allegorical fantasy.A “colossal fragmentation of reality” occurred in the 20th century, Salman Rushdie has said, and his novels enact and display that fragmentation with terror and glee.
It’s also the duration of a period in the book called “the strangenesses,” when fairies known as jinn appeared in our modern-day realm and a mighty war was waged between good and evil. We had driven down Marine Drive towards Warden Road, and pausing at Scandal Point, walking past Chimalkers and Reader’s Paradise, made our way to Westfield Estate, the inspiration for Saleem Sinai’s Methwold’s Estate in Midnight’s Children, his second novel, which had won the Booker Prize in 1981. The New York Times had gushed then, saying, “Midnight’s Children sounds like a continent finding its voice.” And that generation of Indians felt he had told our story in our language.
Rushdie begins in the 12th century, however, introducing readers to the medieval philosopher Averroës, called here by his Arabic name Ibn Rushd, presumably to stress the cosmic kinship between this legendary figure and our humble author. We had reclaimed the language and its literature, and it was fine to speak in the mishmash sing-song bhelpuri of Hugme (Hindi-Urdu-Gujarati-Marathi-English). Eschatological lightning strikes, oracular infants and local failures of gravity will become the norm, as the Dark Ifrits, the mischievous forces of disorder, begin to take advantage of the weakening of the fabric of the everyday. Ibn Rushd “used words many of his contemporaries found shocking, including ‘reason,’ ‘logic’ and ‘science,’ ” and he sparred courageously with the religious fanatics of his age.
The cumbrous title transcribes a certain number of days into years and months, but not the four weeks that would naturally complete it, because the word “Nights” is needed to suggest the original Thousand and One. He won the love of the beautiful Dunia without knowing that she is actually an ageless jinn princess whose superpower is her “mastery over the thunderbolt.” When the book jumps ahead some 800 years to the present, it follows the fortunes of the “Duniazát,” the couple’s descendants, who all have strange powers of their own. We next met in 1987 when he was in India, making a film (The Riddle Of Midnight) about the cohort of Indians who were born in 1947—the real midnight’s children—and with my colleague and friend Dina Vakil I went to meet him at his hotel (President, at Cuffe Parade).
Rushdie is our Scheherazade, inexhaustibly enfolding story within story and unfolding tale after tale with such irrepressible delight that it comes as a shock to remember that, like her, he has lived the life of a storyteller in immediate peril. He had a beard, and he told us of a new novel he was working on—about angels and devils, where the main character is going insane and thinks he is the archangel. “It is about angels and devils and how it is very difficult to establish ideas of morality in a world which has become so uncertain that it has become difficult to even agree on what is happening. Scheherazade told her 1,001 tales to put off a stupid, cruel threat of death; Rushdie found himself under similar threat for telling an unwelcome tale. Rushdie helpfully explains for the two or three readers who don’t understand how fiction works, “To recount a fantasy, a story of the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual.” And beneath the supernatural pyrotechnics, this is a fable about the West’s war with radical Islam.
The dark jinn thrive by exploiting superstition and “savage, undimmed unreason,” situating their headquarters in the landlocked “land of A” and transforming their quest for global domination into a religious crusade (“In the name of a divine entity we can do whatever the hell we like,” their leader proclaims). One of the things that happens in the process is that what is supposed to be angelic quite often has disastrous results, and what is supposed to be demonic is quite often something with which one must have sympathy. Meanwhile, the good guys rehearse noble phrases like, “All important battles are, in the end, conflicts between hatred and love.” It may seem odd to illustrate this clash through fairy folk, but Mr. The war on terror is reframed and vindicated as the struggle of a band of heroic secular humanists fighting to prevent “the creation of the global jinn sultanate.” Mr. India banned the import of the novel, and as a correspondent at India Today magazine, I wrote the unsigned editorial comment condemning what was, in effect, a ban.
But the dilapidation of reality in our world, intensifying since the second millennium, has affected the wall between us and Peristan, leaving slots and slits through which they can slip. In the years in between, he would return often to the theme of the clash between the certainties of faith and the questions that doubt raises; indeed, between speech and silence, in Haroun And The Sea Of Stories (when the people of Gup and Chup are in never-ending combat), published in 1990.
He then went deep into our past to show examples of inclusiveness, from Moorish Spain in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) to Akbar’s India in The Enchantress Of Florence (2008). Still, some of them find this as boring as some of us might, and like to sneak over here to entertain themselves by meddling with our little mortal lives. And he defied fundamentalists, not only by continuing to write, but also by stepping out of the prison that the fatwa imposed, and increasingly living a normal life.
The creature is so unexpected and extraordinary that Jim can’t decide if it augurs deliverance or doom: “When it moved, it seemed to be absent of any color at all, only a flash, like a zipper of lightning, a pulse of absolute blindness. It was sort of like watching your own death, but beautiful too.” Local drug dealers steal the horse and pass it among an expanding cast of criminals and lowlifes.
We haven’t seen any jinn for a while because their passages into our world were sealed up about a thousand years ago, not long after the greatest jinnia princess, Dunia, had a love affair in Andalucia with the philosopher Ibn Rushd (also known as the great Aristotelian philosopher Averroes). Herzog is not Saul Bellow; Marcel is not Proust; Stephen Dedalus is not (James) Joyce; and (Jonathan) Swift did not meet little people.” Back in 1983, Rushdie had told me that in fiction, a narrator need not be accurate; he could be unreliable and make things up. The main plot – the outermost Chinese box – is constructed around a philosophical feud between the rationalist Ibn Rushd and the pious theologian Ghazali of Iran (known and honoured as Renewer of the Faith and Proof of Islam), who placed the power of God above all earthly causes and effects. And at moments the book’s consuming darkness is lifted by potent, if inscrutable visions of the talismanic horse—“a flash of lightning curving along the horizon.” The art lies in how to make it fresh; how not to be rehearsing old arguments, and how to renew these concerns and themes, but in a different language.” Over the years I have known him, I have seen the same wit and humour, the razor-sharp memory (he would make a fantastic partner in a pub quiz team), and unalloyed clarity about freedom and individual liberty.
At a time when the multicultural industry insists upon political correctness and busybodies are looking for every opportunity to take offence, Rushdie has been a remarkably consistent champion of freedoms —not only of expression, but other individual liberties that the imams, priests, sadhus, and politicians of every hue want to curb. When I co-chaired the the writers’ association, English PEN’s writers at risk committee, we knew we could count on him to support writers in prison or under threat. It was hardly surprising, then, that he not only defended the PEN American Center’s award (in May) to the magazine Charlie Hebdo for freedom of expression and courage, but spoke out in defence of what the magazine did: speaking truth to power. Rushdie is a generous, good-natured writer who’d rather woo and seduce his readers than reduce the truth to gall and brimstone and make them swallow it. Edited excerpts from the interview: I’ve always had a bee in my bonnet about Ibn Rushd (one of the pioneering thinkers of Western secular thought who championed Aristotle and was known in the West as Averroes).
All the same, the frontispiece of the book is the Goya engraving that stands at the very entrance of the modern age: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. It just seemed to me that that kind of conflict, which was not personal but philosophical, between him and (Islamic theologian Al-) Ghazali offers a way to orchestrate a lot of arguments happening now, and not only in the Muslim world. He is a physically and emotionally vivid character, likable for his strength and modesty and his homesickness for the city of his childhood, Bombay (which to him will never be Mumbai). Initially I thought it would just be an episode, and the idea that that argument, of reason and faith, would recur through the book was not part of the original design. More generally, while women are likely to value their actual children and their status as mother over any abstract idea of lineage, men may consider their children, particularly sons, most valuable as maintaining the paternal bloodline.
This gender difference may reflect biological imperatives, male mammals being motivated to reproduce their genes, females to nurture the gene-bearers. Everyone says this about Moorish Spain (from the eighth century to 1492), that the period of Convivencia was peaceful and that the people lived together. Dunia is a mammal all right, but her loving heart and her numerous litters can’t keep me from suspecting that – like so many other kick-ass, weapon-wielding warrior women – she’s a man in drag. They peacefully cultivate their gardens rather than their bigotries and hatreds, having found that “in the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged”. The implication is that our human gift of imagining can’t exist without the hatred, anger and aggressiveness that lead to such human behaviours as warfare, conscious cruelty and deliberate destruction.
To imply that only our dark jinn inside can give us dreams and visions may be one way of admitting the essential balance between the creative and the destructive within us. But it’s also, I think, a capitulation to the idea, so powerful in 20th-century literature, that the slow processes of creation are less interesting, less real, than the cataclysmic dramas of destruction.
But I like to think how many readers are going to admire the courage of this book, revel in its fierce colours, its boisterousness, humour and tremendous pizzazz, and take delight in its generosity of spirit. • Ursula K Le Guin’s selected stories, The Unreal and the Real, are published by Gollancz. I did not want to do anything folkloristic like Harun-al Rashid in Baghdad; I wanted a book about now, but using my knowledge of and affection for the older form of storytelling. And you have responded that the question is irrelevant: You wrote the novel at a particular time; whether you would write it today, in the same form, is a speculative question. There is no point my writing a column even the day before because the news cycle works too fast; the next morning already 20 pieces are out, and there is nothing more to say.
The novel’s cover reminded me of Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha (the two characters with whom ‘The Satanic Verses’ begins, as a plane explodes mid-air and the two descend to earth, as if it is a miracle). (Smiles) This man who is detached from the earth is a major character in the novel, the way Dunia is the major female character. What made me smile was that even if he is detached, he doesn’t float away; he is half an inch off the ground; and that idea is as dramatic as floating away. Then there was a time I wrote a short story which I didn’t think was successful in doing what I wanted it to do, so I put it away in a folder and forgot about it.
I had read the travels of Ibn Battuta, and there were a couple of missing elements; he had stumbled upon a place where this battle takes place and the story was about that. With this novel, I started with Mr Geronimo (“Raphael Hieronymus Manezes of Bandra, Bombay, the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest, but also a descendant of Rushd and Dunia—(who) discovers that his feet no longer touch the ground”).
The force that motivates Dunia is her love for her descendants—her generations, her brood which she wants to save and protect, and her father’s death, drive her to the war. Indeed, some have said women are not portrayed sympathetically in your writing, but Padma (in ‘Midnight’s Children’), Aurora Zogoiby (in ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’), India Ophuls or Boonyi Kaul (in ‘Shalimar The Clown’), Vina Apsara (in ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’), or Qara Koz (in ‘The Enchantress Of Florence’) are all strong women. You show Ibn Rushd falling in the arms of a jinn, an entity whose existence he should otherwise question—he is rational and doesn’t believe in the supernatural, after all.
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