Posted on November 6, 2015
41. ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ by Salman Rushdie
There’s something that happens every time I read a Rushdie book. I spend the first 10-20 pages rolling my eyes at his obvious attempts to sound intelligent, as he throws in numerous references to obscure texts you’ve never heard of, and uses highbrow puns to demonstrate that he is a Man of the World Who Has Read a Lot of Books.
But after a while this feeling fades away and I buy into Rushdie’s writing. It is then that I can really start to enjoy the story he has buried underneath his intellectual grandstanding. At this point the intertextual (and intratextual) references even start to enhance the whole experience. It’s a just a case of getting through that slightly painful beginning and adjusting to his style. The same happened this time, with Two Years Eight Months: I started out sighing at the ceiling, but in the end I really enjoyed it.
(Side note: I haven’t always been able to get into the Rushdie style. I thought The Enchantress of Florence read like Rushdie’s most pretentious reading list. Unsurprising, given that he admits he did “years of research” for the book and felt the need, in the finished novel, to “acknowledge all the books” he had used. Excuse me while I sigh at the ceiling again.)
Two Years Eight Months is a story about jinnis, the mischievous and mysterious spirits of Islamic lore. It opens with the story of Dunia, The Lightning Princess, a jinnia who comes to Earth and falls in love with an outcast philosopher named Ibn Rushd (interestingly, Rushdie’s father was a fan of the real-life Rushd, and that’s where the made-up family name ‘Rushdie’ comes from). Dunia bears countless children before Rushd leaves her and she returns to the world of the jinn, heartbroken. Over time the passageways between the two worlds seal up and no jinn is able to get to Earth. Dunia’s offspring grow and reproduce and spread all over the world, always distinguishable by their lack of earlobes. Hundreds of years later a great storm reopens the passageways between the worlds of humans and jinnis. Some of the troublesome spirits return, and Dunia’s descendants begin to discover their own mysterious powers as the time of the ‘strangenesses’ begins.
This story is told from an interesting perspective: occasionally the narrative voice talks about ‘we’ and ‘us’, and we come to discover that this book is written many years after the events of the ‘strangenesses’ (which eventually devolved into an all-out war between man and jinn). The narrator is some kind of representative of humanity, talking about what humans learned when the jinns entered (and screwed with) their world, and describing how we have progressed since then. I found that this unusual narrative style really worked and it set up for an absolutely beautiful ending. Seriously, the last two pages blew me away.
Rushdie has employed a fantastic cast of characters, including Mr Geronimo (a gardener who finds himself floating just above the ground), Jimmy Kapoor (a graphic novelist whose creation ‘comes to life’) and Teresa Saca (who can shoot lightning from her fingertips). When I saw Rushdie speak at the Bristol Festival of Ideas he said that he was worried, halfway through, that he was just rewriting I Dream of Jeannie. I must say that I got a more X-Men vibe from the whole thing, which was pretty entertaining.
The writing style (once you get into it) is masterful and accomplished, yet still quite easy to read. I like how Rushdie toys with language – he is genuinely playful with it – and in this book I found that the pages fairly flew by. The book is also hugely clever in how it deals with massive, heavy themes in a relatively action-packed, fun adventure story. Ultimately, this book is about reason vs. faith. The great war between the humans and the jinnis plays out against the backdrop of a centuries-old intellectual argument, revolving around one idea: do crises make people turn towards or away from God? Rushdie is an atheist, and so am I, so I found his conclusion satisfying. A person of faith might not.
Regardless, though, this is a really good read and the final pages give you a great pay-off. I’d recommend it, especially if you’re already a Rushdie fan.
“‘We’ are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.