Writing Joseph Anton (2012) seems to have worn out Salman Rushdie. His 600-page memoir about his early childhood in Mumbai, school days at Rugby, Warwickshire in the 1960s, his four marriages and most of all, his life in exile after a fatwa was issued and he was denounced in the Islamic world for his novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), is searingly honest and engaging. However, as he says in an interview with The Guardian, “he got sick of telling the truth.”
Soon after, he returned to fiction and to writing material that was reminiscent of Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and Luka and the Fire of Life (2010), two novels written for his sons Zafar and Milan. The result? His twelfth novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, hits shelves today.
If you’ve been reading Rushdie since the very beginning, it comes as no surprise that the 300-page novel is a post-modern spin on One Thousand and One Nights, better known as The Arabian Nights. It is not simply a fable but also a meditation on philosophy, religion, fear and above all, love.
The original Nights start with Queen Scheherazade, who tells her husband Shahryâr a story every night, in order to escape being executed by him the following morning. Aware that she might run out of stories, she ingeniously links them from time to time so the ends stay loose and the king can’t kill her because he, like Scheherazade’s readers, must wait to know the fate of the characters.
In Rushdie’s offering, the action begins in 1195 — the philosopher Ibn Rushd (from whom Rushdie’s father took the family name) has been exiled from Cordoba for 1,001 days. He meets Dunia and embarks on an affair with her. Little does he know that Dunia is a djinnia, a mischievous female devil who can inhabit both the real and the fantastic worlds. They share a relationship similar to Shahryâr and Scheherazade but Dunia aims to fill the world with her children, eventually giving birth to half-devils.
Some of Dunia’s descendents now live in present-day USA. They include a man whose feet don’t touch the ground, a girl who can shoot lightning bolts from her fingertips, a child who can cause boils to infect corrupt individuals. As always, there can be no good djinns without bad ones, so there’s a battle between the two forces that rages in, where else, New York city.
If it’s Rushdie, allegory cannot be far behind? In this case, it’s the battle between right and wrong, between different worldviews but it is also about religious and cultural fanaticism and the culture of violence – so much a part of our recent history.
Just like Scheherazade, Rushdie wraps up several threads of his novel in a single section and slices through the time and space continuum with a butter knife. In doing so, he shows us yet again, how he is such a master of his craft, but there is no denying that the pace starts to lag in parts.
Still, Rushdie’s lyrical prose, his deadpan humour and keen sense of ‘action’ see the narrative through to its dizzying climax —the war between earth and Fairyland, between humans and jinni.