Two Years, Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights
By Salman Rushdie
290 pages, $28
By Michael D. Langan
Salman Rushdie, the British Indian novelist and essayist, updates the ancient Eastern classic, “A Thousand and One Nights” with his new novel. Its title exactly measures the amount of time of the earlier classic. Except that in the earlier stories, a legendary Arabic queen and storyteller, Scheherazade, told the tales.
Not so here. Rushdie is the teller through his characters. The subject is the same though, and more. It encapsulates, according to his publisher, not only the earlier stories, but includes Homer, sci-fi and action/adventure comic books, references to Henry James, Mel Brooks, Mickey Mouse, Gracian, Bravo TV and Aristotle. (Don’t know Gracian? Baltasar Gracian was a 17th century Jesuit whose writing style was called Conceptism, a baroque Spanish.)
The novel begins with a storm hitting New York City. Mysteriously, strange things begin to happen as a result. A gardener’s feet no longer touch the ground. A baby’s presence in the mayor’s office marks guilty people present with blemishes and boils.
These bizarre characters are, without their knowledge, descendants of the jinn, “whimsical, capricious, wanton creatures.” Centuries ago, we are told, Dunia, a princess of the jinn, fell in love with a mortal man of reason.
“ ‘Tell me a story,’” Dunia, an insatiable lover, often demanded in bed in the early days of their cohabitation. To avoid his own exhaustion, her lover told her stories. Still, the two of them produced an astonishing number of children, unaware of their fantastical powers, who spread across generations in the human world. What they all have in common is a lack of earlobes.
Stories seem to go on forever in this book, and their point is this: Rushdie thinks they contribute positively to what he calls “the battle between light and dark spanning a thousand and one nights - or two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights. It is a time of enormous upheaval, in which beliefs are challenged, words act like poison, silence is a disease, and a noise may contain a hidden curse.”
I’m not sure that such a congeries of stories such as these can lead to a simple conclusion about who is winning and losing in the age-old twin-exigencies of sin and salvation.
Another tale: a hedge fund nabob named Seth Oldville takes up with notorious libertine and fisher-for-rich-men named Teresa Saca Cuartos. Oldville and his money would like to put a conservative into the White House, but he is rejected by the electorate. “Turkeys voting for Thanksgiving”, he calls them.
Oldville “called himself an atheist Jew, but he would have preferred to be an opera singer…” Forget that Seth has a perfectly good wife at home, Cindy, “admired for her beauty, taste, charitable work and great goodness of heart.” On the weekend of the storm in New York City, Seth is at the seaside fast asleep in his lawn chair.
You begin to get the picture?
In this season of sin, what apparently passes for normal - nasty people - are hard at work screwing up their lives and loves, when nature intervenes in the form of a hurricane, with unforeseen consequences that Rushdie describes as transformative.
It is Rushdie’s argument that these characters he calls up in his imagination, like Teresa Saca Cuartos, are heroes. He writes, that he is “keenly aware that much of it [the original stories] have degenerated from the status of a factual account toward the condition of legend, speculation of fiction ….Yet we have to say it: these are our heroes, for the winning the War of the Worlds they set in motion the process by which our new and, we believe, better time came into being.”
“Two Years…” exemplifies the extraordinary-made-ordinary world of Salman Rushdie. The author continues to wait on his most important un-won prize: the Nobel for Literature. I don’t think this book will increase his chances. Earlier you’ll remember, Rushdie offended some Muslims with his 1989 novel, “The Satanic Verses,” and was the subject of a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran ordering his death.
Clearly, Rushdie doesn’t always get plaudits. Ian Thompson of the Evening Standard in London calls the book “verbal virtuosity that lacks the human touch.” He says Rushdie’s métier did not dissuade earlier detractors who included Roald Dahl and John le Carré.
Thompson concludes about the new novel, “It offers a familiar impasto of postmodernist self-reflexive preening, showy erudition and wordy philosophical humour … a great formal brilliance but ultimately it’s a mere pomp of words … a far cry from his one great book, “Midnight’s Children”, which won the Booker Prize.”
Seven years ago in this space, in a review of Rushdie’s “The Enchantress of Florence”, it was remarked, that, if Rushdie had a fault, “it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well … Rushdie could be writing about himself in his new novel, as he flamboyantly takes on the ancient and modern worlds in this fable, reconciling them where he can and pointing out, differences where he cannot.”
Not much has changed in Rushdie’s world since that earlier novel. In this, his latest, he is interested in satisfying the dream of a Goya sketch in the Prado for “Los Caprichos no. 43. It reads, “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
At times “Two years” totters between monster and marvel, because of its disconnected wordiness. It is such an aggregation of cultures and curios that it lapses into legend.
In the end, Rushdie claims that the resilience of human society and the shallowness of the control of the jinn over their “conquests” enable men and women to return to their senses.
I have the sense that Rushdie himself tidied up his novel at the end, feeling that he had gone too far in jiggering the story of the battle of light and dark.
Michael D. Langan, is a frequent Buffalo News reviewer.