Review: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Jinn and Chthonic


Author Salman Rushdie, has always been a teller of tales, and by that I mean fairy tales steeped in ethnic tradition, myth, and fable. He has taken Magical Realism, a genre rooted in South American literature, and made it his own, planting its seeds deeply into the soil of south Asia: specifically Mother India. Rushdie has a gift for allegory, especially concerning the twin towers of religion and politics. His 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, was castigated by virtually the entire Islamic state.  Ayotollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Supreme Leader of Iran at the time, issued a Fatwa on Rushdie after certain dream elements in the novel were misinterpreted as being blasphemous of the prophet Mohammed. Even after Rushdie expressed regret that his words may have caused any " sincere followers of Islam"*, the Ayotollah refused to lift the Fatwa, saying "Even if Salman Rushdie repents and becomes the most pious man of all time, it is incumbent on every Muslim to employ everything he has got, his life and wealth, to send him to Hell."**

Rushdie has said the novel-- which has a clear comic tone and features dual characters, thespians both, who, after their plane explodes and they fall to earth, are miraculously transformed, one as an angel, the other a devil-- is really about "migration, metamorphosis, divided selves, love, death, London and Bombay." His latest novel, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, narrated, at times, in the third person plural by a representative of some future society, is again an updated fairy tale, a play on the Arabian Nights (1001 = two years, eight months and twenty eight nights) starring dark jinn and jinnia, the Jiniri of Fairy Land.

Salman Rushdie
We open our tale in the year 1195, when Dunia, a jinnia (or female jinn), decides to pay a visit to Earth: the underworld relative to the upper reaches of Peristan (the aforementioned Fairy Land), her home. She soon falls in love with Ibn Rushd, a philosopher of some dubious repute (modeled on the author himself), who has over the years fomented a deep rift with a rival philosopher, Ghazali, his nemesis, as we'll learn, even beyond the grave. Without delay, the mischievous and beautiful jinn, perhaps by nefarious design, begins begetting a small tribe of little half-jinns whom Rushd dubs the Duniazát (literally, People of the World). Dunia is known by many names however, one of which is the Lightning Princess, because of her dominion over those powerful bolts of electrostatic force; a benefit which will elucidate itself later in the story line. The plot bedevils when, because of an old pledge (think genie-in-a-bottle-grants-three-wishes), a tetrad of dark jinn unleash a torrent of shenanigans on the chthonic world of humans (present day Duniazát included).

Although Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty Eight Nights draws its name from that wonderfully nested set of stories written by we-know-not-who, the similarity ends with those fantastic creatures, genies or jinn, that haunt its world and the interval of time over which the grand vizier's daughter, Scheherazade, spins her finely crafted and suspenseful fables. There are no tales within tales within tales in Rushdie's account, the like to which we are treated in The (1001) Arabian Nights. He does, however, employ the conceit of future times narrator, speaking for a generation, relating a history; a greater cautionary tale of the strangenesses of their past. Above all, though, he remembers to mix humor in amongst the sobriety; an airy lightness in opposition to the gravitas of struggle.

Rushdie draws a clear parallel between his major characters: the two enemy philosophers and their otherworldly counterparts; and the splintered nation of Islam of the present day. He presents a sort of microcosm, not only of Islam (Shi'a, Sunni) or even of the Semitic peoples (Arab, Jew), but also of the entire world, the whole of humanity, where fundamentalists, terrorists, and the like, pit themselves against the avaricious blasphemers, the non-believers and poisoners of the planet (in their view). Of course, if asked about his themes, he might proclaim them to be: good vs. evil; The prevalence of love over enmity; the power of story telling, of myth; the difference between faith and fanaticism. Plainly, all of this is true, proving once again that Salman Rushdie is a canny chronicler of our mercurial milieu (even though he may not fully cop to it).

~ 4.7 Stars

*   "Rushdie regrets". The New York Times. 19 February 1989
**  Moin, Khomeini, (2000), p. 284