Literary SFF — Salman Rushdie and ‘1001 Nights’ — Redux
by Robin Brooks
“I’m not a fighter he told her. I’m not a hero. I’m a gardener”
As I mentioned in the introductory piece to my literary science fiction-fantasy investigation, I’ve never read any Salman Rushdie. He’s an author I’d been inclined to shy away from, but the mixture of epic tales and superheroes promised in the blurb for Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights, piqued my interest. The desire to try the book formed the inspiration for this series of posts; could traditionally “high brow” authors write accessible and entertaining science fiction? This is how I fared on novel number one.
First up, I did fall asleep several times when reading Two Years… This was partly due to my youngest reintroducing pre-5 am alarm calls and partly because, as well as telling a tale of epic heroism, Rushdie likes a bit of flowery contemplation too.
I am, however, glad to have read the book. It may have occasionally sent me to sleep, but it’s full of the themes and ideas that have underpinned superheroic fiction for decades.
The book displays many genre conventions and references yet more. There are Jinn, the mythical and magical creatures that provide the main source of fantasy in the book. They live in an alternate world, parallel to our own.
One of the novel’s human heroes is a comic book artist (described as being “sub-Stan Lee”). The book’s narrator does so from somewhen in the far future, from a hinted-at, super-technological world. The story is an end-of-days tale culminating in the arrival of Armageddon. At one point, Rushdie invokes sub-atomic particles and Lewis Carrol, via the Cheshire Cat principle.There is much here for the geek.
Standing against four tyrannous super-beings bent on laying the world in ruins are a band of disparate heroes who come together to fight the incursion. This central stand-off evokes images of Superman 2 and The Avengers.
The rather striking new UK covers of Salman Rushdie’s backlist.
On the surface, Two Years is a fairy tale about the love of a Jinn for her human, philosopher husband, and the countless children they had; Jinn, it seems, are eye-wateringly fecund. It is these demi-jinn that will fight the incursion when it finally arrives.
Dig deeper, and, as one might expect, there’s quite a bit more going on. The original philosopher Ibn Rushd fights a philosophical/religious battle with another, more devout philosopher. These exchanges cannot be read without bringing to mind Rushdie’s own significant brush with organized religion. Not that he isn’t above poking fun at his own predicament.
“You mean,” she said, “that because we are not married our children cannot carry their father’s name.” He smiled his sad crooked smile. “It is better that they be the Duniazat,” he said, “a name which contains the world and not been judged by it. To be the Rushdi would send them into history with a mark upon their brow.”
Beneath that, as you might expect for a novel that’s a riff on 1001 Nights, this is a book about the power of stories.
“[T]o tell a story about the past is to tell a story about the present. To recount a fantasy, a story about the imaginary, is also a way of recounting a tale about the actual. If this were not true then the deed would be pointless…”
The novel is laden with allegory, some obvious, others less so. The baby that gives deceivers boils is the stuff of politicians’ nightmares. There’s a beautiful passage highlighting the plight of the migrant, even a welcomed successful one, that details the pain of being separated from one’s culture.
A dystopian fable warns against the glory of capitalism and the perils of grasping always to build the future. Another powerful passage decries western foreign policy, whilst simultaneously putting the boot into religious fundamentalism. This fable within a fable depicts the situation in Syria and the rise of IS with depressing accuracy. The blend of fable and hard-edged truth are what gives Two Years its power.
Rushdie’s language is sometimes overblown. Some of the esoteric and ethereal romantic pontification are what sent me to sleep, but other sections are beautiful and compelling. The story is suffused with humor and it wears its references lightly. There are a number of subtle riffs on superhero and comic book culture.
I’ve reread a number of sections of the book in order to write this piece and, in doing so, I have developed an even greater respect for it. Removed from trying to piece together the story, I have found it easier to immerse myself in Rushdie’s use of language; to enjoy each of his set-piece vignettes.
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights will not be to everybody’s taste, but I have found it an invigorating read that has made me think about the stories we tell and how they fit into the world in which we live. It is a novel that will bear repeat reading and, as the first book of my literary science fiction investigation, it represents an unqualified success.
Next up of my Literary SFF reads is a slimmer, more conventional novel, Slade House by David Mitchell.
I received a copy of this book for review purposes from the team at Penguin Random House UK.
About Robin Brooks
Dad of Boys, Reader of Books, Player of Games. Haven’t had a ‘real’ job or a full night’s sleep since 2005