I’m afraid I’ve turned down the corners of so many pages of Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights that the volume may never recover. This is a book that hones the reader’s mind. Multi-layered and engaging, it challenges us to keep our wits about us, to be on the look out for references and allusions, to engage in philosophical reasoning with the writer. This is the sort of book one wishes to have written.
From a time a millennium in the future, the novel’s narrator reminds the reader, “This is a story from our past, from a time so remote that we argue, sometimes, about whether we should call it history or mythology. Some of us call it a fairy tale” (207). And of course it is a fairy tale, a fairy tale drawing on the long and honourable tradition of the fairy tale, especially the fairy tales from the Islamic world. It’s the tale of a war between the good and the bad Jinni and of how the slits between the world of Jinn and world of humans were ultimately closed for good, and I should note, I intend a double entendre in my use of the word “good.”
The story begins in the twelfth century with the love between the philosopher Ibn Rushd known in the West as Averroes the translator of Aristotle, exiled from Córdoba to Lucena a “village full of Jews who could no longer say they were Jews, and the Jinnia princess Dunia. The result of this love is descendants, the Dunia-zát, recognisable by their lack of ear lobes, who in a time very close to our own are caught up in the war between the evil and good Jinn.
Most of the story takes place in a time, as I said, very close to our own and follows primarily the experiences of Raphael Hieronymus Manezes, born in Bombay as the illegitimate son of a “firebrand Catholic priest (26) who ends up as a gardener in New York known as Mr. Geronimo. Mr. Geronimo is a direct descendant of Ibn Rushd and Dunia, and ultimately it is he and Dunia—oh yes, the Jinn being made of smoke and fire live for much longer than humans—who lead the Dunia-zát in the terrible war to destroy the evil Jinn. This is indeed the world of the fairy tale: a world of magical creatures, of the fight between good and evil, of the naive hero and the glorious princess, a world of shape shifting, a world where the normal rules of existence are suspended, and as such it is great fun.
But it is more than this. It’s a celebratory novel lauding the “pleasures of 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” (218), of having time to think, a novel that both demands and celebrates thought, asserting among other things that “to the arguments of great thinkers there is no end” (15).
At the novel’s heart lies the whole debate on the nature of being, especially the argument between Ibn Rushd, described in the novel as “a keen amateur gardener” for whom “the argument from kindness seemed to him to prove both God’s existence and his essential kindly liberal nature,” and “the proponents of a harsher God (9) who accepted the teachings of the Persian philosopher Ghazali.1
Central, too, is Rushdie’s enjoyment of language and appreciation of the power of language and the power of narratives to define, explain, and create. Consider Mr. Geronimo’s realisation that “at the deeper levels of the essence of matter the English Language disintegrated under the immense pressure of the foundational forces of the universe and was replaced by the language of creation itself” (105). I might be tempted to sum this up as “In the beginning was the logos . . . .” What is the relationship between what is said and what is created? What and how is the creator? Where and how is God? There is indeed no end to “the arguments of great thinkers” (15). Just as perhaps we might be tempted to assert there is no end to all great stories; they develop into other stories, and spark stories within stories. Certainly, at times, Rushdie seems to be suggesting “digression [is] the true principle of the universe” (197).
However, the power of story, particularly the power of the shared narrative, is such that there are times when a “community [becomes] locked within its own tale of itself” and ‘people [become] victims of their own versions of history” (112). It is here in Rushdie’s consideration of the power of the shared narrative that Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights becomes an allegory of our own times, for we are living in a “world where narratives [have] collided” (112), and the result is war and terrorism.
The narrator from our future looks back on the past, our near present, and draws conclusions about our world: “Extreme violence, known by the catch-all and often inexact term terrorism, was always of particular attraction to male individuals who were either virgins or unable to find sexual partners . . . . When lonely, hopeless young men were provided with loving, or at least desirous, or at the very least willing sexual partners, they lost interest in suicide belts, bombs, and the virgins of heaven, and preferred to live. In the absence of the favorite pastime of every jinni, human males turned their thoughts to orgasmic endings. Death being readily available everywhere, was often an alternative pursuit to unavailable sex (213-14).
This is not to say that the novel proposes unfettered sexual congress as the way to world peace. Rather, at the metaphorical level, the novel suggests that the world works better when a society’s underlying ethic is one based on love and unity rather than on fear, which thought brings us back to the debate between the ideas of Ibn Rushd and the teachings of Ghazali.
Witty, broadly allusive, rooted in both classical literature and popular culture, almost Chaucerian at times in its earthiness, utterly apocalyptic in its fantasy, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a witty book and in common with all good comedy a highly serious and moral book. “Fiction of the real” (173), the novel reminds us “to tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present. To recount a fantasy, a story of the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual” (207-8).
- See Averroes The Incoherence of the Incoherence written to refute Ghazali’s earlier The Incoherence of the Philosphers. Then, too consider Neoplatonism, Quantum Theory, The God Particle, and, I suspect, the newly observed gravitational waves. Perhaps “digression [is] the true principle of the universe” (197).