Yes, the title of this review says it all: Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is about people finding their way away from God, courtesy of a War of the Worlds between dark and light jinns (genies) with magical powers; since this is another fiction from Rushdie’s brilliant world of magical realism, his ordinary humans play a pedestrian role of characters lost in an age of fear and unreason.
And, yes, for those who count while they read, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights add up to 1,001 days and nights. As with his more modern literary allusion to Harry Potter’s heroic journey, there is nothing subtle about the author’s homage to Scheherazade’s tales.
Right up front, Rushdie writes, “There was a Persian book called Hazar Afsaneh, or One Thousand Stories, which had been translated into Arabic. In the Arabic version there were fewer than one thousand stories but the action was spread over one thousand nights, or, because round numbers were ugly, one thousand and one night more.” Because of this reader’s love of numbers, the palindromic 1001 becomes a philosophic set of questions: Do we end where we started, with nothingness in between, with life being a gift that our Gods give and take, standing tall like two 1’s? Or is there no god, and round and round we go like a couple of zeros from pillar to post, from womb to tomb, from ashes to ashes? Or can faith accommodate the god-less and the god-believing, enabling each of us to make what we will of the 1s and 0s that make up our digital and analog lives?
The story-teller asks and answers the above questions in his own wildly inventive and wacky way, but the stories are a bit clumsy and seem hastily stitched together.
His opening chapter is titled The Children of Ibn Rushd, reminding one of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; but the chapter, like the book, is less about the semi-autobiographic Rushd (a philosopher “formally discredited and disgraced on account of his liberal ideas, which were unacceptable to the … Berber fanatics”) and more about the love of his life, Dunia (“a jinnia … known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt”), and about Rushd and Dunia’s melting-pot children who, under Dunia’s leadership, will fight the War of the Worlds that populates the remaining chapters. The war is also a battle of words, of ideas, a reconciliation of “‘reason,’ ‘logic’ and ‘science’ with the words ‘God,’ ‘faith’ and ‘Qur’an.’” Rushd is on the side of reason, logic, and science; and his arch foe, Ghazali, believes that in “God’s universe the only law is what God wills.”
The thematic engine that drives the rest of the novel is Ghazali’s belief that “fear drives men to God” and Rushd’s “plea for a world ruled by reason, tolerance, magnanimity, knowledge and restraint.” Dunia and four dark jinns play out this conflict. The actual war between the jinn leaders is not altogether interesting; and the stories about the foot soldiers who are Rushd and Dunia’s descendants are only slightly more interesting in this lumpy novel. Foot soldiers may be a bit of an odd phrase for these oddballs, for after lightning storm, they all seem to float above the ground; like the “human balloons” in Rene Magritte’s painting Golconda, “They rise! They rise!” Rushdie calls these oddballs “Dunia’s raggle-taggle brigade [of] gardeners and accountants and murderesses.” They really should have no chance against the dark jinns. And because they are not altogether sympathetic, they shouldn’t have much of a chance with the reader. But for this reader, they become a faint echo of J. K. Rowling’s Harry, Ron, and Hermione. So in the end we find ourselves rooting for the good guys, for light to defeat darkness, good over evil, and all that.
Mr. Geronimo is the gardener, our Harry Potter. The accountant (Jimmy Kapoor as a Natraj-dancing- Ron) and the murderess (Teresa Saca as a scary Hermione) are along for the ride. Mr. Geronimo is the most compelling; perhaps because Dunia falls for him, the reader looks for something special. And the something special, is what has always been special about Rushdie’s writing: the sense of loss and displacement of the emigrant and the desire for “solid ground beneath his feet” for the immigrant. Perhaps like Rushdie himself, and certainly like many of the diaspora, Mr. Geronimo misses his Bombay while making his home in New York: “He wished he had never been detached from the place he was born, wished his feet had remained planted on that beloved ground, wished he could have been happy all his life in those childhood streets, and grown into an old man there… but then he would never have met his wife.”
One really wonders what Dunia sees in Mr. Geronimo except for a vague outline of the long-deceased Ibn Rushd; and what does Mr. Geronimo see in Dunia accept a wistful memory of his wife? Perhaps Rushdie is right that “at the beginning of all love there is a private treaty each of the lovers makes with himself or herself, an agreement to set aside what is wrong with the other for the sake of what is right.”
The same type of contract is made between reader and writer. Thus though I find quite a few “wrongs” in this novel, I set them aside for the “rights.” These rights come more in the form of hard-earned knowledge rather than narrative flight, character development, or the magnificent plot development that are the entertaining engine driving each page of Rowling’s novels. Indeed, what I will take away from Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights are not 1,001 unforgettable stories, but rather two memorable epiphanies that Rushdie uses to make his argument against religion and for love: “A child understands nothing, and clings to faith because it lacks knowledge. The battle between reason and superstition may be seen as mankind’s long adolescence, and the triumph of reason will be its coming of age. It is not that God does not exist but that like any proud parent he awaits the day when his child can stand on its own two feet, make its own way in the world, and be free of its dependence on him.
“In the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged. Just as we are created anew by what we love, so we are reduced and unmade by what we hate.”
For Neo (aka Aryaman), who at the age of nine can approximate the number of pages of all Harry Potter books, give or take a baker’s dozen (with three right to the exact page count).