😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂
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.
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.”
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.