The esteemed author Salman Rushdie recently released a new novel entitled Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. In order to gain a greater insight of this new work, the writers at Ultius have constructed this sample book report consisting of:
- An overview of Rushdie himself
- A plot summary of Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
- An analysis of the main themes and messages found within the novel
- A critical reflection on the aesthetic merit of the novel
Salman Rushdie’s use of magical realism
Salman Rushdie is a British Indian author who was born in the city of Mumbai, India. Although he has also written essays and short stories, he is most famous as a novelist; and his literary style which is greatly influenced by Indian culture can most closely be defined as falling within the camp of magical realism. According to Moore,
“magical realism is characterized by two conflicting perspectives, one based on a so-called rational view of reality and the other on the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality. Magical realism differs from pure fantasy primarily because it is set in a normal, modern world with authentic descriptions of humans and society” (paragraph 1).
Historically, magical realism has emerged as a dominant literary mode in what was once called the Third World: for example, Latin America has proven to be especially fertile ground for such literature as is Rushdie’s home country of India. In a way, magical realism could be understood as a way of capturing the unique experiences and visions that characterize the non-Western, less rationalistic places of the world.
Rushdie’s rise to fame and publication of The Satanic Verses
In any event, Rushdie broke into literary fame with his first novel, Midnight’s Children, which won the Booker Prize in the year 1981. He became notorious outside of literary circles, though, when the Islamic leader of Iran put a fatwa—that is, a religious order—on Rushdie’s head requiring his murder for contradicting the worldview of Islam. This was done in response to Rushdie’s publication of the novel The Satanic Verses, which allegedly contained blasphemous portrayals of Muhammed, the founding prophet of the Islamic faith.
This caused widespread debate in the world regarding the balance between free speech and respect for faith; and unfortunately, that debate has tended to overshadow a pure appreciation of how marvelous The Satanic Verses really is as a serious work of literature. In any event, Rushdie has written about his experience of living in hiding in the aftermath of the fatwa in a memoir called Joseph Anton—a reference to the code name he was given while living in hiding, drawn from the names of the writers Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov.
This experience clearly gave Rushdie an abiding concern for matters of religion and the irrational in the modern world; and this concern can clearly be seen to permeate his newest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights.
To start with, it is worth pointing out that the numbers in the title of the novel under consideration adds up to 1001 nights, making a reference to Scheherazade’s tales. Within novel itself, the author indicates that this is how long a magical time known as the strangenesses lasted: a time when the line separating the invisible world of fantasies from the real world of bodies began to break down, with the result that the djinn—magical creatures out of Arabic folklore—began to wreak havoc upon the normal world. Much of the plot of Rushdie’s novel consists of tracing the various events that occurred during this time of the strangenesses, over the course of the number of nights delineated in the title of the work itself.
Ibn Rushd and Ghazali
A kind of frame narrative that informs the novel as a whole consists of the conflict between the old Arabic scholastic philosophers Ibn Rushd and Ghazali (both of whom are in fact real historical figures). Ibn Rushd insisted that the world could be understood in such a way that reason could be reconciled with faith; Ghazali, on the other hand, argued that reason and faith are ultimately at irreconcilable odds with each other.
A djinn named Dunia, who is attracted to humans in a way that is strange for djinni, goes to visit Ibn Rushd, and they have a passionate love affair. The descendants of this affair become the children of Ibn Rushd; and they are destined to play an important role in the great conflict between the djinni that constitutes the gist of the time of the strangenesses, a millennium later.
Geronimo Manezes as Rushdie’s protagonist
Although Rushdie’s novel features an ensemble cast, it would be safe to identify the chief protagonist as Geronimo Manezes. As Theroux has written:
“Geronimo Manezes, a Mumbai-born gardener now living in New York, has begun to levitate. This isn’t the wish fulfillment of a flying dream; it threatens his livelihood and brings the increasingly hostility of strangers” (paragraph 3).
Such cases, however, begin to multiply, until it becomes clear that there is something strange going on with not just Geronimo but with the world in general. It turns out that these events are the consequences of four evil djinni having broken through from their home in Fairyland into the twenty-first century modern world. The djinn Dunia seeks to gather together her descendants, including Geronimo, so that they can wage a battle against the evil djinn, of whom Ghazali is an ally. This arc of the descendants of Ibn Rushd trying to defeat the evil djinn and thus trying to bring the time of the strangenesses to the end constitutes the spine of Rushdie’s novel.
