Do you remember John Banville’s playful book, The Infinities? Salman Rushdie’s Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights features rampant spirits as well, but the ways in which they interfere with the lives of men are quite different to the capricious Greek gods that saunter through Banville’s novel…
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights (an allusion to the 1001 nights of Scheherazade’s storytelling) begins with a love story. A medieval Muslim philosopher called Ibn Rashd (known to us in the 21st century by his Latinised name Averroës) is exiled from his home town of Cordoba because he taught that natural phenomena obeyed natural laws that God had created. Although today Ibn Rashd is acknowledged as the ‘founding father of secular thought’, in his own time he was less influential than his rival Al-Ghazali of Tus who argued that the only law that exists is what God wills, and that anyone who disagrees with faith is incoherent. (And alas, this idea still has its adherents who use it to justify atrocities).
Sent to a place where he does not belong (migration is a frequent theme in Rushdie’s books) Ibn Rushd falls in love with Dunia, a jinnia, (i.e. a female jinn or genie), because these events take place at a time when the slits in the world are open and jinns who are normally quiescent, are out and about. Dunia thus becomes a mythical matriarch, producing innumerable offspring who combine the human qualities of their father and the quixotic characteristics of a supernatural creature from the unknown world.
These offspring spread to the four corners of the world, and closer to our time, end up doing battle with more malevolent jinns when in the period of The Strangeness lasting two years, eights months and twenty-eight nights, the world is under siege from amoral and hostile beings who make Banville’s mischief-makers look like innocents.
We meet Mr Geronimo first, a man baffled by a mysterious phenomena that follows The Great Storm. He finds himself levitated slightly above the ground, the distance between his feet and the floor rising slightly as time passes and becoming more noticeable. Mr Geronimo, his middle name anglicised by Americans, was born Raphael Hieronymus Manezes in Bombay in India, and is the illegitimate offspring of Father Jerry D’Niza who uproots him and sends him to New York to learn architecture. Like all of Dunia’s offspring Mr Geronimo is marked by the absence of ear lobes, and his destiny and his doom is to be out of step with God, ahead of our time or behind it. Mr Geronimo is a likeable character who chooses the humble work of gardening rather than more ambitious architecture, and the reader feels his travails keenly.
Next up is street-smart Jimmy Kapoor, who is terrorised by a jinn manifestation of his own comic-book creation, a superhero called Natraj Hero bursting into his bedroom. Dunia turns up to warn him to leave because she can’t protect him from the danger, but (as you might imagine) Jimmy has trouble convincing his mother and cousin that there’s a malevolent jinn out to get them.
Also making her way through the slits into our world during the storm is the foundling Baby Storm Doe. She turns out to have a unique gift, of great value to her adoptive mother Mayor Rosa Fast, because she causes skin to rot whenever she detects corruption.
Finally there is Teresa Saca Cuartos, who is as flamboyantly tough and brave as she had to be – admittedly a flawed being with a limited capacity for empathy but with a handy no-nonsense attitude to everything. She too joins the fight to rid the world of capricious evil, and becomes one of the champions of this bold story.
In the hands of a lesser story-teller all this would be disastrous nonsense, but combining a sense of ideas in flux, a lush style and fluid characterisation works just fine. Enlisting the reader in the fight against dogmatic irrational evil, Rushdie creates a spectacle of wonders. Playful and witty, the novel celebrates difference, duality and the Other, romping along with incorrigible optimism and poking fun, even when dreadful things happen.
Very dreadful things do happen.
At the beginning of the War of the Worlds, Ra’im took to the water, and one lightless afternoon he arose as a giant sea-monster from the winter harbour and swallowed the Staten Island Ferry. A tide of horror spread across the city and beyond and the president went on TV to calm the nation’s fears. That night even this most articulate of chief executives looked ashen and at a loss, his familiar nostrums, we will not sleep until, those responsible will be, you harm the United States of America at your peril, make no mistake, my fellow Americans, this crime will be avenged, sounded hollow and impotent. The president had no weapons that could deal with this attacker. He had become a president of empty words. As many of them are, as they have all been, for so very, very long. But we had expected better of him. (p. 129)
Despite the mayhem these very powerful jinn can cause, Rushdie cuts them down to size. He mocks their lack of organisation, their petty competitiveness and their preoccupation with image:
For a long time the sorcerer Zabardast had looked the way a sorcerer should look: the long beard, the high hat, the staff. The sorcerer to whom Mickey Mouse was apprenticed, Gandalf the Grey and Zabardast would all have recognised kindred spirits in one another. However, Zabardast was conscious of his image and, now that the seals were broken and the slits between the worlds had reopened, now that the jumpgate to a wormhole to Peristan stood open day and night in Jackson Heights, he studied films and magazines to keep his look relevant. Above all, he liked the edginess of Jet Li falling in love with a thousand-year-old white snake. He wished briefly that he looked like Jet Li, and for a time he considered a radical modernisation of his look, and putting on the Buddhist monk’s white robe and necklace of beads and shaving his head like a chopsocky movie hero. In the end he rejected this change. Act your age, he told himself. He didn’t want to look like a kung fu star after all. He wanted to look like a god. (p. 133-4)
It comes as no surprise when one of the jinn links up with the Swots of a country called A, torn apart by tribal infighting:
So there was a foreign invasion. This was a mistake foreigners repeatedly made – the attempted conquest of the land of A. – but they invariably left with their tails between their legs, or just lay dead on the battlefield for the benefit of scavenging wild dogs, who weren’t choosy about what they ate and were willing to digest even this type of horrible foreign food. But when the foreign invasion was repelled what replaced it was even worse, a murderous gang of ignoramuses who called themselves the Swots, as if the mere word would earn them the true status of scholars. What the Swots had studied deeply was the art of forbidding things, and in a very short time they had forbidden painting, sculpture, music, theatre, film, journalism, hashish, voting, elections, individualism, disagreement, pleasure, happiness, pool tables, clean-shaven chins (on men), women’s faces, women’s bodies, women’s education, women’s sports, women’s rights. They would have liked to have forbidden women altogether but even they could see that that was not entirely feasible, so they contented themselves with making women’s lives as unpleasant as possible. (p. 227)
The narrator zips along recounting this tale from the vantage point of a thousand years from hence, which is a nice optimistic touch given the mess our world is in at the moment, when we feel ourselves besieged by similar forces of evil. And although the style is inclusive there is a commitment to some form of absolute truth that I like:
How treacherous history is! Half-truths, ignorance, deceptions, false trails, errors and lies, and buried somewhere in between all of that, the truth, in which it’s easy to lose faith, of which it is frequently easy to say, it’s a chimera, there’s no such thing, everything is relative, one man’s absolute belief is another man’s fairy tale, but about which we insist, we insist most emphatically, that it is too important an idea to give up to the relativity merchants. (p.220)
In Rushdie’s world, evil is defeated by mockery, superior force and its own inherent failings. That’s something to think about…
See also Becky’s beaut review at Becky’s Books.
Author: Salman Rushdie
Title: Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights
Publisher: Jonathan Cape (an imprint of Vintage, Penguin/Random House, 2015
Source: Kingston Library