Books

Salman Rushdie
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights

“This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn… who loved a mortal man long ago… and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war.” The mortal man loved by the Lightning Princess of Peristan, aka Dunia, is Ibn Rushd, a powerful judge and physician who was banished from his home in Seville by religious fanatics on account of his attachment to reason. The couple produce a prodigious tribe of children – Dunia knocks them out by the dozen. Their descendants will be known as the Duniazát, “Dunia’s tribe”, as given Ibn Rushd’s unfortunate status, “To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”

There are many such sly winks in this Scheherazadean tale. The first adult fiction in seven years from Salman Rushdie (whose father gave the family their name in homage to the historical Ibn Rushd), Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights sees him return to the top of his form. The novel that sent Rushdie himself into history with a mark upon his brow was The Satanic Verses; having lived under threat for his storytelling for so many years, he turns here for inspiration to One Thousand and One Nights, in which storytelling is what stays the executioner’s blade.

Ibn Rushd had, Rushdie writes, “tried to reconcile the words ‘reason’, ‘logic’ and ‘science’ with the words ‘God’, ‘faith’ and ‘Qur’an’, and he had not succeeded, even though he used with great subtlety the argument from kindness, demonstrating by Qur’anic quotation that God must exist because of the garden of earthly delights he had provided for mankind.” He carried out a lifelong argument with his philosophical rival, the mystic theologian Ghazali, which in Two Years carries on well after their bodies are dust and they are but disembodied (if still quarrelsome) spirits. Reason and faith are locked in battle here in a manner that recalls the opening of The Satanic Verses, in which two men, Bollywood actors who will come to stand in for the Archangel Gabriel and the Devil, cartwheel together through the sky after a plane explodes in midair: inseparable, antagonistic and paradoxically surviving each on account of the other.

Whirling together mano a mano through the chaos of space and time in Two Years are also magical jinn and gravity-bound humans. This time, the contemporary action lands in New York. The jinn (“genies”) are amorphous, lusty, shapeshifting creatures of caprice and mischief, we learn, who can possess humans by sliding inside through a nostril or ear, but who themselves are vulnerable to spells that would confine them to bottles or lamps. The humans are for the most part migrants, cut loose from their families and cultures but bound to Earth – until the “time of strangeness” anyway – by gravity.

Bawdy, philosophical and lyrical by turns, Two Years moves with the speed, intensity and zigzagging unpredictability of a bolt from the hands of the Lightning Princess herself. It is a magic carpet-weave of tales: of buildings constructed purely of pride and taken down by ants, of dead fish laughing, of an accountant from Queens whose bedroom opens to the wormhole through which the jinn arrive back in the world after 800 years, of a gardener who is cursed to float above Earth. As is often the case in Rushdie’s novels, even minor characters are identified by their philosophical position. A man’s first wife is an incurable optimist, his later lover, a relentless pessimist. An American businessman, full of certainty, goes to Italy and is intellectually upended by “the extraordinarily un-American idea that reality was not something given, not an absolute, but something that men made up, and that values, too, changed according to who was doing the valuing”.

Two Years pays tribute to the “wonder tales” of Arabia and the Indian subcontinent, as rich in magical metamorphoses as Ovid. Yet Rushdie’s tongue is never far from his cheek. When Dunia shows the gardener – one of her tribe – how to activate his latent jinn nature, he learns how to bring objects into being with a twitch of his nose and to travel anywhere by clapping his hands. At last he “understood the laws of transformation… He felt increasing within him the love of all shining things… He began to understand the allure of harem pants…”

There are some very funny passages in Two Years, and plenty of mordant wit: “The rich are obscure to us, finding ways to be unhappy when all the normal causes of unhappiness are removed.” The humour is both more sharp-edged and absurd when the novel delves into issues such as climate change, corporate greed and religious fanaticism – the defining traits of our own “time of strangeness”. A dark jinn possesses a Wall Street master-of-the-universe type who, to the horror of his colleagues, compulsively confesses to all manner of corporate conspiracies. The Taliban-like Swot, of the country of A., meanwhile, “had studied deeply” into “the art of forbidding things” and “would have liked to have forbidden women altogether but even they could see that was not entirely feasible”. When the dark jinn, Zumurrud, allies with the Swot, he adds (in the whimsical manner of the jinn), “French fries, eyeglasses, root-canal dentistry, encyclopaedias, condoms and chocolate” as well as (with impeccable jinn logic, given their fraught history with bottles) sealable containers. What does it all mean? Is meaning even a possibility? “A thing,” Rushdie writes, “could have a cause but that was not the same as having a purpose.”

Blue Yasmeen, a character who is a storyteller, advises us that “the first thing to know about made-up stories is that they are all untrue in the same way”. But religion, too, is story. The conundrum, posed but left unsolved by this fascinating novel, is that “our fictions are killing us, but if we didn’t have those fictions, maybe that would kill us too”.  CG

Jonathan Cape, 304pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 19, 2015 as "Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: CG

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