No match for Scheherazade

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ed Wright Ed Wright is an au­thor, poet and critic.

Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights By Sal­man Rushdie Jonathan Cape, 304pp, $32.99

Sal­man Rushdie has been a great writer. Mid­night’s Chil­dren won the 1981 Booker Prize and was voted Booker of Book­ers in 1993 and the Best of the Booker in 2008, for the 25th and 40th an­niver­saries of the award. It was a daz­zling work of mag­i­cal re­al­ism, fol­lowed in 1988 by another in The Sa­tanic Verses, a bril­liant book that fu­elled one of the great­est literary con­tro­ver­sies of the 20th cen­tury.

The fatwa im­posed on Rushdie by the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment re­sulted in him go­ing into hid­ing. Trans­la­tors of the novel were killed and in­jured, as too were Mus­lim cler­ics who op­posed the fatwa. In a 2014 Van­ity Fair fea­ture, jour­nal­ist Paul Elie es­ti­mated about 60 peo­ple died as a con­se­quence of the con­tro­versy.

Rushdie was in the un­usual po­si­tion of be­com­ing a celebrity and a recluse at the same time. How­ever, as the power of the fatwa waned af­ter the death of Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, Rushdie re-emerged and thrust him­self into the life of a literary star. He mar­ried a model much younger than him­self. They fre­quented the trendi­est New York restau­rants and bars. He hung out with U2 and the band recorded a song based on his 1999 rock ’n’ roll novel The Ground Be­neath Her Feet.

It’s un­der­stand­able that the con­stric­tion of the fatwa might lead to this kind of re­lease. Un­for­tu­nately the re­lease co­in­cided with a de­cline in the qual­ity of Rushdie’s literary out­put. The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995) is widely con­sid­ered the end point of his great­ness.

Per­haps it’s un­rea­son­able for us to be dis­ap­pointed. Per­haps it’s sim­ply a case of a man choos­ing life over art. Nonethe­less we are dis­ap­pointed be­cause the Rushdie story con­founds our no­tion of what re­ward should con­sti­tute. We hope for the moral tri­umph of the hero af­ter fac­ing a ter­ri­ble or­deal. In that story a writer hounded into hid­ing by re­li­gious ex­trem­ism should emerge with his great­ness en­hanced.

This hasn’t hap­pened. Of course, writ­ers have man­aged to wran­gle mas­ter­pieces from he­do­nism. But Rushdie is not one of them. And be­cause his ear­lier works were rich with moral in­sight into the fate of in­di­vid­u­als caught in the tur­bu­lence of colo­nial and post-colo­nial pol­i­tics, we are per­haps not as ready to ac­cept work from him that lacks its for­mer po­lit­i­cal edge. And there is the prob­lem of celebrity to con­sider: that point where the artist’s life be­comes more in­ter­est­ing to the public than the work.

Of course it’s pos­si­ble Rushdie, who is on the record as say­ing if he hadn’t be­come a writer he would have been an ac­tor, has un­of­fi­cially crossed art forms, with his cre­ative en­er­gies pri­mar­ily in­vested in the per­for­mance of him­self.

Sadly, were it not for its au­thor’s fame, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights would likely be lan­guish­ing ei­ther on the slush pile or in the hid­den depths of Ama­zon. The ti­tle is a re­mea­sur­ing of The Thou­sand and One Nights (365 + 365 + 243 + 28), also known as The Ara­bian Nights, some of the world’s most en­dur­ing sto­ries, which fea­ture tales of jinns (ge­nie), most fa­mously (at least in the Euro­pean trans­la­tions) in Aladdin and his Magic Lamp.

In the Ko­ran, jinns are one of three sapi­ent crea­tures cre­ated by Al­lah, along with hu­mans and an­gels. Whereas hu­mans were cre­ated from clay, jinns were cre­ated from smoke­less fire. The world of jinns is in­vis­i­ble to hu­mans. Hu­mans, how­ever, are vis­i­ble to jinns and able to be pos­sessed by them. Rushdie posits in his gloss on the mythol­ogy that there are mo­ments in history where the world of jinns and that of the hu­mans in­ter­pen­e­trate.

