Review of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

This is the story of a jinnia, a great princess of the jinn, known as the Lightning Princess on account of her mastery over the thunderbolt, who loved a mortal man long ago, in the twelfth century, and we would say, and of her many descendants, and of her return to the world, after a long absence, to fall in love again, at least for a moment, and then to go to war. It is also the tale of many other jinn, male and female, flying and slithering, good, bad, and uninterested in morality; and of the time of crisis, the time-out-of-joint which we call the time of the strangenesses, which lasted for two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights, which is to say, one thousand nights and one night more. And yes, we have lived another thousand years since those days, but we are all forever changed by that time. Whether for better or for worse, that is for our future to decide.

The first question that comes to mind when you see the title “Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights” is probably to question why that particular period of time. The answer is obvious when expressed in days: two years, eight months, and twenty-eight nights is one thousand and one nights. Two Years (we’ll dispense with the et cetera going forward) is rooted in that tradition, the story of a genie jinn war with that magic period of one thousand and one nights recurring again and again. Two Years is told by a narrator in the far (one thousand plus years) years about periods in the twelfth century and present day that each last for two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

Two Years Eight Months cover

Two Years starts in the twelfth century with the exile of the historical philosopher and populizer of Aristotle Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes) from the court in Cordoba. While in exile he brings who he believes to be a young Jewish woman who cannot say she is a Jew into his home and into his bed. She is really Dunia, the jinnia mentioned above. Dunia gave birth to, in the two years, eight months and twenty-eight days and nights that follow, through three pregnancies at least seven children on each occasion. Her children would multiply and spread greatly, especially across India and the United States. And two years, eight months and twenty-eight days is just what it takes for Ibn Rushd to come back into court favor and unceremoniously drop Dunia, getting back to his philosophical work disputing the work of Al-Ghazali. Ghazali wrote The Incoherence of the Philosophers and Ibn Rushd writes The Incoherence of the Incoherence in response. It isn’t the last time we will see Ibn Rushd and Ghazali or the word incoherence.

After Dunia leaves for Peristan, the fairyland home of the jinn, there is a long closure of the slits in the worlds that allowed travel between Peristan and our world. They wouldn’t reopen for another eight hundred and more years later. We pick up with Dunia’s descendants, before Dunia’s return, who will serve as the primary troops in the coming jinn war. There is Rafael Hieronymus Manezes, aka Raffy-‘Ronnimus-the-pastor’s-sonnimus, aka Mr. Geronimo, who gardened the thousand-and-one-acre La Incoerenza, where he had worked for two years, eight months and twenty-eight days on the day his wife died. There is a failed comic creator, a spurned woman, and a famous composer, among others. Mr. Geronimo begins slowly but surely levitating, a comic character leaps out of a wormhole, and a spurned woman gets revenge by blasting lightning from her fingertips. The time of “strangenesses” has begun and will last two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights.

It is initially set up as a reprisal of the intellectual debate of the long dead Ibn Rushdie and Ghazali, now just dust, but curiously talkative and sapient dust. But dust is just dust and reasoned ideas just reasoned ideas, and it soon becomes a war between Dunia and the Grand Ifrits about rage and revenge.

It is a book of topics near and dear to Rushdie’s heart. It is a book of the making of modern myth, it is a book of Middle Eastern mythology, it is a book of the intolerance of fundamentalist Islam, it is a book about cowardly police who punch down,[1] it is a book of the closing of the Indian mind after independence with the rise of Indian nationalism and Hindu chauvinism, it is a book of the Indian diaspora and the immigrant experience in America, it is a book of New York City. And it is a book highly concerned with the logistics of an old man making love to a young, beautiful woman. It is a book of the dreams and vices and fears of Americans, especially post-Sandy New Yorkers, faced with the prospect of the Great After, when they would move to Florida and have to worry about hurricanes like normal people.

Hurricane-Sandy-2012-Never-Forget

Two Years is beautiful and subversive. Rushdie’s prose is beautiful and he uses repetition of periods of time and words and ideas better than I have ever seen. Rushdie’s razor sharp tongue darts back and forth, tossing cutting remarks about wantonly, his barbs sticking in subjects from religion to the foibles of students (one of the Grand Ifrit shows “a somewhat student-like fondness for prescription”). The Ifrit prove as bad as any student, any Islamic fundamentalist, although they extend their enmity to all forms of sealable containers.   Most of all his enemy, the great evil of the world, is religious intolerance for free expression. As the dust philosopher insists: “teach them the improper use of words. There is no crime the Almighty finds more unforgiveable.”

Two Years is about love[2] and it’s about fear.[3] It’s about reason and religion. I disagree with his enmity toward religion. I think even if were folly, it would be a necessary folly. And for all of the atrocities in the name of religion, I could point to as many and of greater scale not in the name of religion (see mass killings under Communist regimes), and I would point to the great leaps forward in human progress lead by the religious (see the abolition of slavery). But that hardly hobbles the book. It’s too beautiful, too brilliant. And there is the idea that Rushdie’s utopian vision will come with a terrible cost.

Disclosure: I received a copy of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights via NetGalley.

5/5 Stars.

 

[1] And so here was a police officer visiting the composer Casterbridge, I’m afraid you’ll have to move out, sir, until things cool off, we can’t guarantee your safety at this location, and there are your neighbors to consider, sir, innocent bystanders could be hurt in an affray, and he bridled at that, Let me understand you, he said, let me be perfectly clear what you’re telling me here, what you’re saying to me now if that if I get hurt in this putative affray of yours, if the injury is to me, then I’m not an innocent bystander, is that your fucking point? There’s no need for that kind of language, sir, I won’t stand for it, you need to take the situation as it is, I won’t endanger my officers by reason of your egotistical intransigence.

Go away, he said. This is my home. This is my castle. I’ll defend myself with cannons and boiling oil.

Is that a threat of violence, sir?

It’s a fucking figure of speech.

Then, a mystery. The gathering mob, words of hate, aggression disguised as defensiveness, the threatening claiming to be under threat, the knife pretending to be in danger of being stabbed, the fist accusing the chin of attacking it, all that was familiar, the loud malevolent hypocrisy of the age.

[2] Love is spring after winter. It comes to heal life’s wounds, inflicted by the unloving cold. When that warmth is born in the heart the imperfections of the beloved are as nothing, less than nothing, and the secret treaty with oneself is easy to sign. The voice of doubt is stilled. Later, when love fades, the secret treaty looks like folly, but if so, it’s a necessary folly, born of lovers’ belief in beauty, which is to say, in the possibility of the impossible thing, true love.

[3] Fear changed the fearful, thought Mr. Geronimo looking down the barrel of the gun. Fear was a man running from his shadow. It was a woman wearing headphones and the only sound she could hear in them was her own terror. Fear was a solipsist, a narcissist, blind to everything except itself. Fear was stronger than ethics, stronger than judgment, stronger than responsibility, stronger than civilization. Fear was a bolting animal trampling children underfoot as it fled from itself. Fear was a bigot, a tyrant, a coward, a red mist, a whore. Fear was a bullet pointed at his heart.

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About H.P.

Blogs on speculative fiction books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Fantasy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Review of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

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  4. Glad you liked it, has some important topics too, and I have to admit that title is really magical. But after my Rushdie experience, I feel like this might also be a little too much for me 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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