Salman Rushdie’s new novel is a colourful experiment in didacticism, says Dipsikha Thakur.
Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
304 pp | Rs 599
Early on in Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, there is a passing mention of the Arabic philosophical treatise The Incoherence of the Incoherence. In the only chapter of the book that can be seen as a foray into surrealist historical fiction, exiled rationalist Averroës bemoans his long battle with Al-Ghazali, a Persian theologian, who only believes in God and his weapon, fear. All else is incoherence, especially philosophy.
Incoherence comes up again, much later, in the name of a plot of land called “La Incoerenza, a place of immense beauty dedicated by its creator . . . dedicated to the idea that the world did not make sense.” Given that the novel is a land where characters regularly turn into balloons and philosophers converse in their graves, incoherence—or at least a beautiful tapestry of something that resembles it—is certainly a central part of the reading experience.
The release of the novel coincides in painful precision with another kind of incoherence: an ascending climate of murderous intolerance. The still-unsolved, senseless killing of the rationalist scholar MM Kalburgi, for instance, would find a ready place in Rushdie’s dense story of malicious dogma. Perhaps a symptom of the time it was written in, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights does not even attempt to hide its didactic nature. Its narrator uses the royal plural, and indulges in unabashed moral digressions throughout the novel.
The release of the novel coincides in painful precision with another kind of incoherence: an ascending climate of murderous intolerance. The still-unsolved, senseless killing of the rationalist scholar MM Kalburgi, for instance, would find a ready place in Rushdie’s dense story of malicious dogma.
This is a book that is meant as a warning: a warning about ISIS, about remorseless state terror masking itself as national security, about climate change and, more than anything else, about the death of the humanist tradition that places great value on individual human lives. In fact, if you look closely, you will also find references to a certain Mughal emperor who has been in the news lately. Whether by chance or design, the arrival of the book is truly well-timed.
Shorter than most of his adult novels—at fewer than 300 pages—Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a compact fictional summary of Rushdie’s lifelong defence of the offensive, the rational and the fantastic. The title of the book is an unabashed pun on A Thousand and One Nights. Like Scheherazade, who must distract her killer-husband by telling him stories, the peripheral hero of this novel, beleaguered rationalist philosopher Averroës, or Ibn Rushd, must resort to philosophy every night to distract his beautiful supernatural wife from having sex with him.
The wife, a 16-year-old girl called Duniya, is a more important member of the core cast. She is a jinnia—a female jinn—who leaves Fairyland to marry a human, and beget a large brood called the Duniyazat. It is the Duniyazat, an eclectic bunch of half-jinn-half-human creatures, who must fight the followers of Rushd’s long-dead enemy, Ghazali. Nine hundred years later, when the followers of the dead philosophers clash in contemporary New York, there is mayhem and witty prose.
The Duniazat alone keep having complicated encounters with humans and their ancestor, leading to a plot that is as entertaining as it is hard to keep up with: losing track of what is going on often becomes a very real possibility.
Of course, this is only the bare skeleton of the plot. The novel itself is a concoction of various short and long segments of burlesque romances, comedies and tragedies. The Duniazat alone keep having complicated encounters with humans and their ancestor, leading to a plot that is as entertaining as it is hard to keep up with: losing track of what is going on often becomes a very real possibility.
Part of the problem is the brevity of the book: the subplots do not get a chance to air properly. Instead, minor characters are given brief moments on the stage; we get a glimpse of the complexity that produces them, but quickly, too quickly, they disappear into flimsy, dramatic ends. After a while, the attention begins to waver. The same is applicable for the horror-movie theatrics that start to become tedious towards the end of the novel, because there is no respite, no time to recuperate from each episode of the apocalyptic that besieges Fairyland and New York in quick succession.
Even the major characters suffer from a lack of depth, their believability sacrificed to the thrills of broad strokes and sudden technicolor eruptions of personality. It is also a shame that in spite of his long career and immense talent, Rushdie still writes female characters that are restricted to being either beautiful and insatiable, or dowdy and in need of romantic lessons. Surely it is possible to step out of this tired trope of male writing?
