In this meta, post-modern adoption and amalgamation of myth and fairy tale, Salman Rushdie tells a fragmented, scattered story combining legend, religion, reason, and comic books. Story comes out of story in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, where wish-fuelled, fairy-driven, superhero-turned-bad jinn created a war and changed the world. Writing from a kind of parallel contemporary society to ours, from an almost sci-fi future, through episodic and gently related chapters our narrator tells of the strangenesses, when the cracks between Fairyland and down here were easier to traverse, and the jinn sought war.
George Szirtes is quoted on the front page: “One is not a ‘believer’ in fairy tales…They are about the unexpectedness and mutability of the world.”. It is from this premise Rushdie tells the story of a fragmenting of reality where fairytale and imaginary creatures bled into this world, playing with and poisoning it. There is our world, full of philosophers and religious men, and there is the world of the jinn in Fairyland, or Peristan. Once upon a time there was a jinnia called Dunia who loved a man called Ibn Rushd, so she stayed with him in his world and had countless, endless children. In some kind of cross between mass producer and mother earth, the descendants of these children – unknown and untraceable – live in the world today, and even after Rushd leaves her, her love for him and their children is so strong that she returns and rallies her children with their untapped power as other jinn come in to wreck havoc.
But this is just the beginning, in this colossal crumble as plot buds from plot here, Rushdie advancing and retreating with terror and glee. The story is also about a man called Mr Geronimo, a grounded gardener who after a storm in New York City finds that his feet no longer touch the ground. It is about blessed children. It is about gold-digger and her epic fury. It is about lightning strikes and the people who survive them. It is about the endless, timeless battle between reason and religion. It is about our world being destroyed, and what we do about it.
Parallels and parables abound in this book. Rushdie is a clever cookie, and you can just tell the fun he has. Our reasonable philosopher and father of earth-jinn has his name derived from Rushdie’s own; anyone familiar with Rushdie’s past cannot go past one of the final thoughts in this book without a knowing smile:
“It seems to us, however, that the use of religion as a justification for repression, horror and tyranny, and even barbarism, a phenomenon which undoubtedly predated the War of the Worlds but was certainly a significant aspect of that conflict, led in the end of the terminal delusion of the human race with the idea of faith. It has now been so long since anyone was fooled by the fantasies of those antique, defunct belief systems that the point may seem academic…”
And as a furious jinn screams at the best financial men on Manhattan: “All the gold, men, in your sacks will not save you from my clutch.”. Yes, very clever Rushdie.
So it is wry, smart, knowing, confused and confusing, and really very well done. It is such a marvellous idea – the gaps between worlds, widening and closing over millennia, allowing in furious magic and blocking it out, inspired by and informing our cultural myths – and Rushdie handles it with experienced hands. The whole idea is so full and incredible; there are so many ways the strangenesses can be applied:
“Separations of all sorts were being reported in those incomprehensible nights. The separation of human beings from the earth was bad enough. However…in the world of literature there was a noticeable separation of writers from their subjects. Scientists reported the separation of causes and effects. It became impossible to compile new editions of dictionaries on account of the separation of words and meanings.”
The voice of the narrator truly strikes me as Rushdie’s and my issues with previous works of his – that we rely on the “because magic” a bit too much – doesn’t matter here because it is magic. These people are not of our world, fantasy definitely has a role here.
This is a wonder tale, copied from and inspired by. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is One Thousand and One Nights, just like the Arabian tales. Rushie joins “..forces with allegory, symbolism, surrealism and chaos,” with a heavy does of humour and post-modern pastiche. It is a layered, emergent book, a wonderful tale that really has been told a thousand and one times before.