Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights review: Rushdie on overdrive
Salman Rushdie’s satanically batty fantasy throws up his usual brew of Islamic mythology, pop culture, the grotesque, the baroque and numerous barbed observations
Salman Rushdie, outside the main branch of the New York Public Library. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Night
Well, things aren’t looking too good. A ferocious storm has rampaged for three days, leaving destruction and upheaval in its wake. New York is in a mess; nothing makes sense anymore. But this chaos appears to be about far more than wayward weather systems. You see, the jinn are in dispute.
The jinn are capricious creatures composed of smokeless fire that move at high speed. Their only pastime is making love. But that is a good thing: otherwise, they can turn violent. And when they do – God and man had better beware.
Salman Rushdie has his own approach to story. Islamic mythology is juxtaposed with popular culture and elements of the grotesque. Jokes and barbed observations are filtered through a baroque, high-speed cartoon narrative. This lively yarn will best come into its own when read aloud on an audiotape by a clever actor with a flair for the fantastic.
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Two Years Eight Months & Twenty Eight Nights takes its title from one of Rushdie’s favourite source texts, The Thousand and One Nights. It all begins, as do so many narratives, with thwarted love. Dunia, a princess of the jinn, is besotted with an elderly, exiled 12th-century philosopher named Ibn Rushd, and they go about making many babies.
This may be confusing, as jinns are not supposed to be fertile, but Dunia is. Ibn refuses to give their offspring his name. “It is better that they be the Duniazat . . . a name which contains the world. . . . To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”
Eventually Ibn’s banishment ends, he returns to court and abandons Dunia. Yet her children thrive.
More than 800 years later, one of Dunia’s many descendants, a gardener named Mr Geronimo, attempts to get back to business after the tempest has passed. There’s a problem: as he heaves himself out of bed, his feet don’t appear to touch the floor.
Age of displacementWe begin to find out more about Mr Geronimo. True to our age of displacement, it transpires that he, too, comes from somewhere else, Bombay in fact. He manages to drive to a great house on the Hudson, where he has been creating a garden for Alexandra, a depressed female genius who is also an insomniac. Once Mr Geronimo had had a wife, Ella, but she was struck dead by a “bolt from the blue”. He is understandably bewildered – and levitating.
The reader may also feel a bit confused long before the baby appears on the scene. No one knows anything about her, but she has special powers. Should anyone who is devious hold her, even for a minute, their face will begin to rot. The lady mayor realises this could prove helpful in detecting official corruption, so she adopts the child.
Others characters troop on stage, including a graphic artist and a British composer named Hugo Casterbridge, who once – as a struggling young cellist with “at that time a serious dependency on dangerous narcotics” – sold his beautiful young wife to an industrial tycoon for £1 million.
Admirers of Thomas Hardy may find themselves perplexed, but Rushdie just races along. If ever a contemporary novel could claim to have an improvised feel of a storyteller intent on keeping his listeners alert for fear of missing vital clues, this is it. Blink and you could be lost. But even if you are, at least it is fun.
Meanwhile the line between the fairy world and our far more boring one has been breached, sending Rushdie off in an engagingly imagined whoosh of digressive musings.
The novel is vividly described and rich in mayhem, with images that could have been part of a Chagall painting, so the best way to read this streetwise fantasy is with a smile. Bonkers it is, but it doesn’t take itself seriously. Which is why Rushdie will beguile many of his demons, by which one refers to the critics who have resisted his charms. The lightness of touch recalls two of his most appealing works: the daring adventure novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and the later quest, Luka and the Fire of Life (2010).
A book would not be Rushdie’s without the customary injections of classical references and allusions, but he pursues the narrative with gusto. Mr Geronimo is a likeable character, and the central theme is an obvious one: we live in troubled times.
“All our stories are told more quickly now, we are addicted to acceleration, we have forgotten the pleasures of the old slownesses, of the dawdles, the browses, the three-volume novels, the four-hour motion pictures, the thirteen-episode drama series, the pleasures of duration, of lingering. Do what you have to do, tell your story, live your life, get out quickly.”
The thing about earsDunia, the Lightning Princess, returns to settle things and emerges as a feisty heroine determined to summon her many children to the cause. They are easy to trace – they lack earlobes. This piece of information may well encourage readers to look more closely at ears. The bad guys, the power-crazed jinns, travel on urns, a departure from dragons and enchanted horses.
Ferocious is the fighting, and finally it is all resolved by a struggle over a bottle made of blue glass. Victory goes to the one who manages not to be forced into it.
Fairyland and the human world – the gap is wide, the gap suddenly narrows. This is a comic jaunt executed with the exuberance of a writer used to getting his own way. It may not be sufficiently fantastical for fantasy readers, and it would have been even more entertaining if there was more of the Thousand and One Nights pastiche.
Even so, it is similar to experiencing a crazy, Technicolour dream in which you may well prefer to linger awhile.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent