Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

Two Years Eight Months 2Once upon a time, in our own time…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Back in the 12th century, disgraced philosopher Ibn Rushd has a love affair with Dunia, who he thinks is a young woman of Jewish descent, but is actually a princess of the jinn. In these far-off days there are slits between the world of the jinn and our own world, and the jinn sometimes interfere with humanity, often wickedly, but Dunia is unusual in that she falls in love with a human and has children with him – many children, sometimes twelve or more at a time. Ibn Rushd is a highly intelligent rationalist, but manages not to notice the oddity of this. Centuries later, not far in the future from our own time, the slits between the jinn world and our own have been lost for many years and Dunia’s descendants have spread throughout the world, unaware of their jinn heritage. But after a great storm lashes the world, strange things begin to happen – people finding their feet no longer touch the ground, people being struck by lightning and finding themselves afterwards possessed of strange powers, people suffering from what are either terrifying hallucinations or perhaps even more terrifying reality. It appears the jinn are back…

“We” are the creature that tells itself stories to understand what sort of creature it is. As they pass down to us the stories lift themselves away from time and place, losing the specificity of their beginnings, but gaining the purity of essences, of being simply themselves. And by extension, or by the same token, as we like to say, though we do not know what the token is or was, these stories become what we know, what we understand, and what we are, or, perhaps we should say, what we have become, or can perhaps be.

The story is told by the humans of the far future, a thousand years from now. As they point out, after such a length of time they can’t be completely sure about the details of what happened but the tale they tell is the one that has been passed down to them over the intervening centuries. This is a wonderful device for Rushdie to look at some of the sillinesses of our own time as if from a great distance, allowing him to compress our complicated interlinked world down to a manageable size. And he ranges widely, through philosophy, politics, religion, terrorism, the importance of words, language and stories, optimism and pessimism, the disconnect of modern humanity from the planet, and so on. It’s all handled very lightly, though, with a tone of affectionate mockery more than anything else. And, much to my surprise, it’s deliciously funny – had me laughing aloud many times at his razor-sharp satire of many of the things we take so seriously.

He was a big man like his father with big competent hands, a thick neck and hawkish profile and with his Indian-Indian complexion and all, it was easy for Americans to see the Wild West in him and treat him with the respect reserved for remnants of peoples exterminated by the white man, which he accepted without clarifying that he was Indian from India and therefore familiar with a quite different history of imperialist oppression, but never mind.

Religion takes a beating. I’m new to Rushdie, but am of course aware of his history of upsetting the lunatic end of Muslim fundamentalism. But I found him quite even-handed really – he mocks all religions equally! And yet, although I believe he classes himself as an atheist, I felt quite strongly that it is formalised religion he’s mocking rather than faith itself. There is an ongoing debate in the book between Ibn Rushd and Ghazali, another philosopher, (and both of them real 12th century philosophers), on whether it is ever possible to reconcile reason and faith – indeed, whether one should even try. Though for a good part of the book I felt the tone is pretty pro-reason, in the end it seems as if he pulls back a little – a suggestion that reason may win but that it might turn out to be something of a hollow victory in the end. As an atheist, the book didn’t offend me – the tone is not nearly as arrogant and dismissive as the worst of the ranting atheist fringe achieves – but I suspect I might have struggled with it a bit if I were a person of faith – any faith.

Djinn by jwilsonillustration via deviantart.com
Djinn by jwilsonillustration via deviantart.com

However, religion aside, he has lots of fun with less contentious subjects. There’s some brilliant satirising of politics, totalitarianism, world financial institutions and so on and, on a more intimate level, of love, sex, and human relationships in general. Extremely well written, with incredible long rambling sentences that wander all over the place but always manage to find their way to their proper destination in the end – although just occasionally this reader had forgotten where we were heading by the time we got there. It’s really a tour de force performance, hugely entertaining while also being deeply thought-provoking. There are references to philosophers and history, but also to the various mythologies of the world, some of which I got and many more of which went flying over my head as fast as a jinn on a magic carpet. But it didn’t matter – the book makes sense internally whether the reader gets the references or not – catching the odd one or two just gives that extra little glow of satisfaction. He parades his huge knowledge and intelligence blatantly, but with such warmth that the trailing reader feels caught up in his wake rather than left behind.

…for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as “a few seconds” and “several minutes”, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground.

As to the actual story, I’m already seeing it being referred to as magical realism. Not in my opinion – this is satire masquerading as a fairy tale. There’s nothing real about it on the surface – all the reality is hidden below the story, the top layer is purely magical. As with the best fairy tales, it all comes down ultimately to a battle between good and evil. The first three-quarters are deliciously light, full of intelligence but wrapped in a layer of warmth and humour. The last quarter becomes somewhat grimmer and, for me, loses a little of the magic. Rushdie’s previously light touch becomes a shade more heavy-handed and the philosophising becomes a little repetitive as if to be sure his points have been made. But the dip is short and it all comes together again in a satisfying ending.

“…you, Jinendra Kapoor, who can’t trace your family history back further than three generations, are a product of that great love, maybe the greatest love there ever was between the tribes of men and jinn. This means that you, like all the descendants of Ibn Rushd, Muslim, Christian, atheist or Jew, are also partly of the jinn. The jinni part, being far more powerful than the human part, is very strong in you all, and that is what made it possible for you to survive the otherness in there; for you are Other too.”

“Vow,” he cried, reeling. “It isn’t bad enough being a brown dude in America, you’re telling me I’m half fucking goblin too.”

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

I wasn’t sure whether I’d get along with the book at all, having previously started and abandoned another couple of Rushdie’s books many years ago, but this one surprised and delighted me – a book that could be read on many levels and that I’m sure would reveal even more on each re-reading. I wondered all the way through whether it was deeply profound or pretentious twaddle – I suspect it may be a bit of both, but if it is pretentious twaddle then it’s immensely entertaining and intelligent pretentious twaddle, and that works just as well for me as deeply profound. Perhaps I’ll try some of his other stuff again…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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61 thoughts on “Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

  1. Wow! This sounds really good..I read the Enchantress of Florence and regretted it..his prose is lovely, but the content was extremely weird..after that, the only Rushdies I could make myself read were the books he wrote for children (Luka and the Fire of Life, Haroun and the Sea of Stories)..had to give up Midnight’s Children halfway too.. 😛
    This one looks really inviting though.. 🙂

  2. What an interesting-sounding book, FictionFan! And I think you make an important distinction between mocking formal religion and mocking spiritual depth and faith. They are not the same things. It’s quite clever of Rushdie, too, to use this structure and plot outline to take a look at the modern world, at modern ways of living and priorities and so on. Reminds me just a bit of what Jonathan Swift did many years ago with Gulliver’s Travels.

    • I was very pleasantly surprised, Margot, I must admit! I had expected it to be really heavy and serious, so was delighted when it turned out to be so enjoyable. Yes, even though I’m an atheist myself, I get really annoyed at atheist writers who attack other people’s beliefs – after all, atheism is simply a belief too (though many atheists would never admit that!). Again, I was pleasantly surprised that Rushdie at least seemed open in the end to suggesting that losing religion from the world wouldn’t be an unalloyed good thing. Yes! I think you’re right – definite similarities to Gulliver’s Travels. Sometimes fantasy is a great format to look at reality…

    • I’ve never made it past the first few chapters before, though it’s been many years since I last tried. But this one has changed my opinion of him completely and I now really want to try some of his other stuff again…

  3. Another one that won’t make my TBR list, FF, but I must say, you’ve done an excellent job with its review. Nice to finally find a book you like by an author, when you’ve tried unsuccessfully before though!

    • Aw, thank you, Debbie! I certainly don’t think this one is going to be for everybody, but I was very pleased (and surprised) to enjoy it – I’ve always felt I should have read at least some Rushdie, and now I have! And am quite keen now to try some more…

  4. Even by your standards this is an excellent review – one that gives us some idea of what the book is about and one that challenges this reader’s preconceived ideas about this author. I now have this on my ‘maybe’ pile which is amazing considering when you first mentioned this one I was convinced it would be an outright no.

    • Aw, thank you, Cleo! I must say the book challenged my own preconceptions too – I was expecting something much heavier and tougher to read. In fact, the first couple of times he made me laugh I was taken aback! Worth trying – just as soon as you finish the ‘yes’ pile… 😉

  5. You’ve made me warm to the idea of this one. I loved Midnight’s Children, loved the one about music (umm …) always said I wouldn’t read Satanic Verses until I’d read the Koran, and have had a partly-read Koran on my nightstand for the past 8 or so years, and there was a novel I ignored because it was a thinly veiled piece about his own marriage and I got really cross with Hanif Kureishi when he did that … but this one sounds actually pretty good. I have a low tolerance for magic realism except in his books, somehow.

    • I felt reading the Koran might have helped with this one too – I’m sure loads of the references were to it. But being a bit lighter (I think) than his other stuff it really didn’t matter if you got the references or not in this one. It really surprised me by being so entertaining – I was expecting thought-provoking, but not fun. I think Midnight’s Children will be the one I head to next, so I’m glad to hear you rate it highly…

  6. I’m one of the ‘failed to finish reading Rushdie’ camp too, but this sounds gorgeous, so if it falls into my lap I’ll give it a go. Isn’t ‘jinn’ a lovely word? I like the expression, ‘pretentious twaddle,’ too.

  7. I’ve read ‘Midnight’s Children’, ‘Shame’, ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’, ‘The Satanic Verses’ and ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’. And the Quran. And the winner was … ‘Midnight’s Children’, the Booker of Bookers itself.

    • Have you really? It would appear my family are nearly the only people who’ve actually managed to get all the way through any of his books – he should give us a reward! I think it was Satanic Verses that put me off, but that was years ago. I’m glad you’re recommending Midnight’s Children, ‘cos that’s the one that most appeals to me in terms of subject matter.

  8. This might sound really silly…but was is a jinn? If it’s anything like that picture up there…cool! I want to be one, the sudden.

    Hmm…it does sounds like a dreadfully boring book, you know. Unless there are battles and such.

    I’ve seen that chap before! He played an animated penguin in a cartoon I once watched, can you believe!

    • It is! It’s kinda like a genie, but not necessarily coming out of a bottle. They are made of fire and smoke apparently. Isn’t it a great picture?

      Boring!?! There are some battles, but they’re not described much. A couple of good fights between Dunia and the bad guys though…

      *laughs lots* I’m not sure I believe you… I suspect you’re being wickedly cruel!

      • It is a great picture! I think I should be one, the sudden. Only, I would cut my hair a bit. And maybe dye my skin red or something.

        Yes, boring! Isn’t it? You know it is!

        He looks exactly like him! The penguin always wanted to fly. It was a great horrible story.

        • I think you should too! In fact, when I’m in charge of the Professorial wardrobe, you shall have an outfit just like that! You’d need to play Scheherezade…

          Ah, how well I remember the days when you used to say I could make any book sound interesting… *sobs and adds this one to the Prof’s list as retribution*

          *laughs* You’re… strange, you know, you know…

          • Oh you know that one? Well, I might. But I’m not sure. Would you let me wear a black shirt and silver tie?

            *laughing lots and lots* You mean thing, you! I’ve just gotten wise to your ways is all. I’m building a wall, so as to keep the TBR down, see.

            I am not! It was called… *wracking brains* Pebbles’ Penguin? Something like that. Martin Short was in it!

            • Good one, innit? Hmm… black shirt definitely, but the silver tie… hmm! I’d want to see it first. How about black shirt and one of those silver and leather things cowboys wore? And a leather waistcoat. And cowboy boots… *drifts off into a happy little reverie*

              *sings* The higher you build your barriers, the taller I become…” Ooh, look! Look at this! You want one, don’t you? You must! http://bloggingaroundmybookcase.com/2015/09/14/bookfort/

              *laughs lots and lots* You are so wickedly cruel! I so wish I could deny seeing the resemblance…

            • It is a good one! Maybe just a hint too sickeningly sweet. I don’t want to be a cowboy! Silver tie is cool, I think. I hate ties. And bow ties. Best not wear them at all, I say.

              *laughs* I do not want one ever ever ever! What would you do with so many books?

              You saw it! I know. He should be proud.

            • Really? Well, I suppose it is a bit romantic, but I think it’s lovely. How can you possibly not want to be a cowboy?! *devastated face* OK, I won’t then.

              Oh, you must! Who wouldn’t want a fort in their house? Erm… read them?

              You should write to him and tell him! I’m sure he’d love to know…

            • Yes, that’s it! A bit too romantic. Mars is better. Well, I suppose I could be John Wayne. *reconsiders* *laughs* You can wear them! That’d be hilarious.

              Only silly professors read books!

              No you do it!

            • Did you hear they’ve found liquid water on Mars?? I bet they’ll find fields of potatoes any day now, and won’t Mark feel silly then. Well, you could be John Wayne, I suppose, but I was hoping you’d be Manolito Montoya. *haughty expression* I’m quite sure I’d look lovely…

              Well, yes. Exactly!

              Me?!? You’re just trying to get me in trouble…

            • I did hear! I was just going to say they probably will find the remains of Mark’s potato farm, too! Ooo, Martian is coming out Oct. 3…let’s go to theatre together! *laughs* Him?! I suppose it’s rather closer, in truth. You would look awesome, for sure. And just a bit funny.

              *holds ears*

              Of course! But blame me.

            • Ooh, I wish we could! I must check if it’s coming out the same day over here… I can’t wait to see if it’s as good as the book! I think Manolito may have been my first love, you know, you know… it’s that cute little smile, and he was always the wicked one. But smart! And then many years later he became Chakotay’s Dad, which was a bit odd since by that time I was in love with Chakotay…

              I always do…

            • Awwww! I know – somebody needs to invent a way so that people in different continents can go to the movies together… bet by the time you’re 86 they will have…

              * laughs apologetically* Couldn’t resist! But you should be honoured to be up there with Mano and Chakotay. And George. And Rafa. And Darby. Only you’re c&a-er!

            • Swim! There’s good ones in Glasgow, but we don’t have one at all in Kirkintilloch… *sad face*

              Definitely! That’s why you should never hide behind an Edelman…

            • Almost exactly right! 16 minutes at night, 25 in day-time traffic! But… it would wreck my car!

              Well, it would be hard to play if you held it in front of your face…

            • You are! In future whenever I have to go anywhere I shall ask you how long it’ll take me…

              That’s probably why he couldn’t play as well as you…

            • If I’m completely honest, I must say I don’t like Jimi H too much at all, nor am I impressed by his playing. I know everyone loves him…but there’s just so many other much better guitarists out there!

            • Hurrah! I’ve never liked him, though not because of his skill or lack of it – don’t know enough to know about that. But *gulps* I’m really not terribly fond of electric guitar as an instrument, and none of his stuff ever really appealed to me as music. As noise it’s pretty effective though… *chuckles*

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