No match for Scheherazade
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.
Rushdie with then wife Padma Lakshmi in 2006