Thursday, November 05, 2015

A Review of ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’

My review of Salman Rushdie's new novel 'Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights' - a work of uncommon and unabashed beauty, published in Spark magazine this month. Read on.

A Review of ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ is his first fiction book released in over five years. The enigmatic title is a great way of introducing where the inspiration for the book lies – the total number of nights add up to one thousand and one. Much like the Arabian Nights tales, where allegories fly cushioned on giant urns and flying carpets, Salman Rushdie writes a modern day fable that flits between the real and the fantastic.

The story is interspersed between two worlds – ours, the one of human existence and the world of jinns, the kind that once pleased Aladdin. The jinns though are not the kind that indulge in Robin Williams like tomfoolery. They are serious, supernatural beings with serious, supernatural existence. They possess powers that give them overwhelming superiority over human beings. It is to the great benefit of the humans that they are unaware of the existence of these beings who live in their own little world. They live on for a long, long time and their primary activity is having lots of sex because there isn’t much else there to entertain them.

The jinns are bereft of some human emotions like remorse, empathy, etc. but one among them parts from that ideal and starts a chain of events that form the crux of the storyline. Dunia, the princess of the land of the jinns, falls in love with the 12th century philosopher Ibn Rushd (which is a way of Salman Rushdie playing tribute to the man from whom his family got its name). Rushdie places the story a few centuries in the past and yet draws parallels to the state of modern society. Ibn Rushd is in a battle of his own – a battle of philosophers where his premise of following reason, of questioning the sacred and not having blind faith hits a wall when he comes in confrontation with Ghazali, he of the absolute devotion to God and not shy of using fear as a weapon to convince people to trust in religion. Dunia falls in love with the philosopher, with his face, with his ideas. Putting her magic to good effect, she manages to produce many an offspring with Rushd. The progeny then multiply over the centuries in the world, carrying a little bit of the jinn within them. Meanwhile, both Ibn Rushd and Ghazali go to their graves, carrying on their battle of beliefs beyond the mortal realm.

The story kicks into a higher gear as it moves to the current day. The characters, with their engaging back stories, tumble out one after the other. Geronimo Manezes is a New York gardener who misses his wife and the country he left behind in equal measure. There is Jimmy Kapoor, a graphic artist who lives in New York with his mother and lies in wait hoping that his comic character called ‘Natraj Hero’ (whose superpower was dancing) finds success. This and many others disparate souls have a role to play in the apocalypse that is to follow. After nearly eight centuries, the portal between the world of the jinns and that of humans has opened up and humankind is subjected to a great storm after which nothing remains the same. People levitate, spout lightning from their hands, and a great many such abnormal events kick off, attributed to the bad jinns who are now attempting to subjugate humankind in the guise of fulfilling their past obligations to their masters. Rushdie masterfully converts this into a continuation of the argument of reason versus religion between Ibn Rushd and Ghazali. The world is in dire need of heroes and in comes Dunia once again, to protect her progeny that has spread since the time of Ibn Rushd. To defend the human race, she has to defeat her four strongest enemies – the jinns Zumurrud, Zabardast, Shining Ruby, and Ra’im Blood-Drinker.  How she goes about doing that and how she enlists the help of her progeny in furthering her goal drives the second half of the book. The period of the jinns in the book amounts to, as you can guess, 1001 nights.

As mentioned before, this is Salman Rushdie’s first adult fiction book since the year 2008 and he attacks the storyboard with a vengeance. He masterfully brings in pop culture into the mix, interspersing the story with references to events or personalities that we are familiar with, or using his characters to affect some of the events of our recent times. An example is an allusion to how a jet plane is brought down by a jinn, in reference to the Malaysian airliner being shot down in Ukraine.  It is erudite, but not pompous. The sheer breadth of his references would make a quiz master giddy with joy. Where else can you find a reference to Simple Kapadia, a veiled reference to ‘Anjaana Anjaani’ and David Letterman, shoutouts to Rebecca Romjin and Mickey Mouse within the confines of a story about jinns and humans, being narrated by anonymous narrators a thousand years into the future? The narrative is fast paced as it keeps shifting between time periods and worlds. Rushdie weaves in experiences and references from many cultures and religions in a way that he seems quite adept and quite equipped to do. If anything, the reader would be hard pressed to keep up with the number of oblique hints Rushdie throws to people and events. Despite the immersion in pop culture references, there is considerable depth in the common themes that he explores, be it the philosophical approach that Ibn Rushd takes towards reason and free speech, or the risk of letting dogma rule the roost or the thin boundary between lust and love.

Rushdie’s choice of genre has always been ‘magical realism’, a genre where it is common to accept magic in the rational world. ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ is a book where he takes the license that the genre offers and produces a work of uncommon and unabashed beauty, where the writer seems to make no apologies for the world that he lives in or the beliefs that he shares. It might have been years in the making, but the wait has certainly been worth it.

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