In his memoir Joseph Anton, author Salman Rushdie makes a private promise to himself to stop writing such big, complicated novels. Seeking inspiration for complex stories is hard enough for normal human beings. Novelists, on the other hand, need to set aside a stunning amount of focus to see their project through to its end. Everyday distractions graduate from being a nuisance to something more detrimental. Even the nagging doubts about whether the whole ordeal is actually worth the trouble needs to be silenced.
Now, imagine trying to do all of that while being escorted by the British police from one hiding place to the next. When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa on Rushdie for his “blasphemous” 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, he managed to turn Rushdie into a household name while putting a serious crimp on his work ethic. Here is a writer whole likes to imagine large, multi-faceted stories, dripping with old time religion and humanism, and bathe it in a glow of surrealism that skews the wide-accepted norms of reality. Further, if turning on the television each day means watching your book go up in flames amid hundreds of angry, screaming faces causing you to spend your days looking over your shoulder, then how can you move your life forward as a professional novelist?
At some point during his exile, Rushdie told himself that enough was enough and that it was time to think small. If Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is supposed to be an example of this self-imposed restraint, then old habits certainly do die hard. Rushdie’s post-modern take on One Thousand and One Nights may be just a mere 300 pages, but it behaves like one of the writer’s earlier behemoths. Seemingly independent tales leap frog over one another, characters steal the narrative then discard it for someone else to pick up, and trying to nail down a central idea becomes rather like aiming at a moving target.
If you are unfamiliar with One Thousand and One Nights, the gist of it is that Queen Scheherazade is trying to buy some time before her husband Shahryār, a Sasanian ruler, executes her (a preemptive strike because he thought all women were adulteresses). She distracts him by telling him a story night after night, sometimes folding another story inside of one that she was already telling. If you get out a calendar and do some math, you will find that, starting on New Year’s Day, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights translates to the same amount of time. And just like Queen Scheherazade, Rushdie throws story on top of story as if he were trying to simply drown out some unknown opposition.
Unlike Scheherazade, however, you are given little warning as to when the story will shift. He may bring you back to the originating story just two pages later. Or he may bring you back to the originating story more than 20 pages later. Like it or not, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights seems to have a mind of its own, flitting where it will as if it were a blind moth.
Rushdie beings to toy with the idea of jinn and jinnia, mischievous male and female devils who interrupt our realm after a storm rips the fabric separating our two worlds, back to the time of Ibn Rush in 1195. If you have read Joseph Anton, you know that Rushdie was not the writer’s family name but something that his father plucked from history, adding an extra syllable. Rushd was a philosopher who tried to pedal his thoughts on nasty topics like logic and secularism. After delivering one too many shocks to the theological system, Rushd is run out of Córdoba for 1,001 days.
While in exile, Rushd strikes up an affair with a jinnia named Dunia. The two enjoy a lighter form of a Shahryār/Scheherazade relationship, though he is reluctant to have children with her. “To be a Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow,” he explains to her. But Dunia, whose name we’re led to believe means “the world”, is adamant that her purpose is to serve mankind with stories—children, actually. She gives birth to many half-devil children, all of whom inherit their mother’s lack of earlobes.
From here multiple narratives tumble forward into the present day where another storm escorts jinnia, perched on their flying magic carpets, into our reality to catch up with the descendants of Rushd and Dunia. One is an aging gardener who gradually loses the ability to touch the ground (Rusdhie’s description of him as a “down to earth man” can’t escape a groan or a chuckle). A nearby cassanova suddenly looses his powers of charm and gets in a car wreck with the airborne gardener. A city’s charismatic female major adopts an anonymously donated baby that can detect corruption, proving problematic yet beneficial for the political body into which it is welcomed.
Remember those dream sequences in The Satanic Verses that chronicle the land of Jahilia? Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights has its equivalent with Ibn Rushd arguing with Ghazali of Iran in what could be the afterlife, Peristan (the jinn world), or an overlap of the two. There’s a memorable passage where Rushd asserts that God most likely wants mankind to become secular beings, a sign that they are ready to grow up, mature, and move out of the house. Ghazali says that the notion of logic making God unnecessary is a “stupid supposition!”
Without giving away too much of the “resolution”, I’ll just say that the idea of a quiet life sought by his characters runs counter to Rushdie’s desire to be a teller of tales as he put it in Joseph Anton. When he completed Shalimar the Clown in 2005, it apparently felt like a homecoming for his craft. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, however, could be Rushdie’s realization that he can’t have it both ways.
The spawns of the jinnia choose the path that their author would rather not consider. Vicarious living or gentle ribbing? The answer is probably simpler than you think.
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