Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Price: Rs 599
Few books have influenced Salman Rushdie’s storytelling technique as much as One Thousand and One Nights. He likes to pile story upon story, but not in the vignette mode, like Jim Jarmusch, for example. Instead, Rushdie’s fables speak to each other and resonate with a renewed vigour because of these conversations. It’s like a series of Matroshka dolls: each box contains a smaller version of itself. His last piece of adult fiction, The Enchantress of Florence, was his only work which broke this format substantially and one may argue that this contributed to its less-than-satisfactory denouement. Rushdie has now returned to top form with Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, undoubtedly his finest book since The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995).
Jonathan Franzen once wrote that “nobody has written a more autobiographical book than The Metamorphosis”, suggesting that the self-reflexive impulses in an author are, in fact, heightened in naked fabulism. And so it is that Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is Rushdie’s most autobiographical yet, even more so than the comic masterpiece Haroun and the Sea of Stories.
The novel begins with the author introducing us to the scholar Ibn Rushd, a man who swears by science, rationalism and the triumph of cold-blooded reason above all else. Rushd was a 12th century titan, a polymath from Al Andalus whose name is often Latinised in the West and written as “Averroes”. He is, of course, also the man who Rushdie owes his surname to. When the novel starts, a religious regime has banished him on the basis of a text called The Incoherence of Philosophers, written by a theologian called Ghazali of Tus.
Rushd is visited by Dunia, a female jinn (a “jinniya”) who is, as per the Rushdie gold standard for female protagonists, strong-willed, intelligent and sexually rambunctious. She proceeds to have a string of children with the old but still formidable scholar, “at least seven on each occasion, it would appear, and on one occasion eleven, or possibly nineteen (…)”. The children, crucially, are not named after their father, a decision explained
“‘It is better that they be the Duniazat,’ he said, ‘a name which contains the world and has not been judged by it. To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.’”
At this point, I feared that this reference (which works beautifully on its own) would begin a chain of plot points that would culminate, inevitably, in Rushdie inserting himself into the narrative as a Paul Auster-ish character. And that wouldn’t have worked because his authorial voice is already so distinctive that any further breaking down of the authorial “distance” would render the novel unreadable.
Luckily, Rushdie had his mind set on bigger things. When Rushd is restored to his position of power and privilege, his illegitimate children, the Duniazat, scatter to the corners of the globe. A full eight centuries after the original migration, a new batch of Duniazat begin their magical adventures: in Mumbai, New York and beyond. The comics buff in me could not help but grin at Jimmy Kapoor, the graphic novelist who is haunted by his own creation Natraj, a very Stan Lee-like creation. There’s plenty to admire, also, about the Manhattan gardener Geronimo, the illegitimate son of a Mumbai priest. Geronimo, a robust, old-fashioned stoic, is one of the most memorable characters that Rushdie has created, and there have been a few down the years.
The ultimate conflict, as it so often is with Rushdie’s novels, is between the tyranny of dogma and the optimism of common sense and individual expression. People like Ghazali of Tus, who believe in instilling fear to inspire faith, crop up time to time, in every country in the world, and it is up to the rationalists, the whimsical Duniazat, to outwit them and live another day. Rushdie, that consummate postmodern comedian, has clearly enjoyed writing in a lighter vein here: his last three books, especially the bloated, over-written memoir Joseph Anton, suffered because of a certain grim-faced quality that they shared.
One Thousand and One Nights, in contrast, is what happens when a master decides to let his hair down. Within the first 20 pages, there are two sentences straight out of the Marquez playbook, languorous in their unfolding, each about half a page long. I will wind up this review with one of them, where Rushdie sums up the migratory instincts of the Duniazat: it’s a marvellously broad sentence, one that evokes memories of Imaginary Homelands, the epochal essay that holds the key to all of the
“But Dunia’s children thrived. That much can be said. And almost three hundred years later, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, even the Jews who could not say they were Jews, the children of Dunia’s children climbed into ships in Cadiz and Palos de Moguer, or walked across the Pyrenees, or flew on magic carpets or in giant urns like the jinni kin they were, they traversed continents and sailed the seven seas and climbed high mountains and swam mighty rivers and slid into deep valleys and found shelter and safety wherever they could, and they forgot one another quickly, or remembered as long as they could and then forgot, or never forgot, becoming a family that was no longer exactly a family, a tribe that was no longer exactly a tribe; adopting every religion and no religion, many of them, after the centuries of conversion, ignorant of their supernatural origins, forgetting the story of the forcible conversion of the Jews, some of them becoming manically devout while others were contemptuously disbelieving; a family without a place but with family in every place, a village without a location, but winding in and out of every location on the globe, like rootless plants, mosses or lichens or creeping orchids, who must lean upon others, being unable to stand alone.”