Themes throughout Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
One of the key themes of Rushdie’s new novel has to do with the idea of what could be called telling stories to prevent death. This is implicit in the very title of the work itself: after all, the original Thousand and One Nights features a woman named Scheherazade who tells a king a story every night in order to save herself from being executed by him; although it is the king’s custom to kill a woman after just one night with her, he keeps Scheherazade around due to her power to captivate him with her stories.
Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights has a close connection to the real world, under attack by all manner of irrationality. One gets the distinct sense that his new novel is meant as a way to attempt to make sense of these “strangenesses” in our real world and even to some extent redeem them through storytelling and the sheer power of the imagination to create meanings and values where none would otherwise seem to exist.
Rashdie’s view of terrorism
Related to this, one of the other key themes in Rushdie’s novel could be said to consist of terrorism. The evil djinnis perform actions and wreak havoc on the world that is very much reminiscent of the actions recently taken by terrorists in the modern world; and the implication would seem to be that those terrorists themselves are almost possessed by evil djinni, or magical creatures from some irrational dimension of reality. This connection is underscored by one short passage in the novel where Rushdie clearly depicts a fictionalized version of President Obama:
“He was practical, pragmatic, and had his feet firmly planted on the ground. Consequently, he was utterly incapable of responding appropriately to the challenge flung down by Zummurud the Great, which was surreal, whimsical and monstrous. . . . . He had become a president of empty words” (Two Years 128-129).
Zummurud is one of the main evil djinn in the story; and this passage clearly indicates that Rushdie imagines a connection between the fictional evil djinni and the terrorists in the real world.
Rationality vs irrationality in the novel
Rushdie’s work is permeated with the relationship between reason and irrationality. One of the paradoxes of Rushdie’s work is that its heroes consist of the descendants of a philosopher who championed the powers of reason, while the novel itself is clearly a work of magical realism, completely shot through with the irrationalities of the imagination.
What Rushdie would seem to be getting at is that it is extremely dangerous for the imagination to run free like wildfire without being checked in anyway at all by the capacities of reason. This is exactly what would seem to be happening in the real modern world today, and the results are predictably disastrous. This ethos is fully captured by an aphorism by Francisco de Goya that can be found as an epigram at the very beginning of Rushdie’s novel:
“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
The evil djinni would thus represent autonomous fantasy, whereas the descendants of Ibn Rushd would represent the proper synthesis between imagination and reason.
Reflection upon the novel
And like his other works, his new novel is also a work of magical realism: it introduces impossible and fantastic elements into the real world in such a way that those elements look almost prosaic, as if there was no reason to even wonder about why such things are happening within the normal world. On the other hand, the plot of Rushdie’s new novel is both a little schematic and a little kitschy, sometimes descending to the level of a popular comic book rather than a serious work of literature. As Theroux has accurately put the matter:
“Behind its glittery encrustations, the plot resembles the bare outline for a movie about superheroes, not unlike the next Avengers movie. There’s a war between worlds, lightning comes out of people’s fingertips and it all culminates in a blockbuster showdown between the forces of good and evil” (paragraph 7).
It is difficult to know to what extent Rushdie was almost engaging in a kind of self-parody here. What is clear, however, is that a great deal of the critical acclaim that Rushdie’s new work has received probably rests on the author’s previous prestige and fame as a writer. If Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights had been his first novel, then critics would have surely paid much greater attention to these clear deficiencies when reviewing the work, as opposed to by and large giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is clearly a highly imaginative work of literature. It does lack the epic scope of a couple of his previous works, especially Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses. Nevertheless, it clearly still captures his basic impulse as a writer to engage with the key issues of his day through a creative engagement with those issues via his richly poetic imagination.
The caveat must be added, however, that the plot of the work is quite schematic compared to the utter richness and originality that characterize previous key works by the author. Rushdie’s novel is sustained effort to engage with the dominant issues of the real modern world today; and for that reason alone, it is worth given the book a read.
Burton, Richard. Trans. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.
Moore, Lindsay. “Magical Realism.” Emory University, Jul. 2012. Web. 2 Apr. 2016. .
Rushdie, Salman. Joseph Anton: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2013. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. New York: Random House, 2006. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Random House, 2008. Print.
Rushdie, Salman. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights. New York: Random House, 2015. Print.
Theroux, Marcel. “Salman Rushdie’s ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights‘. New York Times. 2 Oct. 2015. Web. 2 Apr. 2016. .