Sunday 21 January 2018

Books: Battle between good and evil in an age of unreason

Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty Eith Nights, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, €28.50

Ocean of notions or shah of blah: Salman Rushdie is a tad overly self-indulgent.
Ocean of notions or shah of blah: Salman Rushdie is a tad overly self-indulgent.

Desmond Traynor

In the near future, a huge storm rips through New York and thus 'the strangenesses' begin. Our hero, the elderly, widowed landscape gardener Raphael Hieronymus Menezes, known as Mr Geronimo, finds there is a growing space between his feet and the earth. Jimmy Kapoor, a wannabe graphic novelist, awakens in his bedroom to see a mysterious entity that resembles his own sub-Stan Lee creation, Natraj Hero.

Abandoned at mayor Rosa Fast's office, it emerges that a baby wrapped in an Indian flag can identify corruption with her mere presence, the guilty coming out in blemishes and boils.

A seductive Latina gold digger with a fierce temper, Teresa Saca Cuartos, is soon called upon, issuing lightning bolts to combat otherworldly forces beyond imagining. And there are more, many more.

What do they all have in common? They are the descendants of the 12th century union between a good jennia called Dunia, aka the Lightning Princess, and rationalist philosopher Ibn Rushd, better known in Western history as Averroes, who, as translator into Latin of the works of Aristotle preserved in Arabic at the library of Alexandria, was responsible for bringing Aristotelian thought back into European culture. As though treated with early medieval IVF, they produce an astonishing amount of children, all unaware of their semi-supernatural parentage, and inherited fantastical powers.

It transpires that the strangenesses merely foreshadow a full-blown invasion of the human world by malevolent spirits from another dimension.

Four evil jinn, Zabardast, Zumurrud, Ra'im Blood-Drinker and Shining Ruby, have broken through the wormholes separating this world from Peristan, or Fairyland, and are hell-bent on unleashing an Age of Unreason, causing havoc in the 21st century.

If Dunia can round up her distant progeny in time and awaken them to the power of their jinni nature, humanity might have a chance against these forces of darkness.

"The seals between the Two Worlds are broken and the dark jinn ride," she tells Geronimo.

"Your world is in danger and because my children are everywhere I am protecting it. I'm bringing them together, and together we will fight back."

Rushdie's 12th novel is also related from far into the future, from which narrative perspective it can be seen that the theme has been one of his perennial favourites: the conflict between faith-based superstition, spawned through fear (i.e. belief in a personal, monotheistic God) [= BAD], and enlightenment Reason [= GOOD].

So, does it all add up?

Two predominant critical views of Rushdie prevail: the 'yea's' hail him as the 'Ocean of Notions', an endlessly inventive, imaginative genius; the 'nay's' dub him the 'Shah of Blah', a Wizard of Oz travelling vaudevillian who doesn't know when to shut up.

While there is undoubtedly much fine writing to savour here, this new offering often seems like the work of a man with too much time on his hands. Which prompts the question: how much time should readers give to it?

The novels which made Rushdie's name, Midnight's Children and Shame, married significant socio-historical events (Indian independence, the foundation of Pakistan) to the magic realism he imported from his South American and Eastern European predecessors.

This work, like a Bollywoodised Mahabharata, teeming with endless incarnations and avatars, reads like an amusing jeu d'esprit.

Without realistic roots or reference points, fictional magic can quickly morph into self-indulgent whimsy.

Scheherazade's playful stories in The Arabian Nights, to which this book's title nods, ultimately had the urgency of 'stories told against death'. Rushdie's latter-day version is too much of an ornament to be taken too seriously.

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