SALMAN Rushdie’s tenth novel opens in Arab Spain in 1195, when disgraced court physician and philosopher Ibn Rushd takes in the mysterious 16-year-old orphan Dunia.
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Given that the novel’s title adds up to 1,001 nights (aka ‘the number of magic’), it comes as no surprise when Dunia is revealed as the Lightning Princess, a jinnia — or genie — from the Upper World, or Fairyland.
The many children of the union between this vain but brilliant man and the beautiful, magical princess multiply and spread out all over the world.
One thousand years later, as the world faces an ecological disaster that morphs into a crisis when the wicked djinn of the Upper World declare war on humanity, Dunia’s children — the Duniazat — rise to the apparently impossible challenge of defeating their immortal foes.
That’s the plot in a nutshell, but a summary does little justice to the digressive, delightfully fantastical tale of Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.
Rushdie draws heavily on the Arabian Nights for his narrative here, but Scheherazade’s stories are only one source of inspiration.
The novel blends history, philosophy, myth and legend as Rushdie playfully recounts the cataclysmic events that ushered the novel’s narrators — an anonymous, collective ‘we’ — into humanity’s Golden Age of peace, wisdom and prosperity, 800 hundred years hence.
Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses (1988) and Midnight’s Children (1981), the latter the winner of ‘the Best of the Booker Prize’ in 2008, here revels in silliness and whimsy — indeed, there are times when the shades of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams battle for dominance with Italo Calvino and Georges Sirtzes.
Ibn Rushd may well be a high-minded disciple of Aristotle, and spends eternity locked in a philosophical feud with his bitter rival, the fear-mongering Ghazali, but the novel is peppered with pop culture references that range from Batman to Laurel and Hardy, Harry Potter to Isaac Asmiov.
It’s also a novel deeply immersed in books and reading as an intrinsically human endeavour. The jinnia, we are told rarely have children — “That would be as if a story mated with its reader to produce another reader.” — but Dunia “produced offspring the way Georges Simenon wrote novels”.
Humanity, and particularly the evolved ‘we’ telling us the story, “are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is.”
Rushdie, of course, had a fatwa issued against him in 1989 on the basis that The Satanic Verses was perceived as blasphemous, and while Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is on the one hand an exhilarating exercise in the joy of storytelling akin to Rushdie’s own The Enchantress of Florence (2008), it is also a subversive piece of religious satire.
The evil djinn — the Ifriti — seduce and subjugate human men to do their wicked bidding in the war against humanity, preying on their weaknesses and base instincts — sex, mainly — and sending them out to kill and die under a black flag.
“When lonely, hopeless young men were provided with loving, or at least desirous, at the very least willing sexual partners,” writes Rushdie, “they lost interest in suicide belts, bombs and the virgins of heaven, and preferred to live.”
Ultimately, this profound and funny novel thrives on unresolved tensions between reality and magic, fact and fiction, philosophy and religion.
“They’re all make-believe,” the storyteller Blue Yasmeen tells us, “the realist fantasies and the fantastic fantasies are both made up.” It’s our tragedy, she declares, that “our fictions are killing us, but if we didn’t have those fictions, maybe that would kill us too.”
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