Rushdie still writes female characters that are restricted to being either beautiful and insatiable, or dowdy and in need of romantic lessons. Surely it is possible to step out of this tired trope of male writing?
The only female character that manages to stand out is Duniya, the reluctant fighter, except she too is a cardboard rendition of a superhero who cannot step outside the limits of the figure of the avenger. Ursula le Guin hits the nail on its head in her review when she says, “The novel’s protagonist, Dunia, is female, and I wish I didn’t have a problem with her. It’s not that she isn’t human; you can’t ask a fairy princess to be anything other than what she is. But you can ask her not to think like a man.” Unfortunately the same is applicable for other female characters as well, who oscillate with alarming predictability between being the embodiment of male fantasy or the Harpy/Fury archetype inspiring fearful fascination.
Yet, no one can accuse Rushdie of lack of sophistication; the scope of the research that informs this novel is formidable: pre-Islamic mythology, 12th-century Islamic philosophy, an unflinchingly political cartography of New York, pop culture (particularly comics; X-Men keeps popping up at weird moments), classical music and postmodernism. The result, however, is less of a spectacular, unpredictable starburst and more of an agonised—at times even sentimental—lamentation of the arrival of what the character Ibn Rushd, and his namesake and creator consider “a puritan, whose enemy is pleasure, who would turn its joy into ash.”
Instead of spending more time in 12th-century Andalusia or even contemporary New York, Rushdie insists on following the moral question with dogged focus. The bedrock of details that informs the story remains untapped as the author refuses to take a break from what is his central argument. Instead, the narrative is just a pretty blur of long descriptions, trademark-Rushdie hyperboles and schematic mini-romances that decorate the background as the narrative somersaults towards a grand climax.
Speaking of grand narratives, although very much a postmodernist novel in some ways, Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Days takes an openly hostile stance against cultural relativism. The most scathing assault happens towards the end of the book:
How treacherous history is! Half-truths, ignorance, deceptions, false trails, errors, and lies, and buried somewhere in between all of that, the truth, in which it is easy to lose faith, of which it is consequently easy to say, it’s a chimera, there’s no such thing, everything is relative, one man’s absolute belief is another man’s fairy tale; but about which we insist, we insist most emphatically, that it is too important an idea to give up to the relativity merchants. Truth exists, and Toddler Storm’s magic powers provided, in those days, the visible proof of it. In her illustrious memory we refuse to allow truth to become ‘truth’. We may not know what it is, but it is out there. (p.220)
In an interview earlier this year with The Guardian, Rushdie expressed his dismay that eminent writers had refused to back the editorial policy of Charlie Hebdo after the January massacre. His inability to recognise the difference between acknowledging assaults on rationality and opposing the insensitivity of certain kinds of rationalism, especially those aimed at the vulnerable and the oppressed (for example, a large community of deprived, bullied French Muslim youth), seems to resurface here. Throughout the book, there is a simple invitation to the reader to be on the side of Reason and Truth, even though the genre—magical realism—seems to sit uneasy with such Manichean unities.
And certainly, magical realism is an overwhelming presence throughout the book. There are Schopenhauerian pessimists who are lifted off the ground by a bad hex, and young men without earlobes who suddenly discover they can turn things into pure sound and colour; there is also a baby who doubles as a lie-detector and a femme fatale who generates lightening from her fingertips.
Throughout the book, there is a simple invitation to the reader to be on the side of Reason and Truth, even though the genre—magical realism—seems to sit uneasy with such Manichean unities.
If the feast you are looking for is one of aesthetic surrealism, this is certainly the correct stop for you. It is also a swift and rewarding read, full of mordant wit and engaging pace. However, if you looking for more than just a curiosity cabinet tenuously held together by the anguish of defeated liberalism, then this book disappoints. For much like his protagonist and antagonist, Rushdie, too, is besieged in a mire of incoherence and self-contradictions, even if it is of the eloquent kind.