From the doyen of magic realism, Salman Rushdie, comes a novel that once again surprises, ensnares, and binds the reader to a story that exceeds the imagination. Two Years Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights combines fantasy, mythology, and science fiction to create a fairy tale that describes reality, reason, and rationality in more erudite terms than most non-fiction. As Rushdie’s narrator tells the reader, “to recount a fantasy, a story of the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual.”
In the near future, a series of peculiar and frightening events sow chaos among the human race. A freak lightening storm of epic proportions hits New York City. In its aftermath, Mr Geronimo, a methodical, “down-to-earth” gardener, notices his footprints are missing. He’s most alarmed to discover he’s begun to levitate ever so slightly, a condition that continues to worsen. An accountant and aspiring graphic novelist, Jimmy Kapoor, finds his fictional hero comes alive and begins to talk to him. A baby girl, Storm, is found abandoned, then condemned, when her presence permanently marks the faces of the corrupt with sores as ugly and rotten as their hearts. A murderer, Teresa Saca (weapon of choice: lightning bolts), begins to hear a voice, who seems to know all her secrets. In Britain, composer and proponent of “post-atheism”, Hugh Casterbridge, is ridiculed. That is, until, his metaphorical statement that the gods men have invented will rise to destroy them, appears to come true. All of these people have one feature in common: a lack of earlobes.
Known as “the strangenesses”, these rapture-like, apocalyptic happenings mark the “age of the irrational”, and are not as random as they appear; rather, they’re the manifestation of a supernatural war happening between the jinn: legendary creatures of “smokeless fire”. The jinn are powerful beings based in Fairyland (you may recall the genie in Aladdin, the innocuous Disneyfied version of the jinn). These creatures are “capricious, whimsical, wanton”. They may grant humans wishes if they so please. Or, they can make miserable the life of any person, deserving or not. The jinn can also take human form, or appear as snakes and dragons. Some are “good”; others, “evil”.
The story begins in the year 1195, when a jinnia princess, calling herself Dunia, takes the form of a beautiful young girl and falls in love with a well-known Aristotelian philosopher and doctor, Ibn Rushd (Rushdie’s father changed their family name in honour of this great Muslim thinker). Dunia (a name that means “the world”) issues a prophecy: “a world will flow from me and those who flow will be spread across the world.” This comes true, as Dunai proves to be particularly fertile, and in a period of two years, eight months, and twenty-eight days, she falls pregnant three times, and bears dozens of children, all of whom inherit a distinguishing feature from their mother: a lack of earlobes. These children, and their descendants, become the Duniazát, Dunia’s tribe, or race – the “people of the world.”
Ibn is a disgraced man, whose writing, about how “reason”, “logic”, and “science” will eventually prevail, is superseded when his greatest adversary, Ghazali, writes a book called The Incoherence of Philosophers, in which he slams Greek philosophy, and claims that all things are, because God wills them so. Ibn’s reply, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, is burned. Ibn and Ghazali’s feud extend beyond the grave, providing Rushdie with one of many opportunities to comment on religion. “You will see, as time goes by,” said Ibn Rushd, “that in the end it will be religion that will make men turn away from God. The godly are God’s worst advocates. It may take a thousand and one years, but in the end religion will shrivel away and only then will we begin to live in God’s truth.”
In response (and despite his status as dust), Ghazali, having freed a jinn from a bottle a thousand and one years ago, now cashes in on his three wishes. In fact, he only has one – for the most powerful of the dark jinn, Zumurrud, to wreak such havoc on the human world (mwu-haha!), that people will turn away from reason, to God. A tear is created between the human world and Fairyland. And, so begins the War of the Worlds, which reaches “a point at which only science fiction gave people a way of getting a handle on what the formerly real world’s non-CGI mundanity seemed incapable of making comprehensible.” Zumurrud is aided by three other dark jinn: Zabardast, the sorcerer (who trained both Mickey Mouse and Gandalf), Ra’im Blood-Drinker (he’s the one responsible for vampires), and Shining Ruby, Possessor of Souls (able to take over a person’s body and making them commit unspeakable and humiliating acts).
For two years, eight months, and twenty-eight days (a thousand and one nights), humanity suffers. Enter those of the earlobeless kind, who are paid a visit by their great-great-great-great-great-and-some-more-greats grandmother: the Skyfairy, the Lightning Princess, the jinnia, Dunia. Despite being a goddess, it’s only with the help of the Duniazát that the fairy princess can defeat evil. It will all come down to a battle between fear and truth, hatred and love, revenge and peace. It’s easy to imagine this as a graphic novel (maybe think Avengers or X-Men), a science fiction disaster film, or a fantastical television series such as Heroes.
Rushdie is a master storyteller, using fantasy as metaphor, stupidity and fundamentalism as fodder for satire, commenting on the darkest and lightest aspects of human nature. In this novel he employs one of his characteristic narrative devices, metafiction, with a generation from the future breaking the fourth wall and narrating the events directly to the reader. Ibn reads the book, One Thousand Stories, which includes the legends of the jinn. He loves these stories, because of the way they “were enfolded within other stories and contained, folded within themselves, yet other stories, so that the story became a true mirror of life,… in which all our stories contain the stories of others and are themselves contained within larger, grander narratives, the histories of our families, or homelands, or beliefs.” This is the basis of Rushdie’s work.
This particular tale is told with an injection of dry humour and even some self-mockery. Rushdie takes a sardonic jibe at a certain present extremist terror group, at religion, a dictator who forces all his subjects to cut their hair in the same way, and popular culture. The almighty but childishly petulant Zumurrud’s internal dialogues are an example of this (for an extract, see the “Notable Passage” below).
At the heart of most fiction is the question: what does it mean to be human? Two years eight months & twenty-eight months is a universal tale that spans almost a thousand years, transcends politics and religion, parodies our fears and failures in that astonishing, beguiling, and sublime way only Rushdie possesses. It considers philosophical questions about the Descartian existential crisis of selfhood, consciousness, and free will.
“As for Zumurrud the Great himself, if the truth be told, he was feeling a little upstaged by his illustrious companions. He did his best, appearing in full panoply in the plaza at Lincoln Center bellowing You are all my slaves, but even in those days of hysteria there were some innocents who thought he was promoting a new opera at the Met. He flew one night to the top of One World Trade Center and balanced on one foot on its high pinnacle, unleashing his finest ear-splitting yodel; but in spite of the horror that filled many New Yorkers’ hearts there were still puzzled citizens down below by the sad rectangular waterfalls who assumed his lofty presence was an advertising stunt for a bad-taste remake of the famous old gorilla movie.
He smashed a hole in the celebrated facade of the old post office building but such destruction could be seen every summer in the cinemas, and had lost its effect by being portrayed too frequently. So it was also with extreme weather conditions: snow, ice and so on. This was a species with an exceptional ability to ignore its approaching doom. If one sought to be the embodiment of the doom that was approaching, this was a little frustrating. All the more so when the jinn he had brought along as his supporting cast seemed to have cast themselves, somewhat ungratefully, in leading roles. It was enough to make the great Zumurrud wonder if he might be losing his touch.”
Rating: 5 out of 5 (sorry, New York Times).
Two Years Eight Month & Twenty Eight Days Is published by Penguin Random House.