Come and enter the worlds of the jinn. That race from Peristan so long estranged from the lower world, but now, at last, returned. Come and hear the dust-voices of the great philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ghazali. Come and here of the Duniazát, the offspring of Dunia, the Lightening Princess of Qaf. Come and hear the tale of a man from far-flung Mumbai, who in the New York tongue goes by the name of Mr Geronimo. This is a tale of the War of the Worlds, the period of the Strangenesses, when our past came back to haunt us, and scientific certainty deserted us.
Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights certainly does not stray far from Salman Rushdie’s usual themes. There is that finely balanced tempering of fact and fiction, the absurd, the surreal, the delightful and the subtle tang of disguised contemporary relevance. All bound up in novel form. It may simply be that magical realism, as a genre to which Rushdie is much indebted, so often seems to tell a lie in order to get to some deeper truth. This latest book is no exception.
There is something deeply incantatory to Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights that marks it out as something from the past. Look hard into the title and you may see it. If not, then you need not read three pages before Rushdie takes your hand, converting that two years eight months & twenty-eight nights into one thousand nights and one night more. Rushdie leaves us in no doubt that this is a story with recourse to that great Arabic collection of tales, the One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, at the same time as he asks us to do just a bit of translation work, and to realise that this is very much a story of the modern age, set in New York City.
Like so many modern writers, Rushdie revels in a predilection for using city-space as a theatre for the world, he disrupts our suspension of disbelief, and makes choice allusions to the subjectivity of his own narrator. This is a book that is something more than a simple story.
Even before the tale begins, Rushdie lays out these words of Italo Calvino:
“Instead of making myself write the book I ought to write, the novel that was expected of me, I conjured up the book I myself would have liked to read, the sort by an unknown writer, from another age and another country, discovered in an attic.”
In 18th century, the Romantics followed a similar principle, the likes of Thomas Chatterton and Horace Walpole claiming fanciful pre-histories to their new works. This is to say that human beings have always had a deep-rooted love for the mysterious, the marvellous and the strange. But in Rushdie’s new novel, this age-old principle is complicated. The novel takes place in three different times: the 12th century Andalusia of the philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ghazali, the present day as we know it, and a time perhaps a millennium in the future from which point the narrator tells us this story. The ancient tale he tells, then, is really the story of our own time. A time when passenger jets are shot down over East Europe, religious extremists blows themselves up, and schools are targeted by maniacal gunmen.
So the ‘attic’ from which Rushdie draws his tale is undoubtedly that of our own era. Within this era, though, Rushdie carves out a fictional period for himself (one thousand days and one day more to be precise), and calls it the period of the Strangnesses. This is a period in our own recent history, our own present, or our own tomorrow, when the jinn from the fairy world of Peristan, long forgotten by our enlightened scientists, once again find a way into our mortal world. Rushdie’s gripping story is of the ensuing war between the good jinn, the bad jinn, and humanity.
However, what Rushdie offers up is, on its most fundamental level, a thrilling story. We have our reluctant hero-gardener, a sex-obsessed fairy world, a War of the Worlds, and a final showdown between the two most powerful beings of good and evil. What more could any reader want?