Saturday 20 January 2018

Books: Literary superstar's fantastical fable sings

Fiction: Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, tpbk, 286 pages, €19

Literary glamour: Salman Rushdie is as much a celebrity as an author now
Literary glamour: Salman Rushdie is as much a celebrity as an author now
Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie's Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

Salman Rushdie's a bit heavy-handed on the anti-religion diatribe but it doesn't detract from a great story.

The release of a new Salman Rushdie book - Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is his tenth novel - is always a major event in publishing. And no surprise: since Midnight's Children won the Booker Prize in 1981, the British-Indian author has been a genuine literary superstar.

He's a critical darling who also sells well; he's won virtually every prize open to writers (including the Booker of Bookers, not once but twice); he's friends with famous folk like Bono and has dabbled in Hollywood, television, comic-books; he even, for a few years in the noughties, enjoyed a glamorous second marriage, to the beautiful actress Padma Lakshmi.

The name Salman Rushdie has transcended any notions of confinement within 'literature'; he's as much celebrity as author now, and that's not intended as an insult. If anyone deserves happiness, wealth and good fortune, it's Rushdie, after that infamous fatwa of 1988.

Which brings us to this latest novel. Two Years… is a fantastical tale, really a fable, which recounts a celestial war between jinn - genies to you and me - as fought on Planet Earth. But it's also, centrally, an impassioned argument against religious intolerance.

The story, first: as told by a collective "narrator" roughly a thousand years from now, Two Years… is set in our near-future, but actually begins in 1195AD. Sounds confusing? Don't worry, the chronology soon makes itself clear, and a rollicking, lyrical and very enjoyable tale is set in motion.

We open on a bitter theological dispute between the real-life Andalusian polymath Ibn Rushd - after whom, Rushdie has said, his own father named himself - and a vicious, horrible little ideologue called Ghazali. The former calls for enlightenment, rationality, decency, moderation; the latter demands that everyone subjugate themselves before Islam.

Both men die, but not before Ibn Rushd has fallen in love with a faerie princess, calling herself Dunia on earth. She bears him dozens of children, whose own descendants fan out across the globe. The Duniazat, a sort of "lost tribe", all born with no earlobes, and the mystical, magical blood of the jinn in their veins, though they don't know it yet.

Cut to a few years from today, and the walls between Peristan - Fairyland - and our world are opened. Through the slits come four Grand Ifrits, powerful and malevolent genies, bent on utter mayhem. They're rather like the faeries of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell: vindictive and megalomaniac, yes, but driven equally by childish capriciousness and a kind of sociopathic indifference to mortal suffering.

The past is reawakened and the dead resurrected when the spirit of Ghazali calls in a favour of the most powerful Ifrit: force humanity to quail with fear before his One True God. Dunia, meanwhile, takes up arms against the four villains, drawing on her descendants to help.

It all sounds rather ludicrous, but as a piece of fiction, it works extremely well. Without being po-faced or indulging in the tedious, cod-historical "world-building" you often find in fantasy, Rushdie takes his ostensibly silly premise seriously. So it makes sense within this fictional universe, and you suspend disbelief and buy into the story, immediately and without difficulty.

The novel reminded me a lot of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino in its fluid, playful mingling of literary writing, serious-minded philosophising and theologising, pop-culture references, genre-hopping, bawdy good cheer and ironic humour. It's easy to imagine this as a big-budget movie, heavy on special effects, with its crackling action scenes, smart-ass dialogue, sex and explosions and derring-do, tough but likeable heroes, and literally larger-than-life baddies. (Genies can make themselves pretty damn big.)

Beneath the fun - and Two Years… is a lot of fun - the book reflects on themes such as the nature of storytelling, the dark heart of man, our need for belief, culture, art, archetypes, the real versus the fantastic. And, as mentioned already, there's a fair bit about religion: specifically, what a poison and a horror it has been throughout human history.

While it's hard to argue against any of this from a standpoint of ethics and reason, Rushdie's anti-religion diatribe is too heavy-handed at times. The third-person narrator really spells it out on occasion, which kills the magic - you'll excuse the pun - of the story, as though some well-meaning bore has paused the DVD you're watching to deliver a lecture on something worthy but, well, boring. Or at least, not what you want to hear right then and there.

Yet, I think he can be forgiven for this. When the Iranian Ayatollah issued that death sentence over The Satanic Verses, the author was forced into hiding for several years. (Technically, it remains open, though Rushdie describes the fatwa as "a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat" at this stage.)

Still, people died on account of it, including a Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses, and Rushdie's life was turned upside-down. His most recent work, the memoir Joseph Anton, details that time, taking its title from the pseudonym under which Rushdie was forced to travel.

So while it's easy for pampered, complacent commentators to insist on subtlety and greater understanding and blah-blah-blah, Rushdie has felt the sharp edge of that self-righteous hatred. He's seen the madness. He's probably angry, even vengeful, and that's perfectly understandable. He's allowed a little ranting at these lunatics and their lunatic obsessions.

Besides, it hardly detracts from this hugely entertaining novel. The title, by the way, adds up a thousand and one nights; a nice little reference to one of the great Middle Eastern artworks. Rushdie, you suspect - not to mention Rushd - would like to see a little more Arabian Nights in this world, and a little less fire and brimstone. A little more humanity, a little less god.

Darragh McManus' Young Adult novel, Shiver the Whole Night Through, is out now

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