Reviewed by Annabel
Before you ask – yes, that does make 1001 nights. Rushdie’s new novel may have its roots in the ancient tales but it is also a thoroughly modern story of what happens when worlds collide and life becomes decidedly strange.
It begins though by introducing us to the jinn, “creatures made of smokeless fire” who live in their own world parallel to our own, veiled from us, known as Peristan or Fairyland.
This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, as we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war.
That jinnia was Dunia, who, in 1195 fell in love with a philosopher called Ibn Rushd who had fallen out with the Caliph in Córdoba. Ibn Rushd never knew that his fecund lover was not human and they had many children. Summoned back to court, Ibn Rushd abandoned Dunia, whom he had never married, and her half-jinn, half-human brood, the Duniazát, named for Scheherazade’s sister, spread throughout the world. Dunia slipped back to Peristan.
Fast forward to the near future. A terrible storm raged over New York City, lasting for three days and nights. It felt different afterwards, though, and this is when the strangenesses began.
It was on the Wednesday after the great storm that Mr Geronimo first noticed that his feet no longer touched the ground.
Mr Geronimo is a mild-mannered landscape gardener, a middle-aged widower, who had been working on La Incoerenza, a large estate at the tip of Manhattan for ten years. A wormhole will appear in the bedroom of graphic novelist Jimmy Kapoor enabling him to become more than his own comic superhero. A foundling baby adopted by the mayor of the city is now able to identify corruption by making the guilty erupt in boils. They don’t know it, but they are all descendants of Dunia, and will have a great part to play in the war to come.
The storm didn’t just initiate the strangenesses; in opening a rift in the veil between the jinn world and ours, it let the jinn bad boys, the monstrous Grand Ifrits, out to play their deadly games. Their dastardly deeds call Dunia back to our world, appearing first to Mr Geronimo to whom she resembles no-one so much as his late wife, while Mr Geronimo himself recalls her former love, Ibn Rushd. There is little time for love though, Dunia has to go to war…
The basic story behind this novel is timeless and simple, yet, this being a Rushdie novel, the plot is enmeshed within a web of layers in which the spirits of dead philosophers argue and the true nature of the jinn is made clear. It is full of complex debate about dreams and reason, with countless digressions into belief, fairytale and fate.
There is almost a metafictional element to Rushdie’s choice of Ibn Rushd as the philosophical sire in the tale. The 12th century Andalusian Muslim philosopher existed, also known as Averroës, and is feted as the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe. In his memoir, Joseph Anton, Rushdie told us how his father adopted the name for their family in his honour.
Ibn Rushd’s great rival was theologian Al-Ghazali and his spirit gets resurrected too to continue their age old sparring from beyond the grave.
Rushdie doesn’t only reference dead philosophers. Gleeful nods to pop culture abound, from Captain Beefheart to Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters (apparently a film Rushdie adores) via Springtime for Hitler in Mel Brook’s film The Producers, but also the literary canon as exemplified by this:
When Alice fell down the rabbit hole, it was an accident, but when she stepped through the looking glass it was of her own free will, and a braver deed by far. So it was with Jimmy K. He had no control over the wormhole’s first appearance… But on this second night, he made a choice. Men like Jimmy were needed in the war that followed.
In an interview in the Daily Telegraph last October, Rushdie talking of this novel said “It’s not long. It will be something like 250 pages, which is like clearing my throat. I have finally learned how to shut up.” True enough, this novel may be shorter than usual, but it repaid careful and slow reading to unpick the layers, often concealed in long multi-claused sentences (that reminded me of Anthony Powell):
And by this time the Chinese box was peeling crazily, and as each layer fell away a new voice told a new tale, none of the tales finished because the box inevitably found a new story inside each unfinished one, until it seemed that digression was the true principle of the universe, that the only real subject was the way the subject kept changing, and how could anyone live in a crazy situation in which nothing remained the same for five minutes and no narrative was ever driven through to its conclusion, there could be no meaning in such an environment, only absurdity, the unmeaningness that was the only sort of meaning anyone could hold on to.
That sentence is 117 words long and not without its own self-contained sense of irony, but luckily for us, Rushdie’s digressions largely do come around to completion and all the nested stories get their appropriate endings.
I’m sure that many philosophical references went over my head whilst reading this novel. Viewing it as a mere fairytale would be a mistake, I’m glad I researched some of its unfamiliar themes and words. When translated for instance, I discovered that the name of the estate where Mr Geronimo works – La Incoerenza – was Italian for a discontinuity or disconnectedness; it made immediate sense. Rushdie’s joy in language is evident throughout.
The chapters are each presented as if they were a separate tale that makes up a cycle like The Arabian Nights, although we return to the next exploits of the set of characters in turn. The narrator introduces each section and pops back into the text often, addressing the reader in an intimate vein similar to the ‘best beloved’ of Kiping’s Just-So stories.
I started reading this novel expecting more strangeness given that the setting is in the near future, but instead got a wild philosophical fantasy that was fun and thought-provoking, definitely a thinking person’s fairy tale.
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape: London, 2015). 978-1-910-70203-1, 286 pp., hardback.
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