The frame in The Ara­bian Nights of Scheherazade hav­ing to keep her royal hus­band in story-bound sus­pense to avoid im­pend­ing ex­e­cu­tion is ar­guably the great­est in literature. How Rushdie frames his story in Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is prob­lem­atic, a first-per­son plu­ral nar­ra­tion of uniden­ti­fied peo­ple in New York at some en­light­ened point in the fu­ture, when the prob­lem of hu­man pas­sion has been sur­mounted. They tell of events in the ear­li­est 21st cen­tury when there was a power strug­gle in the jinn king­dom of Peris­tan (Per­sian for fairy king­dom), which had a calami­tous im­pact on the hu­man world. Its plu­ral­ity and anonymity forms a blur­ring patina over a story whose con­vo­lu­tions can’t re­ally af­ford it.

We are in­tro­duced to the 21st-cen­tury story through a back­story set in caliphate Spain dur­ing one of these mo­ments. The great Is­lamic philoso­pher Ibn Rushd aka Aver­roes (1126-98) is en­gaged in heated philo­soph­i­cal bat­tle with his dead ad­ver­sary al-Ghaz­ali (1058-1111). In re­sponse to the lat­ter’s anti-neo­pla­tonic book The In­co­her­ence of the Philoso­phers, Ibn Rushd has writ­ten a de­fence of Aris­to­tle, The In­co­her­ence of the In­co­her­ence, for which he was ban­ished from his home in Mar­rakesh.

In Rushdie’s story, Ibn Rushd is vis­ited by a jin­nia called Du­nia, daugh­ter of the King of Peris­tan, who is un­usual in her af­fec­tions for hu­mankind. They be­come an item, and in her hu­man form Du­nia gives birth to a num­ber of chil­dren, no­table for their lack of ear­lobes and the per­sis­tence of their jinn na­ture in the genes.

This bat­tle ex­tends be­yond the grave, when Du­nia finds her­self fight­ing against her own kind in the early 20th cen­tury as a bunch of bad jinns, headed by a trin­ity of grand ifrits (a kind of winged jinn), who have a re­la­tion­ship to the dead al-Ghaz­ali, try to de­stroy the hu­man world in the 21st cen­tury. To do this she teams up with Mr Geron­imo, a gar­dener who is one of her and Ibn Rushd’s lo­be­less de­scen­dants.

The idea in it­self is in­ter­est­ing enough. And as we would ex­pect from Rushdie, there is much that is witty and clever. But magic re­al­ism is a high­wire act and Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights fails to com­pel. The wit is weighed down by the sheer amount of back­story needed to set up the main story. The main prob­lem, though, is more that the mash-up of the ghosts of 12th-cen­tury philo­soph­i­cal dis­putes with the pol­i­tics of Peris­tan and their con­se­quences for the hu­man race doesn’t re­ally gel.

None of the char­ac­ters stands out as a fo­cus to the ac­tion. Du­nia is the strong­est, but her con­struc­tion is some­what mud­dled. The ec­cen­tric­ity of some of the char­ac­ters is at­trac­tive, but they are not fleshed out. As such, the novel gen­er­ates in­suf­fi­cient af­fect to en­gage the reader’s lim­bic sys­tems, a flaw ex­ac­er­bated by the in­def­i­nite­ness of the nar­ra­tive frame. It misses the har­ness­ing zing of an en­gag­ing first-per­son nar­ra­tion, that of Saleem Si­nai in Mid­night’s Chil­dren, for in­stance, es­pe­cially given the dif­fi­culty in yok­ing its el­e­ments to­gether.

It’s hard to rec­om­mend Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights. Fans of Rushdie will prob­a­bly be dis­ap­pointed and those who are new to his writ­ing will be much bet­ter served ex­plor­ing the ear­lier part of his oeu­vre.

Au­thor Sal­man

Rushdie with then wife Padma Lak­shmi in 2006

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