The life of Salman Rushdie is one worth engraving in a novel. The acclaimed author is a staunch “reasonablist” who has made a living by weaving magical elements into the world with which we are familiar in a way that highlights some of the absurdities of it. When he did so with his 1988 book Satanic Verses, he ended up with a fatwa being issued against him, as the Iranian Ayatollah called for Rushdie’s assassination because the book was said to have blasphemed the Qur’an. The fatwa still stands today, but Rushdie has held true to his beliefs.
In his latest work, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Rushdie imagines our world in a state of strangeness that lasts the titular duration of time. In this period, the gate that connects the human world to that of the fantastical jinn (think Genie from Aladdin) is opened, allowing the supernatural beings to deprive the Earth of reason through magical acts. In one case, a graphic novelist’s monstrous illustration comes to life and terrorizes his home. In another, a gardener named Mr. Geronimo wakes up one morning to find that his feet no longer touched the ground and he began to levitate higher and higher each day. This period of strangeness results in four evil jinn, the Grand Ifrits, descending upon the human world in hopes of conquering it and enslaving mankind. It is up to Dunia, the lightning princess jinia who has a soft spot for humans, to halt the Ifrits’ plans.
Nothing in this novel makes sense. There are inexplicable acts of magic, an utter lack of grammatical order (sentences will often meander for paragraphs or even pages at a time), and constant references to sex (which Rushdie makes about three times a page). But it is precisely this chaos that allows Rushdie to assert his position of realism, and atheism, in an alluring way. The stories and language within this novel blend melodically to create a chaotic world. One that makes you appreciate our comparatively orderly one.
Despite the fantastical elements, the Earth portrayed within the novel is unquestionably our own. Rushdie imagines how we would react to a cast of giant supernatural beings terrorizing the order of our society and how we would cope with that fear. He uses the evil jinnis’ plague of curses and the ensuing war between them and Dunia to demonstrate his unreserved skepticism of religion.
The novel can be more accurately described as an atheist manifesto, an assault on religion and what Rushdie perceives to be the fallacy of faith. The evil jinn who seek to conquer the world realize that they can justify nearly any action, no matter how violent, in the name of religion. This is certainly not meant to be a subtle message, as Rushdie is not one to avert controversy. If he were, he would not have a bounty on his head. But like his characters in this book, Rushdie has been condemned to a life of fear by those who wield religion as a weapon. So the skepticism is understandable.
A shortcoming of the novel is the disproportionate time spent philosophizing to developing characters. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Days reads more like an ancient classic fable than a modern novel. Written as homage to the 1,001 nights of stories in the Arab classic Arabian Nights, this is very much on purpose. The nature of the novel should not however excuse the shortage of fully fleshed out characters. We are given a fascinating and dreamy story, but the characters within in it (with the exception of Dunia, the princess) are simply flat, behaving with predictability and not complexity. Rushdie instead fills the space with stream-of-conscious thoughts on life’s most perplexing questions—chiefly love, truth, and faith. In this space, Rushdie does achieve the book’s intention of evoking (or provoking) the reader’s deepest thoughts on the values that comprise our souls.
Rushdie is an extraordinary writer who has lived an extraordinary life. This novel is a product of both of these aspects of his life, as he articulates in a trancing manner his resentment for unreason, something on which religion is based. What Rushdie relies on most to communicate his message and to tell his story is absurdity. The absurdity of the jinnia’s malicious supernatural actions and the absurdity of a world with no order illustrate what Rushdie understands to be the greatest absurdity of all—religion. Whether one agrees with its assertions or not, it is clear that the story of this novel is the story of Rushdie’s life. And what a story it is.